Benton Harbor football heads to playoffs for first time

The Benton Harbor High School football team is in the playoffs for the first time in school history. It's also their first winning season since 1989.

In July, the school board hired a retired NFL coach who is working to turn the program around.

According to Head Coach Elliott Uzelac, the players have soaked up the culture change and embraced the game of football.

Uzelac said, "The story’s not about me. The story is about the young men who have always wanted to win, always had that desire, but were never taught properly, were never given the opportunity to win." 

Uzelac came to the team after finding out they would have to forfeit their season if they didn't find a coach.

Uzelac said, “My wife and I were heading down to Alabama and she said I looked a little bored, and she recommended I go into coaching and I said I didn’t think so. And she said ‘Benton Harbor’ and I almost drove off the road.”

At 74-years-old Uzelac said wives are always right, so he took the gig.

Uzelac said, “At my age it’s not only about winning and losing, it’s more about helping young people in the classroom and making social decisions.”

While it might not be the Cleveland Browns or one of the big college teams Uzelac has coached at, he said this may be the most rewarding job he’s ever taken.

Uzelac said, “They’re doing a better job with their lives, managing their lives, and it will be the happiest moment of my life when one of these young men go away to school to get a degree and have an athletic scholarship or opportunity to play football.”

Uzelac said the coaches were able to raise thousands of dollars to feed the players. They also renovated a work out room and meeting space to watch tape.  

But just when they thought they were getting on track, the team hit a bump in the road. 

On Sunday several football players lost their friend and cousin 17-year-old Karlos Kelly to gun violence.

This week the athletic director said they are working to lift them up, teach valuable life lessons, and make sure they keep their head in the game.

Fred Smith said, “We’re trying to deal with it and let them know they’re loved, and this should be a safe place for them.”

Smith said they have only sold 300 tickets for the playoff game on Friday.

Benton Harbor plays Dowagiac High School at 7 p.m. and they hope to pull off their first playoff win in school history.

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