April 28, 2011
MADISON, Wis. -- Eric Vanden Heuvel was conspicuous by his absence at the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine; conspicuous because Vanden Heuvel declined an invitation to attend; conspicuous because Vanden Heuvel, a three-year starter at right offensive tackle for the Badgers, had decided to walk away.
While seven of his UW teammates competed at the combine in Indianapolis - including his former Hudson High School homie Kraig Urbik, Travis Beckum, Matt Shaughnessy, Jonathan Casillas, P.J. Hill, Andy Kemp and DeAndre Levy - Vanden Heuvel turned his attention to a life without football.
"I figured I was ready to move on in another direction - I thought I needed a break from football and I was going to do something else,'' he said. "Football is a tough sport and it takes a lot out of you: physically and mentally. I had a good run and I wanted to go down a different road.''
The reaction at first was predictable. "There were some people who were pushing me to (continue playing),'' he said, "because they didn't completely understand. And I understand that completely. Most people were supportive; a couple were kind of confused and that's justified.''
That was two years ago.
"At the time,'' Vanden Heuvel said, "I felt it was the best decision for me.''
Operative phrase: "At the time.''
Today, the 23-year-old Vanden Heuvel has his heart set on a career in the National Football League with the Baltimore Ravens after signing with the team in early March, just before the Collective Bargaining Agreement expired and all of the NFL's activity was put on hold indefinitely.
Confused? Again that would probably be justified given the circumstances.
Vanden Heuvel last played in the 2008 Champs Sports Bowl. After giving up football, he lost over 70 pounds. Upon realizing he had taken too much for granted, he gained about 50 pounds in less than three months and convinced the Ravens in one workout that he was worth taking a chance on.
Pretty good story, huh? That's the Cliff Notes version.
Let's start from the beginning; or rather the end when Vanden Heuvel skipped the combine to focus on other things. After finishing up his undergraduate degree, and interning with UW strength and conditioning, he returned home to Hudson.
Hudson, a community of about 12,000, borders the St. Croix River, splitting Minnesota and Wisconsin. It's about 20 minutes from Minneapolis and 250 miles from Madison. Vanden Heuvel got a job with Larsen Sports Medicine & Physical Therapy, which has a contract with the local schools.
"I did some coaching with younger kids,'' he said, "and I'd tell them stories about playing at Wisconsin and seeing how that got them fired up got the fire going in me and reignited what I had.''
Vanden Heuvel carried 330 pounds on his 6-foot-7 frame when he played for the Badgers.
"I think I weighed 330 since I was 15 years old,'' he said. "After I stopped playing, I changed my lifestyle and got down to 258. It felt real good. It was easier to get up stairs and out of bed.''
He was feeling so good that he entered the 2009 Crazylegs Classic, an 8k run. "Finished the whole thing without stopping - that was pretty cool,'' he said.
But he wasn't finished thinking about what he once had in football.
The more he watched the game, the more he missed it.
"All the `What-ifs' start coming into your mind,'' he said. "After awhile, I began to understand what I had. I was still relatively young and healthy; why not give it another shot? They always say you don't know what you have until it's gone and that was the case. I thought, `Why am I not playing?'''
In 2008, Vanden Heuvel, who made 35 career starts, and Kemp shared the Souza Appreciation Award, which is annually presented to an offensive player for his improvement, attitude and willingness to help the program in all areas. He was also named honorable mention All-Big Ten as a senior.
"Looking back on everything,'' Vanden Heuvel said, "I wasn't really sure what I wanted at that time in my life and I kind of made an immature decision at that point (to leave football).''
His parents were the first to know about his intentions to return to the sport. "I figured I'd give it a shot and if I fell flat on my face, so be it, at least I tried,'' he said. "I told them I was thinking about getting in semi-pro ball with Arena football. They told me, `If you're serious, we'll help you out.'''
Vanden Heuvel also got in touch with his old agent and had him get the word out to NFL teams. The time frame is important: none of this really began to take shape until mid-January; just a few months ago. The big challenge was getting big again. He was at 270 when he began his comeback.
"I gained 17 pounds in one week,'' he said. "I was eating like every three hours - putting down about 1,500 calories. I've learned a lot about nutrition and I understood to gain this much weight was going to be a job. I had to teach myself how to eat again because I had been dieting the past two years.''
He "snacked'' on two cups of oatmeal, two cups of whole milk and protein powder.
Blueberries were optional.
"It wasn't too bad for a couple of days but after awhile it really became a job because you're so full,'' he admitted. "I had about two months to get over 300 pounds. So I wasn't eating because it tasted good, I was eating because I needed to eat.''
Vanden Heuvel achieved his objective by gaining over 50 pounds.
He then got on the phone with UW strength coach Ben Herbert.
"Hi, Ben, I'd like to come down for Pro Timing Day in Madison.''
"You want to watch?''
"No, I want to participate if at all possible.''
Once Herbert picked his jaw off the floor, he got clearance for Vanden Heuvel to run for the scouts. By then, though, his agent had heard from the Ravens who wanted him to work out in Baltimore. So they flew him in, worked him out, and signed him. It had to happen fast with the CBA expiring.
"It was a relatively short workout,'' he said. "About 30 minutes of position work where they were seeing if I had my footwork down and I could still hit a bag. I must have done something right. I definitely got lucky. Now I have to do everything within my power to stick with the team.''
Vanden Heuvel has been training with UW offensive linemen Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt and Bill Nagy and former Badger All-American tackle Joe Thomas, a Pro Bowler with the Cleveland Browns.
"Everything has been coming back real fast,'' said Vanden Heuvel, who noted that Urbik, now with the Buffalo Bills, was as surprised as anyone to learn that he was committed to playing football again. "Not many people knew I was coming back because I was unsure if I would be successful.''
So far, so good. But he knows the most challenging part of the journey is ahead. When and/or if that time comes - and everybody is back to playing in the NFL - he has to make the Ravens roster.
"Whatever hard times come up,'' he said, "knowing what it's like to not have football in my life will keep me going, especially not taking it for granted and understanding the blessing that is.''
Pretty good story, huh? And it's got a chance to get much better.