On the day before he was to be principally liable for the College All-Stars' gibbeting of the Green Bay Packers, Ron VanderKelen (see cover), 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, 2) that he would play and his valor would make headlines; 1) that the Vikings would be proud, 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, 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 play book 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."
August 18, 1963
He got up and went to the bureau where a thick crossword puzzle book, next to a Catholic prayerbook, 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.' Ever hear of the Aar River?" He picked up the book. "I work a lot of these," he said. "I figure maybe I'll need a good vocabulary just to call the plays for the Vikings."
Ben Wilson, the big fullback from Southern California, stuck his head in the door to ask VanderKelen if he was available to be a fourth for bridge. VanderKelen declined. "They really 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 down the street 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. There was one stretch where I saw her once in about six weeks. 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."
VanderKelen 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. Prior to 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 1960 and scholastically ineligible in 1961), and the most charitable thing the Wisconsin publicist could think to say about him was that he was good on defense. In the early part of the season Wisconsin Coach Milt Bruhn rode VanderKelen 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 against the Packers, VanderKelen 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 VanderKelen, "he [Bruhn] came to me and told me we were going to be 'pals' from then on. It was a good thing because we sure weren't pals up until then."
VanderKelen's sister, Mrs. Betty Kaminski, came to visit him at the hotel. She said she has been his confidant since their father died in 1954. They have in common wide-set eyes and dark good looks and the high-sinus midwestern accent (Ron directs the "oaf-fense"), and, said VanderKelen, "If you give Betty five minutes she'll tell you my life history."
"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.
The next morning VanderKelen and Flatley, an excellent pass receiver who figures immediately in Viking plans, flew to Minneapolis, where they were taken to lunch by Auto Dealer H. P. Skoglund, an owner of the team, "it's embarrassing, all this attention," said VanderKelen. They then were taken aboard a chartered flight carrying Viking fans to the Saturday night scrimmage at the training camp in Bemidji.
Bemidji is an unimposing little resort town in the beautiful lake region of Minnesota. Like most campsites, it is just small enough to have no diversionary threats and just out-of-the-way enough to be confining. VanderKelen leaned across the aisle to Flatley. "They're giving me No. 11," he said. "That's Van Brocklin's old number when he was with the Eagles. That's bad news. They're expecting an awful lot if they think I'm another Van Brocklin."
On arrival at Bemidji, VanderKelen and Flatley were hurried away to be photographed with Van Brocklin. The photographer had Van Brocklin hold up a No. 11 jersey for VanderKelen, who took a gingerly grip on its shirttail. "Vandy's a dandy," chirped Van Brocklin.
The Vikings train at the state college on a field overlooking Bemidji Lake. They sleep in the men's dorms of the college, two to a room, and eat in the school cafeteria. Flatley and VanderKelen were assigned as roommates, and that night were introduced at the scrimmage as they stood in street clothes behind the bench on the sidelines. Young fans clustered around VanderKelen for his autograph. Uneasy, he moved up and down the field so as not to appear too available. "Looks like the season's over for me," he said. "I don't think I'm going to like it here. It's strange. I don't feel at home."
On the field, Tarkenton was faring poorly against the Viking defense, and John McCormick was put in at quarterback. "He's got No. 15," VanderKelen said. "That's my old number. I wish I still had it." McCormick did no better. Van Brocklin, directing the scrimmage from behind the offense, kicked at the ground. "He looks like he's about to boil," said VanderKelen. "He looks like the type who could really chew you out." Tarkenton, back to pass, was trapped for a long loss. From the stands across the way a fan yelled, "We want VanderKelen," and someone else picked it up in another section. "We want VanderKelen!" VanderKelen dropped his head. "That's what I hate," he said. "I don't even know the plays yet."
The next day Van Brocklin called him in for a private meeting, "to see how much you've learned."
"First of all," said Van Brocklin, "you'll see in the introduction that that notebook is worth $200 if you lose it."
"I remember that," said VanderKelen.
"I thought you would," said Van Brocklin, smiling.
They went over terminology—"Tom," "Roger," "Green," "Seal Block," etc. VanderKelen had quick answers to almost every question. Van Brocklin, affable and reassuring, was pleased. "Very good," he said. "You've got good retentive powers." He clapped VanderKelen on the head with an eraser and left a huge chalk mark. "Vandy's a dandy," he laughed, brushing off the chalk. VanderKelen was smiling, too.
"I don't baby my quarterbacks," said Van Brocklin later. "I don't believe in it. But you won't catch me berating them in front of the team either. It's vital to build up confidence in a quarterback and you don't do that by tearing him down in front of people. I like VanderKelen. He has a mind of his own. He's a good thinker. As soon as he learns all the plays he'll be O.K."
"I'm getting my feet on the ground now," said VanderKelen after two days of practice. "Sometimes I have to stop in the middle of the play and ask, 'Is that right?' But it's coming. The guys have been coming around and I'm learning their names. Tarkenton told me to come down and see him any time I had a question. I'll have some as soon as I know for sure what's going on."
The rookies, traditionally, sit at the first table in the cafeteria at the Viking camp, and they are obliged, by tradition, to sing their college songs at the whim of a veteran. On Tuesday, VanderKelen was called on. "Sing, VanderKelen!" "Gosh, look, it's Ron VanderKelen!" "You don't mean the Ron VanderKelen?" "Show us your trophies, VanderKelen!" "Sing!"
In failing baritone, VanderKelen rendered On, Wisconsin from atop his chair, his right hand over his heart, his grin wide and foolish.
The next night there was a rebellion. The rookies refused to sing anything but On, I-o-way and the veterans, enraged, vowed retaliation. It came with a full-scale water fight that started on the second floor of the dormitories and spilled onto the first. VanderKelen, trapped outside his room, was swamped. "About six guys got me," he said happily. "They were going to shave my head—they'd already got one of the guys and shaved him—but they let me off. The water must have been an inch deep on the second floor. It dripped through the ceiling into Van Brocklin's room. He made us towel it up.
"Thursday we're going to have Rookie Night at the school auditorium. A series of impromptu skits. I'm going to play Van Brocklin. No holds barred. It'll be great."
He said he had been told he probably would start this weekend in the exhibition game at Los Angeles, his first trip there since the Rose Bowl game.
"You know," he said, "I think I might be going to like pro football."