The NFL announced Thursday the high school football coaches nominated by 32 NFL teams for the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award, representing the best in coaching at the high school level.
Uvalde High School Coach Wade Miller was among the finalists.
In the eight months since the mass shooting that took 21 lives at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, the community found resilience and hope at the Honey Bowl Stadium, home of the Uvalde Coyotes. Miller said sports, especially football, have been a catalyst for healing in Uvalde.
"To be recognized for doing things the right way, through a really tough time. I could not be more proud. This means the world to me, the program and our community," Miller told ABC News.
Miller was hired as the head football coach and athletic director in 2021. While he said his main goal was to turn around the losing football program, he unexpectedly became a shepherd through grief for the 54 players on his team, noting that when practice began in summer, many of the teens didn't want to go home at the end of each night.
In a symbolic first season opener, the team won on the road, 21 to 13. Players and coaches told ABC News after the game scoring 21 points was a reminder of the 21 victims of the Robb tragedy that would be with them this season. The team -- with Miller's guidance -- also chose an exemplary student and player to don the "21" jersey and serve as captain during the season -- Justyn Rendon -- a tradition he intends to continue.
"Being able to witness Coach Miller getting nominated for this award means so much not just to me, but to the community of Uvalde. He really has changed our football program since he's arrived, summer of 2021," Coyotes captain Rendon said. "He's not just the guy on the field, but off of the field, he's nothing but humble and kind, there for anyone in the community whenever needed ... but to our program, he's more than just a coach. He's a home away from home, he's a true role model for all of us, and he's done nothing but give love even throughout the tragedy. Win or lose, there was something to learn and be proud of after every game," he added.
The players' parents also felt impacted by Miller's presence.
"Coach Miller's efforts and leadership in the 2022 season will outlast his football record," added Justyn's father, Eluterio Rendon. "What he did with these boys was truly remarkable as we watched the team compete week after week in one of the toughest districts in Texas. But it wasn't all about what he did on the field, what was most notable was what he did off the field. And that was connect with our boys in a way that will forever change their lives. His compassion, humbleness, leadership and sincerity is the foundation that this community needed in a time of uncertainty."
The Coyotes ended the season 5-6 after qualifying for playoffs for the first time in several years. Miller said of the season, "Our goal before the tragedy or before anything happened, was to win as many games as we lost to make the playoffs. And we did that. I'm very, very proud of my kids for the way they battled through and played and stuck together throughout a very tough season."
Each NFL team recognizes one coach in its area with the Houston Texans nominating Miller. The Texans have invested in the Uvalde Coyote football team this season, including attending a pregame dinner, donating new uniforms and equipment and hosting the entire team for their season home opener in September 2022.
The award is named after pro football Hall of Famer Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history. According to the NFL, the coaches were judged based on areas Shula excelled at most during his career -- character, integrity, leadership, dedication to the community, commitment to player health and safety and on-field success.
"High school football coaches serve as leaders and role models dedicated to shaping the lives of young high school players both on and off the field and this group represents the very best from across the country every year," said Roman Oben, vice president of football development.
For the first time, the NFL will recognize two winners, one from the AFC and NFC conferences. These two winners will be invited to the Pro Bowl Games in Las Vegas on Feb. 5 and will be recognized in special ways during the NFL's week-long celebration of football.
The NFL Foundation and Nike collaborated to provide the two winners with a $15,000 award to their high school football programs to support their growth and needs and a $10,000 cash award. The other 30 club nominees will all receive a $1,000 cash award.
The coaches will attend Super Bowl LVII in Phoenix as special guests of the NFL. The Don Shula Award winners will be announced in the days prior to the Pro Bowl Game, the multi-day AFC vs. NFC competition that will culminate in an action-packed flag game, at Allegiant Stadium. The Pro Bowl Game will air on ESPN and ABC on Feb. 5. The winners will also be recognized and walk the red carpet at the 12th annual NFL Honors.