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Vander Kelen
John Underwood
September 09, 2010
A HUMBLE AND UNHERALDED WISCONSIN NATIVE, QUARTERBACK RON VANDER KELEN MADE HIS NAME—AND GOT THE NFL'S ATTENTION—WITH AN ELECTRIFYING ROSE BOWL PERFORMANCE. THEN HE AND SOME FELLOW COLLEGIANS WENT OUT AND CONQUERED THE GREEN BAY PACKERS
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September 09, 2010

Vander Kelen

A HUMBLE AND UNHERALDED WISCONSIN NATIVE, QUARTERBACK RON VANDER KELEN MADE HIS NAME—AND GOT THE NFL'S ATTENTION—WITH AN ELECTRIFYING ROSE BOWL PERFORMANCE. THEN HE AND SOME FELLOW COLLEGIANS WENT OUT AND CONQUERED THE GREEN BAY PACKERS

From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, August 19, 1963

On THE DAY BEFORE HE WAS TO BE PRINCIPALLY LIABLE for the College All-Stars' gibbeting of the Green Bay Packers on Aug. 2, Ron Vander Kelen, the bashful boy-marvelous Wisconsin quarterback who now is in the loving care and employ of the Minnesota Vikings, sat in his hotel room in suburban Chicago in Bermuda shorts, a plaid shirt and sneakers without socks and carefully collected his doubts. He is a football player of considerable talent, which he keeps just below the surface of his considerable apprehensions. Everything was moving so fast, he said, that the only thing he could be sure was stationary was his heart, which had been lodged in his mouth for some time. He determined 1) that he would not play a nickel against the Packers, and if he did, he probably would fumble or 2) that he would play and his valor would make headlines; 1) that the Vikings would be proud or 2) that the Vikings didn't really give a rip because who needs him?; 1) that his future was bright as Saturday at the beach or 2) that his future was grim as Saturday at the beach in the rain.

"At night," he said, "I lie there in bed, in the dark, wide awake, thinking and planning how it will all turn out. I remind myself that my future's at stake and the Vikings are watching. I play the game in my mind, imagining every play. I can even hear the people cheer and stuff like that. On the first play I give the ball to Ben Wilson, and he goes for four. Then I roll out and hit Pat [Richter, a Wisconsin co-captain and two-year All-America end] with a 10-yard pass. Then the Packers trap me, and somehow I get away, and—well, it goes on like that. I never fumble in my imaginary game. I never make a mistake.

"I've had it all planned since I was a kid in the sixth grade in Preble, my hometown. It's a suburb of Green Bay. Did you know the city of Preble paid my mother's way to see me play in the Rose Bowl game last January? Anyway, this friend of mine, Gary Liebert, we were going to be professional football players, maybe for the Packers, but it really didn't matter. That was in the sixth grade. We had our life's course all charted. Then in the seventh grade I got my front teeth busted in a game, and I vowed I'd never play football again."

He showed his visitor a thick notebook he had been studying. He said it was the playbook of the Minnesota Vikings and that it was a mass of memorabilia so complicated in nomenclature that he would surely need a teleprompter to help him get things straight in the huddle. "The way you have to call plays," he said, "it's not just '64, on two,' it's 'Semaphore flex, open four right, 74 flat, shallow, Y post, on one,' or something like that. The quarterback has to tell everybody what to do. Even on pass patterns. I don't think football has to be that complicated."

He got up and went to the bureau where a thick crossword-puzzle book, next to a Catholic prayer book, was open to a puzzle half completed. "It helps improve my vocabulary," he said. "Boy, the words they come up with. A-a-r. Aar, 'a river in Switzerland.' I work a lot of these. I figure maybe I'll need a good vocabulary just to call the plays for the Vikings."

Ben Wilson, the fullback from Southern California, stuck his head in the door to ask Vander Kelen if he was available to be a fourth for bridge. Vander Kelen declined. "They play the game wild," he said as Wilson left. "Get a big laugh out of every trick. There's not much to do around here except eat and practice and play bridge and stuff like that. I went to a raunchy movie the other night, but most of the time I sit and watch that thing," he said, pointing to the television set. "Got kind of lonely after Pat moved out. His wife came down for the game, and he's staying with her.

"My girl said she was going to try to make it, but I doubt that she will. She's an actress, or studying to be one, and they've got a big dress rehearsal at this summer theater in Appleton. Her name's Karen Krumm. I met her last January at a charity telethon. She was Miss March of Dimes, and I was in an iron lung. Had to stay there until enough contributions were made to get me out. She stood by and talked to me. We're not engaged or anything. Not yet. You know how actresses are. Always something doing, summer stock and stuff like that. You can never be sure with an actress, so I'm not building my hopes up.

"I'll tell you who I depended on, and that's Pat Richter. It's going to be strange not having him to throw to with the Vikings. He was the guy I looked for at Wisconsin. He said he could always tell when I was in trouble because he could hear my squeaky voice yelling, 'Pat! Pat!' Otto Graham [the All-Star coach] cautioned me a couple of times here in practice about throwing to Pat's side every time. 'Mix it up,' he said. I've got to get used to the idea there are other people on this earth who can catch a football."

VANDER KELEN CAME FROM NOTHING TO BE THE Wisconsin quarterback and the Big Ten's 1962 Most Valuable Player. He was almost unanimously unbelieved in by professional scouts who couldn't imagine anyone becoming so good so soon. Before the season his action was wrapped up in a minute and a half of a lopsided game with Marquette in 1959. (He was hurt in '60 and scholastically ineligible in '61.) In the early part of the 1962 season Wisconsin coach Milt Bruhn rode Vander Kelen hard. "He blamed me for everything. We won four straight games, but you'd have thought we'd lost four straight." Though beyond intimidation on the field, with the composure and resourcefulness that showed up so well in leading the College All-Stars to their 20-17 win over the Packers, Vander Kelen is shattered by criticism. Names break his bones. "I wanted to quit, and I would have," he said. Richter interceded. He went to Bruhn and asked him to lay off. "After that," said Vander Kelen, "he [Bruhn] came to me and told me we were going to be 'pals' from then on."

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