Nov. 16, 2012
Editor's Note: The following story first appeared in the "Where Are They Now" edition of Varsity Magazine on July 26. Wisconsin's 1963 Rose Bowl team will be recognized for the 50th anniversary of its appearance in the Granddaddy of Them All during the Badgers' game vs. Ohio State on Saturday.
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- During his post-football travels, Ron Vander Kelen discovered that his “15 minutes of fame’’ still resonated with complete strangers. There was the time that he was checking into a New York City hotel and the bell hop noticed the name tag on his luggage and immediately made the connection to the pass-happy Wisconsin quarterback who triggered a furious fourth-quarter rally in the 1963 Rose Bowl.
“Oh, my God, you’re not him, are you?’’
That happened more often than Vander Kelen ever dreamed it would.
“It’s absolutely amazing to think that, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, someone would just come up and say, ‘Are you the Ron Vander Kelen who played at Wisconsin and in that Rose Bowl?’’’ he said. “And when I would say yes they were just really astonished. Those things really make you feel good -- like you’ve done something good in this world and people remember you.’’
It has never gotten old for Vander Kelen, now 72 and contemplating the 50th anniversary of that very special Big Ten championship season and the improbable comeback from a 28-point deficit that fell just short against Southern Cal. As dusk fell over the Rose Bowl, a hush fell over the USC sideline and cheering sections as Vander Kelen completed pass after pass; most of them to Pat Richter.
“I was living out my dream,’’ said Vander Kelen, a native Cheesehead from Green Bay.
Despite the final result, a 42-37 loss, that game will forever be etched in the minds of a generation of Badger fans. “That was a wild, wild year,’’ Vander Kelen said. “Every day I look back and remember things and I just think to myself, ‘Wow.’ Everything came together from September of 1962 through September of 1963. I mean, the wonderful things that happened to me were unimaginable.’’
The Rolling Stones played their first gig together. So did Booker T & the MG’s. Gas was 28 cents per gallon and eggs were 32 cents per dozen. The Green Bay Packers beat the New York Giants in the NFL title game at Yankee Stadium. The Academy Award for Best Picture went to “Lawrence of Arabia.” The Four Seasons were singing to “Sherry’’ and Little Eva was doing the “Loco-Motion.’’
Tom Cruise, Doug Flutie and Billy Beane were born in 1962 and you could say that it turned out to be a rebirth for Vander Kelen, who had been buried on the UW depth chart at quarterback. There were mitigating circumstances. Vander Kelen sat out the 1960 season to rehab from knee surgery. The following year, he dropped out of school and went back to Green Bay and worked in construction.
Throughout the fall semester, he stayed in touch with the program and was committed to returning to the UW for the spring term in ’62. When he did come back, he was granted another year of competition because of the prior injury. Ron Miller wasn’t so lucky. As a two-year starter, Miller had broken numerous school passing records but his petition for additional eligibility was rejected.
That left a big void at quarterback even though there was no shortage of candidates. That was illustrated by a staged photo in the sports section of the Wisconsin State Journal. UW center Ken Bowman was poised over the ball, ready to make the snap. John Fabry was the first in line, hands under center. Seven other quarterbacks fanned out behind Fabry in single file, forming a question mark.
In order, it was Fabry, Harold Brandt, Jim Henning, Arnie Quaerna, Bob Allison, Greg Howery, Lew Fawbush and Vander Kelen, who was pictured last, coincidentally. Prior to his senior year, he had 90 seconds of playing experience, and it came as a defensive back in a 44-6 rout of Marquette in 1959.
Outside of that, he was a spectator on a team that went to the Rose Bowl when he was a sophomore.
As it turned out, Vander Kelen had an ally in Wisconsin head coach Milt Bruhn, who liked Vander Kelen’s ability to escape trouble in the pocket, among other strengths. Bruhn, though, wanted to toughen him up. So he got him ready to play the old fashioned way. “He never backed off me,’ ’said Vander Kelen, who nosed ahead of Brandt, Fabry and Howery.
