Benton Harbor Writing Success Story

By Wes Morgan
Special for

November 5, 2015

Books are written about this kind of thing. Actually, one was penned 13 years ago about a Benton Harbor football team from more than 100 years ago.

“The Way We Played The Game: A True Story of One Team and the Dawning of American Football” was author John Armstrong’s ode to a Clayton Teetzel-coached Tigers squad at the turn of the century that galvanized Benton Harbor.

The storyline then was how Teetzel helped get the hapless Tigers back on track in 1903 while also evolving a more violent and dangerous version of the sport back then into one comprised of physicality and cerebration.

Benton Harbor is a different place today. Despite all the wonderful things the city has to offer, it has become known for crime and poverty. And in terms of football, there haven’t been many memorable seasons. Until this year, the Tigers’ last winning campaign was a 6-3 effort in 1989. Benton Harbor managed to win just 49 games over the following 25 years.

A new chapter is being written this fall, however, as the Tigers qualified for the postseason for the first time in school history with a 5-4 regular-season record. They stunned a quality Dowagiac team in a Division 4 Pre-District game, 28-7, and take on a 10-0 Zeeland West squad Friday in the District Final.

The well-documented resurgence headed up by 74-year-old coach Elliot Uzelac, a veteran of the high school, college and professional ranks, who thought rebuilding a woeful program while busting through a cultural wall would be a better use of time than the boredom and restlessness of retirement, has been the buzz of the Michigan prep sports world.

Being part of this season at Benton Harbor (he takes no credit), Uzelac said, is the highlight of his 50-year coaching career.

“When you’re younger, you look at things differently,” said Uzelac, who coached at nearby St. Joseph, where he helped the Bears compile a 6-5 record in 2006 after a winless season in 2005, along with head coaching positions at Western Michigan University (1975-81) and Navy (1987-89) and myriad assistant roles in college and the NFL. “Winning is so important. You want to have a proper salary because you want to feed your family. What’s the next stop? If I’m an assistant coach, is there a head coaching position available?

“None of these things exist now. This is strictly about helping people. Honestly, I’ve had the greatest time of my life doing this with these young men. Yes, it’s been hard. Yes, it’s been … (chuckle) really time consuming and we really had to work hard. But I’ve never been more satisfied and never felt better about accomplishing something with young men than I have this time.”

Uzelac’s hiring might not have happened if not for a persistent Fred Smith, who applied for the athletic director job on five separate occasions, finally landing the position this summer. Smith, nearing retirement, also wanted a challenge, and Benton Harbor had some kind of magnetic force.

When Smith was a student at Western Michigan University, his first student-teaching assignment in 1979 was at Benton Harbor with then-head basketball coach Earl McKee. Smith had a desire to coach basketball and requested an internship at Benton Harbor, because, he said at the time, “they play the best basketball.”

Smith was able to stay there for two more years as a full-time substitute but moved on to many other jobs in education, including stints as AD at Comstock and most recently Buchanan. He made a big impact at Buchanan and left the school on very solid ground. Buchanan is undefeated in football this year and is gearing up for a Division 5 district championship showdown with Berrien Springs. In volleyball, the Bucks picked up their 46th win of the season Wednesday in the Class B District Semifinals — a single-season victories record for the program.

Uzelac, curious as to whether or not Benton Harbor would join the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference, called Smith on July 4th to chat about the new league.

“In conversation, he told me the AD job was open,” Smith said. “A long story short, he talked me into applying. I had an interview July 14th, was offered the job July 16th, and on July 20th I signed my letter of agreement. I hired Elliot July 21st.

“This was the fifth time I applied for the job back here. A lot of people wonder why I wanted to come back. We all want to make a difference in kids’ lives. I think there’s a chance to do big things here.”

It’s a perspective shared by Uzelac. 

The morning after the Tigers beat Dowagiac, he addressed his players.

“You’ve given me far more than I’ve given you,” he told them. “That’s the truth. I’ve never felt this way before.

“I don’t think anybody realizes how bad they’ve had it. It’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling.”

Six days earlier, on Selection Sunday, a Benton Harbor student died in a drive-by shooting. A winning football season can only change so much.

