"I write him letters to boost his morale," said Betty. "He's always underestimating himself." Ron told her she had better prepare herself for the melancholy facts: there were three other quarterbacks in the All-Star camp—Glynn Griffing, Terry Baker and Sonny Gibbs—"and they're all better than I am. So don't expect to see me play very much. I'll probably get in for two plays and that'll be it." "Nonsense," said Betty.
VanderKelen said he wished Graham would at least name the starting quarterback to relieve the suspense. "It's important to be the first guy," he said, "because if you get a hot hand he might let you stay. It's this not knowing that bothers me. I remember after the regular season at Wisconsin. I was really counting on being drafted by one of the National Football League teams. Every day I'd rush back to the dorms at Madison to see if there were any calls. They always call you before they draft you so they'll have an idea whether you're willing or not. There never was one. I got pretty discouraged. The New York team in the American League drafted me on the 21st round, but it must have been an afterthought because they never called me either. I said the hell with it. I'll forget about pro football. Then came the Rose Bowl game."
Ron VanderKelen at the Rose Bowl has been compared with Hannibal at Saguntum, with General McAuliffe at Bastogne, with Charles Wells at the roulette wheel in Monte Carlo. In a breathtaking finish that broke records and sold seats for many Rose Bowls to come, his passes—33 of them for 401 yards—winged Wisconsin from behind at 42-14 at half time to within five points of Southern California before time ran out.
"After that I averaged 20 letters a day," said VanderKelen. "All kinds of letters. One girl named Marilyn, from Kansas I believe, told me she was going to divorce her husband and wanted my advice. She gave me details on what she looked like. I didn't answer that one. Anyway, eight pro teams finally contacted me. I had to get a lawyer, Gene Calhoun of Madison, to help me decide what to do. I didn't want to make an issue over the money because I was afraid there'd be hard feelings if I ever got traded. There was a rumor in Green Bay just recently, you know, that some team was going to trade for me—that's how those things happen. The thing to do, I decided, was to get a contract, make good and then worry about the money next year.
"I chose Minnesota because I liked [Coach Norm] Van Brocklin and because I thought with the Vikings I might get a chance to play. I knew they had Fran Tarkenton and he's great but I figured they were still a new team and there would be games they would lose by big scores and I'd get in.
"Van Brocklin said I had to be O.K. because I was Dutch. 'Vandy the Dandy,' he kept calling me. I don't think he knew my full name. He was very enthusiastic when I signed. He's talked to me since, though, and he doesn't seem quite so enthusiastic. I wonder sometimes what he needed me for anyway."
The Vikings needed VanderKelen because his Rose Bowl performance merited a look, even though they had thought so little about hiring another quarterback (help was needed in other areas first) that they hadn't drafted one until the 20th round, when they chose as a "future," Auburn junior Mailon Kent. Also, and more important, they had been terribly upstaged by AFL teams—they lost in the bidding for their two top draft choices, Bobby Bell of Minnesota and Jim Dunaway of Mississippi—and this necessitated a shot in the image. Publicitywise, getting VanderKelen was a potful: Old Dutchman Van Brocklin, the quarterback "whose passes ought to be in a museum," they used to say, and Young Dutchman VanderKelen. "We don't give no-cut contracts," said Van Brocklin. "I wouldn't give my wife a five-year lock-in like Bell got to sign with Kansas City. You can't coach a boy who has that kind of deal. But Vandy will make it with us. You can bet on that. He's dandy."
VanderKelen was not so sure. "I've got to make the team," he said, "and that's why it's so important to look good against the Packers."
Against the Packers, of course, he was not just good, he was brilliant. "He has the most poise, the most professional sense of the offense of any of the four quarterbacks in camp," said Graham privately two days before the game. "He'll start and go as long as he does well." Two early fumbles in which he was involved did not fluster VanderKelen. He subsequently completed five passes in a row, and kept his head up and his smallish body (6 feet 1,180 pounds) snug in the pocket as crashing Packer ends and tackles convoyed around him. This is rare in a young quarterback. The tendency is to panic and break out. On the sixth pass, the protection disintegrated before the Packer charge. Still, VanderKelen was serene. He sidestepped one man, and dipped his shoulder to another. "It was the linebacker, Ken Iman," he said. "I could see his face as he went by." He quickly reset and passed perfectly downfield into the hands of Northwestern's Paul Flatley. Flatley dropped the pass, but it was, on Vandy's part, the kind of move that brings a pro coach out of his chair.
VanderKelen finished the game with nine completed passes in 11 attempts (the other two should have been caught) for 141 yards, and the 11th pass was to old faithful Richter on a play that covered 74 yards for the winning touchdown. "The kid's got it, that's all, he's got it," said Packer End Max McGee. Back at Chicago's Sherman House, VanderKelen drank a large Coke at the soda fountain and then went upstairs to a celebration so modest no self-respecting hero would want to admit to it—with his sister, her husband and two older couples from Preble in a tiny room on the fifth floor. At 2 a.m., Karen Krumm called from Madison to say she'd be there at 5 to add her personal congratulations.