In one of his earliest starts, Vander Kelen completed his first eight passes in sparking the Badgers to a 17-8 victory over Notre Dame. That performance convinced Bruhn that he had the right quarterback to drive his offense; especially given Vander Kelen’s chemistry with Richter. It got to a point where they’d routinely change plays on the line of scrimmage with hand signals.
Bruhn was friends with Vince Lombardi and they regularly exchanged ideas on offensive trends; like the implementation of the power game with the pulling guards, pre-snap reads and check-offs. “We had about the most contemporary offense that you could have at that time,’’ Richter said.
The offense got real basic, real simple when something would break down. “Now and then, when I got myself in trouble, I’d yell ‘Help!’ and Pat would always find a way to get open,’’ Vander Kelen said. “We made all kinds of adjustments. We just had a feeling for each other.’’
Vander Kelen’s breakout game was against Iowa. After passing for 202 yards and three touchdowns, he said, “Even though you may have confidence in yourself, all of a sudden you rally start believing. It’s like ‘Hey, I’m not that bad. I can do this.’ I felt that confidence and it kept building.’’
The Badgers finally started getting some national recognition after crushing No. 1-ranked Northwestern, 37-6, at Camp Randall Stadium. Vander Kelen and Richter were at their best in outdueling the Wildcats’ celebrated pitch-and-catch combination of Tom Myers and Paul Flatley.
“Any time you play the No. 1-ranked team in the country,’’ Vander Kelen said, “and you beat them pretty badly, you’ve got to start believing that you’re a pretty good teams.’’
Vander Kelen’s teammates believed in him because of his poise under pressure.
“He showed so much leadership,’’ said guard Steve Underwood, a co-captain on the ’62 team. “He was always cool and collected telling us in the huddle, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to get out of this.’ He was always composed and had everything under control. That was the hallmark of his performance.’’
Vander Kelen saved his best for last -- the last 12 minutes of the ‘63 Rose Bowl matching No. 1 USC and No. 2 Wisconsin. Up to that point, it was a rout. Led by quarterback Pete Beathard, the Trojans dominated and held a commanding 42-14 lead in the fourth quarter. What happened next was the stuff of legends: Vander Kelen and Richter got hot and the Badgers scored 23 unanswered points.
“We did some things as a team that were not common in the ‘60s,’’ Vander Kelen said of the UW’s passing game, which shredded the Southern Cal secondary. In the fourth quarter alone, Vander Kelen completed 17-of-21 passes. There were teams that didn’t throw that much in a game. “We created a situation by rallying that is still remembered by a lot of sports fans all over the world,’’ he said.
Consider the Dynamic Duo’s staggering numbers: Vander Kelen ended up 33-of-48 for 401 yards, while Richter had 11 catches for 163 yards. Together, they rewrote the Wisconsin record book. And it didn’t end there -- Pasadena. Vander Kelen and Richter teamed up again and relived their magic as members of the College All-Stars that stunned the Green Bay Packers, the defending NFL champions.
The preseason exhibition game between the “Kids’’ (college seniors) and the Pros’’ was staged annually between 1934 and 1976 at Chicago’s Soldier Field (save for two years during World War II when it was played at Dyche Stadium in Evanston). The game, itself, was the brainchild of Arch Ward, the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune. All the proceeds benefited local charities.
Overall, the pros won 31 of the 42 games in the series, which included two ties. The last victory by the College All-Stars was on Aug. 2, 1963, and it was none other than Vander Kelen and Richter who hooked up on a 73-yard pass completion that was the winning score in the 20-17 upset of the Packers. Vander Kelen was the game’s MVP; an honor that he had shared with Beathard in the Rose Bowl.
While Richter had been a first-round selection of the Washington Redskins in the 1963 draft, Vander Kelen was a free agent who wound up signing with the Minnesota Vikings. “As a young guy growing up in Green Bay,’’ Vander Kelen said, “I always had a dream of playing for the University of Wisconsin and then getting into the pros. I guess I was living my dream out because it all happened.’’
