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Bryce Miller: Vandenberg took season harder than most knew

[ 0 ] November 23, 2012 |

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Standing outside Kinnick Stadium in a biting, bone-numbing wind with the hood of a camouflage jacket raised, Toby Vandenberg found warmth.

On a day when the wind chill made it feel more like 17 degrees, the father of Iowa senior quarterback James Vandenberg fought the stifling cold by talking about a son who epitomized something beyond football.

Nebraska beat Iowa 13-7 on Friday, carving out a score that would make football teams of the 1920s and ’30s proud.

The elder Vandenberg’s pride? It wore a No. 16 jersey … for the last time.

“The tough times, they give you character,” he said.

We didn’t know, did we? Any of it, really — the pain, the pressure, the quiet moments of rewinding plays that failed and fans left disappointed.

All of it weighed on Vandenberg during a 4-8 season that fell short of bowl eligibility for the first time since 2000. We only knew Vandenberg in glancing blows — cut into TV sound bites and newspaper quotes — even though the kid from Keokuk grew into a man before our eyes.

The Vandenberg we saw was calm, composed and seemingly unaffected.

Trust in this: He cared and stewed about his final season more than anyone beyond those closest to him could have possibly known.

“After they’d lose, he couldn’t talk for two days,” said Toby Vandenberg, the steam rising from his mouth with every word. “He won’t answer a text or phone or anything. He can’t laugh, joke — that’s a two-day thing, too.

“But he never blames anyone else or says what-if, though.”

Do any of us have a clue about the pressure he faced — or the grace not to wilt from it?

Vandenberg proved a 6-foot-3, 212-pound bundle of class. A season after winning seven games, Iowa missed out on a bowl trip for the first time in his career — on his final lap.

The quarterback, as is the case when football criticism crashes down, became a rallying cry for frustrated Iowa fans barking to see another player under center. Truth is, problems resided all over the field for a team that began the season younger than any coach Kirk Ferentz had fielded in Iowa City before.

“I certainly didn’t play my best football,” Vandenberg said. “But you have two options. You can quit or you can keep going. And obviously, the first one’s not really an option.”

Fans might be surprised to know that Vandenberg finished with just 14 fewer completions this season than 2011 — in one fewer game.

Pass catches come in all shapes and sizes, though, as Iowa never truly found fill-ins to stretch the field like former receiver Marvin McNutt. The new offensive system of coordinator Greg Davis rarely felt like a snug fit, either.

A season ago, Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards — the most by anyone in the top four of Iowa’s single-season passing records list not named Chuck, be it a Hartlieb or Long.

The completion percentage was almost identical for Vandenberg this season (57.3) as 2011 (58.7). He threw just one more interception this season (8) than his junior campaign under center — but touchdowns plummeted from 25 to seven.

Toby Vandenberg said his son entered his final season full of hope, despite the roster challenges and all the coordinator shuffling a team can endure.

“Going into the year, he was listed 7th to 9th on the (NFL) draft list (for quarterbacks),” he said, after his son completed 11 passes for 92 yards — nearly 30 more than Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez on a day built for running backs.

“With a repeat season, I think he would have been drafted.”

Despite all the barking on sports radio and venom on Internet message boards, Vandenberg loved it all anyway — right down to the end.

“I’m not an emotional guy, whatsoever,” he said. “You can ask my mom, my girlfriend. I’m not considered an emotional guy. But right before I ran out (for kickoff), it hit me like a wall.”

When the dream of a memorable senior unraveled during a losing streak that Nebraska nudged to six, it showed up everywhere — except on Vandenberg’s face.

“Not to get too philosophical, but maybe that’s a life lesson there,” Ferentz said. “… This didn’t pan out certainly the way James would have hoped … but I think the world of James as a football player, and more as a person.”

Vandenberg’s father said he and his son will cherish the loyalty of Ferentz — even as fans lashed out against the coach for it.

“Coach Ferentz is just a class guy,” he said. “I know fans get on him — fire Ferentz and get a new quarterback as soon as they lose — but he stays the same.”

The elder Vandenberg tells a story about the day he attended his first Iowa game. The father of another player approached him.

“He came up and shook my hand. He said, ‘Your son picked the right school’ and his son never started a game,” Toby Vandenberg said. “Six years after he graduated, the dad stopped at his son’s house. His son threw him a new T-shirt. His dad said, ‘Where’d you get that?’ He said, coach Ferentz sent me a box of them and a handwritten note.

“This is to a non-starter — a non-starter — six years after he was done at Iowa. He was no star.

“College football can be a ruthless business that’s all about winning. Here it’s about relationships, an education, setting goals and trying to achieve them. It’s really done the right way.

“James will always remember that and be thankful he was here.”

In that moment, the day felt a little less cold — no matter the temperature.

Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or brmiller@dmreg.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

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