But similar to Teetzel over a century ago, Uzelac is making the young men in his charge to think their way through school, football and life — even when it pertains to new technology and means of communicating he doesn’t understand.

“Never,” he said when asked how often he uses social media. “I don’t even really know what (Twitter) is. Things are said on Twitter than can really create problems, especially in a community like this. You’re talking about a very tough community and the word ‘retaliate’ is used often around here, which we’re trying to change that attitude. You have to be very careful what you do and say in this community.”

A consummate professional in the press box, longtime Benton Harbor football announcer Greg Mauchmar‘s animated play-by-play this year wasn’t just a veneer. Gradually, beginning with the team’s first win since 2012 — a 14-9 victory at home over Battle Creek Central in Week 2 — his voice was being received by human eardrums in the stands rather than bouncing around empty bleachers.

Mauchmar, just one of many people who have done their part to embrace the football team even through extremely tough seasons, remembers countless games where there were as few as a 100 supporters in attendance.

“Everyone has rallied around this team and there’s a level of excitement that inspires us,” he said. “I can get excited because the people in the stands are excited and I don’t have to work hard to do that. When the kids looked up there and didn’t see too many people (in past years), you know how motivating that is. Sometimes you felt like you were preaching to the choir. We wanted more membership in the choir.”

This fall’s feel-good football story has grown legs. National news outlets such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated picked up on what was published by scribes around Michigan, spreading the story to the farthest corners of the country.

Messages of support have come in from all over Michigan and from as far away as California, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio and Illinois, Uzelac said.

The Benton Harbor bandwagon, it appears, is nearly full.

Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Benton Harbor football coach Elliot Uzelac instructs players before a game this season. (Middle) Benton Harbor quarterback Tim Bell prepares to hand off to Jeremy Burrell during the Tigers' game against St. Joseph this fall. (Photos courtesy of Randy Willis/Harbor Photography.)

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

April 30, 2024

CONSTANTINE – Bennett VandenBerg has earned many accolades over the last four years as a three-sport athlete at Constantine.

Southwest CorridorBut the awards aren't what the 6-foot-3, 240-pound standout will remember most when reflecting on his memories as an all-state football player, state champion wrestler and record-breaking throwing specialist on the Falcons' track & field squad.

"I'll remember how I represented our school and pushed myself to be the best I could be in each sport that I played," said VandenBerg, who has earned 12 varsity letters.

VandenBerg has evolved into one of the most accomplished athletes in the state this school year as a senior, especially standing out among those from smaller communities.

This past fall he was named first-team Division 5-6 all-state at defensive end in football before winning the Division 3 Individual Finals wrestling title at 285 pounds in early March at Ford Field.

VandenBerg's final goal is to win the discus title at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals on Saturday, June 1, in Kent City to end his Constantine career all-state in all three sports.

He broke the school record in the discus his junior year with a throw of 158 feet, 1 inch; the previous mark of 156-6 had been held by Doug Polasek since 1986. VandenBerg has eclipsed his school record twice this spring, most recently with a personal-best toss of 170-9 in a Southwestern Athletic Conference double dual meet with Schoolcraft and Kalamazoo Christian. He ranks No. 4 statewide in the event regardless of enrollment division. Lawton junior Mason Mayne at 175-4 is the only Division 3 competitor with a better throw than VandenBerg.

"It's really cool to have your name up on the school record board, but I'd like to make that mark more untouchable before I'm done," VandenBerg said. "My goal is to be a state discus champion. I've put in the necessary work for it. It would be nice to end my career that way."

Kyle Rimer, Constantine's veteran boys track & field coach, is most impressed with VandenBerg's leadership and presence in working with the Falcons' younger athletes.

VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. "Bennett loves to compete. Ever since he was a freshman, we've also had him on our 400-meter relay team. That's something he really enjoys doing. He's not just a thrower, but a good overall athlete with lots of drive,” Rimer said. “There's a lot of individuality in track & field, but I think he does a great job of leading the younger kids. He has the drive, accountability and technique to achieve his goal of being a state champion in his throwing events.”