As a pro, Vander Kelen largely toiled in the shadows of Minnesota’s starting quarterback, Fran Tarkenton. During his five years with the Vikings, he never attempted more than 58 passes in any one season (compared to the 48 that he threw in four quarters against USC). Vander Kelen ended up appearing in 29 games and had five starts, three coming in 1967, his final NFL season.
Looking back today, he still has no regrets.
“I look back and think, ‘Man, I was privileged to have spent five years in the NFL,’’’ he said. “That was a long time for a lot of players, even back then. And that was certainly a long time for an average individual. Good, bad or whatever, I felt privileged to have played that long.’’
Armed with his UW degree in economics, Vander Kelen joined the business world once his playing career was over. He worked in a variety of different capacities and jobs, including advertising and marketing and eventually got involved with education in the admissions department of the Minnesota School of Business. “I really enjoyed working with students,’’ he said.
Vander Kelen also enjoyed working in the WTMJ radio booth as a color analyst with the late Jim Irwin, who was not only the “Voice of the Packers’’ but the “Voice of the Badgers’’ from 1969 through 1990. Vander Kelen never had a problem staying grounded but he chuckled and said, “Jim always used to say to me, ‘Man, for your 15 minutes of fame you get more attention than anybody else.’’
Vander Kelen and his wife, Lorraine, live in Edina, Minn. He has saved many of the articles that were written about the ’62 team -- they’ve been packed away in boxes -- and all of the trophies that he collected for his “senior’’ moments with the Badgers. After retiring in 2007, he said, “I try to keep myself busy with a bunch of my buddies and I enjoy each day -- one day at a time.’’
Asked whether he has been able to stay in touch with many of his former Badger teammates, he said, “Everybody is spread out all over the place. When my daughter (Katy, a UW grad) was going to school in Madison, I used to go down there and I’d run into a couple of guys. With the exception of some phone calls, I haven’t really sat down with any of them. But if they have a reunion, I’ll be there.’’
That would seem to be a given that the UW would do something to recognize the 50th anniversary of that ’62 season and ’63 Rose Bowl.
“I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had not been privileged to have had that success my senior year at Wisconsin,’’ Vander Kelen pondered. “I don’t know where I would have gone and what I would have done. In so many ways, I was so happy that I was able to continue on scholarship (after leaving school for a semester) and have a chance to play football and get my degree.’’
Does it seem like 50 years ago? A half-century? Really?
“I hate to even think about it that way,’’ he said. “That’s a long time ago, but I’ll never forget the guys I played with and the people I met at the University of Wisconsin. I remember most of that 1962 season. That was such a thrill.’’
Oregon State quarterback Terry Baker won the 1962 Heisman Trophy -- Pat Richter was sixth in the voting and Vander Kelen was ninth. This past season, the Heisman went to Robert Griffin III, while UW tailback Montee Ball was fourth and quarterback Russell Wilson was ninth. Many have tried to connect the dots between Vander Kelen and Wilson and their single-season impact on the program.
“I’ve seen him play and he was very good,’’ Vander Kelen said. “I hope he does well in the NFL.’’
Wilson, like Vander Kelen, became a household name during his one season as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback. In truth, Vander Kelen’s name has tended to vary from household to household; at the least the spelling of his name has. So what is it: Vander Kelen or VanderKelen?
“Legally, it’s Vander-space-Kelen,’’ he said. “That’s the way I sign my name. But everybody seems to run it together. If you look at my Minnesota driver’s license, it’s VanderKelen. They refuse to make it Vander-space-Kelen otherwise Vander becomes my middle name and I become Ron Kellen. Whatever you choose to do, I have no issue.’’
By any name, he will always be remembered for the Season of ’62 and his Rose Bowl exploits with Richter.
“I hope for anybody on the outside looking in,’’ Ron Vander Kelen said of his legacy, “they will just see me as a regular guy who did some great things.’’