ABC News(BENTON HARBOR, Mich.) — Benton Harbor High School in Benton Harbor, Michigan, had not had a winning football season since 1989. That all changed when coach Elliot Uzelac came into the picture and became the head coach of the Tigers.
His wife, Wendy, told ABC’s Good Morning America how it happened.
“He’d been retired for a couple of years … and I said, ‘Elliott, I think you’re kind of bored.’ And he said, ‘Yes, a little bit.'”
She told him about Benton Harbor.
“And I said go to Benton Harbor, they don’t have anybody and they need somebody,” she said.
She was right.
After years as a successful college football coach, Uzelac came out of retirement in July to coach the Tigers for a salary of only $1 per year.
He turned around the losing team and touched the lives of the students in the troubled district.
“We needed him and he needed us. It was a perfect fit — made in heaven,” said Ruth Harvey, the team’s equipment manager.
Jeremy Burrell, a football player, remembers Uzelac’s encouraging words. The head coach told the team it had lots of work to do.
“‘We’re going to get it done,'” Burrell said, recalling Uzelac’s words.
Percy Brown has his own memories about the coach.
“Next game he said, ‘You all are going to win,’ and we won … and we just kept winning,” Brown said.
The team made it to the playoffs. In the first game, Brown scored three touchdowns.
“The team had fun. We couldn’t believe it … the crowd was crazy,” Brown said.
Harvey said a lot of the players on the team come from single parent homes and many have to help their parents. She says the coach has a passion for what he does and an unconditional love for his players.
Brown said the coach motivated him to do better.
“He said he’s going to get me in college no matter what it takes,” Brown said. “The team is a team now … we’ve got respect. He [respects] us, we respect him and he’s just opening doors for us.”
Burrell shares the general admiration for the coach.
“He’s like a grandfather. I’d probably do anything for that man, because [of] the things he did for me and my team,” Burrell said. “Thank you for coming to Benton Harbor High School and teaching us and being with us and sticking with us.”
And Monday the players and other members of the school’s student body and faculty gathered to give Uzelac the surprise of a lifetime.
The coach entered the school’s gym under the impression that there was a pep rally Monday morning, but he had no idea it was actually in honor of him, as a way for the school to give him a huge surprise “thank you” live on GMA.
“Oh man. Oh man,” a stunned Uzelac said as he walked into the gym rubbing his forehead in disbelief. “I can’t believe this. Unbelievable.”
But the pep rally honoring the beloved coach wasn’t the only surprise.
ABC News’ T.J. Holmes announced that the RetailMeNot app, as part of its new “Save It Forward” program, is giving a $10,000 scholarship to a Benton Harbor graduate. The scholarship will be called “The Coach Uzelac Scholarship.”
“I thank you for this. This will be great for our student athletes,” said Uzelac. “And I hope this encourages all the students at Benton Harbor High School because this is a great place with a lot of great people, and we are the Harbor. No doubt about it.”
The 40 players on the team also got a huge surprise, though. For all their hard work on and off the field, Uzelac’s football players learned they were going on an all-expenses-paid trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
The students erupted in cheers, screaming and jumping up down in excitement.
“I’m going to Disney World,” one player yelled.
“This means so much to these young men,” said Uzelac. “I’ll never forget this.”
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