Lelito's Work Helps St Clair Athletes Play

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

May 31, 2017

If not for sports, Tim Lelito isn’t sure he would have finished high school.

Now that he’s entering his fifth season in the National Football League, Lelito is doing what he can to make sure kids in St. Clair County don’t have to worry about that.

The Lelito Legacy Foundation has teamed with the Community Foundation of St. Clair County to grant $9,000 for county schools to cover athletic participation fees for students in need.

“I used sports as a vehicle for where I am now – to get to college and get through high school,” the 2007 St. Clair High School graduate said. “If I didn’t have sports, I don’t think I would have graduated high school at all. School wasn’t a priority; the horses that my grandparents raised were the priority, because that was our livelihood.

“Making it to college and being the first one in my family to graduate with a degree, sports was that vehicle for me to get that degree, and that really hit home with me.”

Five St. Clair County community partners were able to raise $4,500, and Lelito’s foundation matched. The funds will be able to cover participation fees for 116 students at St. Clair County high schools and middle schools during the 2017-18 school year.

The Port Huron Schools Endowment Fund, East China School District Athletic Boosters and PTOs, the Community Foundation of St. Clair County’s Youth Advisory Council and its Marysville Community Fund, and the Capac Adolescents Preventing Abuse and Crime (CAPAC) Fund were the five partners.

“It’s exciting to see someone who is not only successful and has come back to help his hometown, but he’s so humble about it,” Community Foundation Vice President Jackie Hanton said. “When we were in our meetings, it’s not about Tim. It’s that he has this vision to help kids who are like him.”

Lelito was a mauling all-state offensive lineman at St. Clair, paving the way for the team’s option attack. He was also an all-state thrower on the Saints’ track & field team.

Playing sports required a participation fee, something Lelito’s grandparents handled, even if they struggled to do so.

“When I was younger, my grandparents raised racehorses, and money was tight for a while,” Lelito said. “My grandparents put my brother and I in sports, and we always played sports. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I was older. They were pinching pennies together and taking care of us before taking care of their needs.”

Lelito earned a scholarship to Grand Valley State University, where – after redshirting as a freshman and being forced to take a medical redshirt his second year – he started 45 straight games and was named Offensive Lineman of the Year by the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 2012.

He was signed by the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent in 2013, and worked his way into the rotation almost immediately, seeing action in 63 games during his four years in New Orleans and starting 24 games, including 13 in 2015.

This past offseason, Lelito signed a free-agent deal with the Tennessee Titans.

Throughout his NFL career, Lelito has given back, both to his hometown and his professional town. He has conducted free football camps for St. Clair County kids for the past few years.

“He’s just a young man that I’ve continued to be impressed with how grounded he’s remained,” Bill Nesbitt, Lelito’s football coach at St. Clair, said. “He understands the big picture. His success is not just in playing at that level, but in helping others. That’s his great success.”

Funds for the participation fees will be given to the school districts in St. Clair County, and the schools will be tasked with selecting students most in need. In future years, Lelito hopes to help schools purchase equipment for kids in need, and eventually he wants his foundation to reach more than just athletes.

“My foundation isn’t just for kids in sports, it’s for underprivileged youth,” Lelito said. “I think moving forward, in the next five years, I want to be able to take care of a lot of kids in a very broad spectrum – in sports and arts and other extracurricular activities.”

That will take funding, but Lelito said he has found generous donors in St. Clair County.

“That’s why I bought a house here,” he said. “I love it here. I love the people; they’ll give you the shirt off their back. That’s why I wanted to put roots down here.”

With his efforts, Lelito is doing all he can to make it an even better place to call home. Nesbitt believes the funds could be the difference in playing sports as opposed to sitting out for some students, which he hopes will have a lasting effect.

“I think it definitely can have a positive impact that way,” Nesbitt said. “Hopefully, in a larger, greater, grander sense, these kids who are participants could one day give back themselves. If they are able to go on and have some success, maybe they could remember that somebody had helped them out and do the same.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Tim Lelito watches an athlete work out during a camp he conducts in the St. Clair area. (Middle) Lelito during his high school career at St. Clair. (Below) Lelito, middle, has worked this offseason to help pay participation fees for athletes in need of financial assistance. (Top and below photos courtesy of the Port Huron Times Herald.)

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

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)