VandenBerg is already a two-time Finals placer in the discus, earning sixth as a junior and seventh his sophomore year. He admits being a little disappointed with his distance at the 2023 state meet.

"In that particular event (discus) you need lots of focus and determination because there are a ton of tiny things you can mess up on that affect your throw. To become better you need to be consistent, show up every day and be willing to put in the work," VandenBerg said. "Right now I'm working on my speed in the circle and quickness in my follow-through."

VandenBerg also has been pleased with his improvement this spring in the shot put. He's increased his distance by over five feet and hopes to break the school record in that event as well. John Kampars (1967) holds Constantine's shot put record at 54-8¼, and VandenBerg's personal best is 48-10 in a double-dual meet this season against Parchment and Centreville.

"Shot put is a difficult event. You need power, but your form has to be top-notch – otherwise it's tough to move that 12-pound ball," VandenBerg said. "I would love to qualify for state in both the discus and shot put and be all-state in each. That would be amazing if I could be a state champion in either of those events."

VandenBerg has put in extra work in the offseason with special instruction from Bill Griffey of Next Throw in Plainwell, along with working with Constantine assistant track & field and head football coach Shawn Griffith.

"Bennett puts a lot of time into working on his throwing. He spends a lot of time in the weight room, and he's a bigger kid who is not afraid to be coached and listens to what other people tell him," Griffith said. "We're excited to see what he can do now that we've had warmer weather recently."

VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft.VandenBerg's motivation this spring follows a tremendous wrestling season that saw him finish 54-0 and capture the 285 championship with a 3-0 win in the title match over Reed City junior Wyatt Spalo.

"I gained 20 pounds of muscle and did everything you need to do to become a better athlete to wrestle the heavyweight division. Winning the title was overwhelming. It was everything I ever wanted, and the first 20 minutes after winning it was relief, especially after losing in the Finals as a junior. I just went into that last match and wrestled smart and confident," VandenBerg said. "My speed and strength gave me an advantage over the bigger heavyweights I faced this year."

Vandenberg, 188-22 with 104 career pins, became the 10th Finals champion in Constantine wrestling history and the first to achieve the feat since Kevin Watkins won a 152-pound crown in 2000.

VandenBerg competed at 189 as a freshman and sophomore. He was a Regional qualifier as a freshman and finished sixth in Division 3 as a sophomore before ending his junior campaign as the Finals runner-up at 215. 

"Bennett is a competitor who hates to lose, and if he does he learns from it. He had a lot of good practice partners on the team his first three years, and he wasn't going to be denied after losing in the Finals as a junior," said Constantine wrestling coach Dale Davidhizar Jr.

VandenBerg played on Constantine's varsity football team for four years. He got a lot of extra playing time as a freshman when Constantine reached the Division 6 Semifinals during in the COVID-shortened season. He led the Falcons in rushing as a sophomore before switching to tight end as a junior. Out of necessity, VandenBerg returned to lead Constantine in rushing and scoring again as a senior.

"Bennett learned a great deal from the older guys on the team his first three varsity seasons. He learned leadership qualities and is a very unselfish kid who is willing to do what's best for his team," Griffith said.

VandenBerg is most proud of Constantine winning a District crown last fall, especially after his senior class went 0-5-1 as eighth graders. VandenBerg posted 164 solo tackles at defensive end during his final high school season and was Constantine's main offensive weapon with 1,354 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing on 186 carries.

"Winning Districts as seniors in football was a special moment. As eighth graders, we weren't exactly the most athletic team, but we put in the work as we got older to become successful," VandenBerg said.

VandenBerg has been invited to play for the West team at the annual Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's East-West All-Star Game this summer.

College coaches have shown interest in VandenBerg in all three sports, especially football and wrestling. VandenBerg, who carries a cumulative GPA of 3.989 and scored 1110 on his SAT, is weighing his options in athletics but knows he wants to study either ecology or forestry in college.

"I love being outdoors and doing what I love to do," VandenBerg said.

Scott HassingerScott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Constantine’s Bennett VandenBerg competes in the discus during a home meet his junior season. (Middle) VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. (Below) VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft. (Photos by Brandon Watson/Sturgis Journal.)