IOWA CITY, Iowa — Open page 75 of Iowa’s 2013 football media guide.
Turn to 76, then 77. Scan the pages and look at the names. Nowhere will you find Matt VandeBerg among Iowa’s newcomers. The Hawkeyes signed five wide receivers that year, and three since have transferred. Another one was a junior-college recruit and the fifth, Derrick Mitchell, now plays running back at Iowa.
No Matt VandeBerg.
VandeBerg doesn’t appear because he wasn’t part of that signing class. He committed to Iowa six months before signing day without a scholarship but with an opportunity. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz offered VandeBerg the chance to grayshirt, costing the Brandon, S.D., native a full semester of out-of-state tuition before stepping in the weight room the following January.
But that didn’t happen. VandeBerg didn’t let it happen. His plans changed about a week before training camp when a scholarship opened that August. He took the field and soared past all of them.
In Iowa’s second game that year, VandeBerg saw action. Against Michigan State, the Big Ten’s best defense in 10 years, he hauled in four passes for 36 yards. By season’s end, he was a rotational receiver. He’s a fighter, nicknamed “the Meerkat” by wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy.
But in one of football’s all-too-often cruel moments, VandeBerg’s season virtually ended Monday. In typical fashion, “Meerkat” ran his route like its was the fourth quarter of a Big Ten game. He suffered a broken right foot in practice making a wrong cut on the backside of a play. He’s out until at least Iowa’s likely bowl game.
“It seemed harmless, but he cut wrong,” Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said.
VandeBerg’s injury hovered like a cloud over Iowa’s football complex Tuesday. It’s one thing to lose a play-making wide receiver. It’s another to lose a team captain and the perfect embodiment of Iowa football.
If you mixed tangible measurements with intangible qualities, VandeBerg checks all the boxes on an Iowa starter kit. Two-star recruit. Undersized. Small-town nobody. Off-the-chart work ethic. Two-time academic all-Big Ten honoree. And, tough as hell.
“Matt works hard all the time,” Ferentz said. “He’s one of those guys you have to pull back.”
VandeBerg contributed his first two years with 22 catches for 315 yards and a score. In 2015 he vaulted from possession receiver to showcase performer. He caught 65 passes — third-most in Iowa history — for 703 yards and four touchdowns. Nearly half of his catches (31) went for first downs and 18 extended drives on third down.
Against Iowa State last year, five of his nine catches turned into first downs and four were on the third down. All of them were in the second half. One play that didn’t fit in either category was perhaps the most pivotal. VandeBerg trailed tight end Henry Krieger Coble down the field when Krieger Coble fumbled at the 3-yard line. VandeBerg raced to the ball, recovered and and leaped over a defender into the end zone to tie the game at 17-17.
In a pivotal four-game stretch toward the Big Ten West Division title, VandeBerg caught 22 passes for 274 yards and no scores. But 13 went for first downs.
VandeBerg was off to a similar start this year. Pro Football Focus rated VandeBerg as the 36th best at his position through four games and 31st for receiving. In four games, he has 19 catches for 284 yards and three touchdowns in 27 targets, according to Pro Football Focus’ Ryan Smith. Six of his seven catches against Iowa State went for first downs. Three strikes from Beathard were perfect both in delivery and execution. Their chemistry was unmatched, something Beathard acknowledged on Tuesday.
Mostly, Beathard hurt for his friend first and teammate second.
“It’s not a selfish thing,” Beathard said. “My heart feels for him and all the work he’s put in to get ready for the season and getting hurt four games into the season. I am praying for him, praying for his family. You don’t like to see that for anybody.”
Sixteen days before his injury, VandeBerg experienced the best day of his life. With his parents and girlfriend Laura Bulanda positioned near the Iowa bench at game’s end, VandeBerg returned to the field after a 42-3 win against Iowa State. Hidden in the back of his jersey was a diamond ring. VandeBerg approached Bulanda, dropped to one knee and proposed. She said yes. It was memorable and perfect.
There will be other perfect days. But difficult ones are in store in the recovery process. It’s too soon to determine whether Iowa will apply for a medical hardship waiver or if VandeBerg will want to move on professionally. But that’s for another day. Today we all should appreciate the subtle toughness of the Meerkat and wish him a speedy recovery.
Not because he deserves it. But because you know he’ll return better than ever.