Camp Randall 100: Matt Vanden Boom

Photo collage of images of Wisconsin football player Matt Vanden Boom
Photo collage of images of Wisconsin football player Matt Vanden Boom

The Camp Randall 100 honors a prestigious group of 100 people who shaped the first century of Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin Athletics will reveal a new honoree every day from May 24 until the Badgers’ 2017 opening game on Sept. 1 against Utah State.

BY MIKE LUCAS | Senior Writer

Photo of Wisconsin football player Matt Vanden Boom. He is wearing his uniform (#94) and kneeling on the Camp Randall Stadium field with his helmet off.
Matt Vanden Boom

Matt Vanden Boom’s first trip to Camp Randall Stadium as a youngster was memorable for what he saw in the stands and not on the field. Seated in Section X with his dad, Vanden Boom couldn’t keep his eyes off a portly, uniquely attired fellow a few rows in front of them. He was wearing a furry red cap pulled down over his ears, a white T-shirt with “The Pride” emblazoned on his chest and a furry skirt over a pair of white Levis. Vanden Boom wasn’t sure what to make of the Portage Plumber.

“That was my first exposure to Wisconsin football,” he said.

Vanden Boom, a second-team all-state wide receiver, didn’t draw much recruiting traffic at Kimberly (Wisconsin) High School. Some D-III programs expressed interest. So did Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He also had some conversations with the Dartmouth coaches. “We were a small-town program in a conference that wasn’t necessarily recruited heavily,” he said. “Some of it was just location and circumstance. I was probably not as developed physically yet to where folks were taking notice.”

At the 1978 Shrine All-Star game, UW assistant Mario Russo visited with Vanden Boom and encouraged him to walk on. “I was excited to do that,” said Vanden Boom, who was not invited to training camp and joined the team the first week of classes. From such a modest beginning, he went on to earn first-team All-America honors in 1981. “A lot of those things happen because you play for good teams,” he said of individual laurels. “I stuck it out and my resilience was awarded.”

Matt Vanden Boom’s mind was always set on catching the football. As a first-year flanker, he was issued jersey No. 94 and toiled on the varsity reserves. The following spring, he caught a touchdown pass in the intra-squad game and was named the most improved offensive freshman.

At the start of his sophomore year in 1979, he went on scholarship and appeared in five games. He didn’t catch a pass. Nor would he ever from a Wisconsin quarterback. That offseason, he was moved to safety, a move that took him by surprise (he read about it in the paper) and disappointed him.

“But I decided not to quit and go with the flow,” he said though, “I was still a receiver at heart.”

“We were ready for them … and maybe ambushed them a little bit.”

— Matt Vanden Boom on beating
No. 1-ranked Michigan in 1981

Vanden Boom would play like one in the 1981 upset of No. 1-ranked Michigan. It was his first career start for the Badgers and he admitted, “I certainly had a lot of emotions before that game.”

His teammates provided all the reassurance that he needed going into the home opener. Never mind that the Wolverines had outscored Wisconsin, 176-0, in their four previous meetings. The year before, a 24-0 loss, the Badgers had finally put up a fight by holding their own physically.

“We were ready for them,” Vanden Boom said, “and maybe ambushed them a little bit.”

The Badgers finished 1980 — Dave McClain’s third season as head coach — with wins over Northwestern and Minnesota. Jess Cole, a raw-boned freshman quarterback from Mondovi, Wisconsin, rushed for four touchdowns against the Gophers.

Along with his Mondovi High School teammate, Tim Krumrie, the indefatigable nose guard, Cole was viewed as one of the team leaders going into the ’81 season. McClain left nothing to chance for Michigan. He had the UW band show up for the Thursday practice. He even resorted to visual imagery.

The Camp Randall scoreboard read: Wisconsin 17, Michigan 14.

On game day, McClain put Mike Jolly’s quotes on the bulletin board in the locker room. A former Michigan defensive back, Jolly was quoted as saying that the Wolverines used to stand on the sideline and bet on how many points they would score against Wisconsin.

The pregame warmup featured even more insulting, condescending behavior from Michigan. While the Badgers were loosening up in front of the north goal post, the Wolverines came out of the tunnel and jogged around the UW players — like they were circling their prey.

It was clearly an attempt at intimidation that backfired.

“It annoyed me a lot,” Krumrie said. “They were real cocky.”

“They were shouting, ‘We’re No. 1,”’ said guard Leo Joyce, “It was poor sportsmanship.”

“I watched the game years later and I didn’t realize how well our offense played because I was so focused on defense … And we literally wore them down and held the ball and kept them off the field and made some big plays obviously.”

— Matt Vanden Boom

Statistically, the game was a mismatch. The Badgers had a big edge in most categories: plays (78-53), first downs (23-8) and total yards (439-229). With two seconds left in the first half, Chucky Davis followed Joyce and tackle Jerry Doerger into the end zone to push Wisconsin into a 14-7 lead.

Early in the third quarter, Michigan tailback Butch Woolfolk exploded for an 89-yard touchdown run. It was the only defensive breakdown of the game for the Badgers who limited All-American flanker Anthony Carter to just one catch for 11 yards.

McClain had a trick up his sleeve, too. He drew up a screen pass — out of a shotgun formation — specifically for the Wolverines. And it was executed perfectly in the third quarter. Cole dumped the ball to tailback John Williams, who scored the game-winning touchdown on a 71-yard catch-and-run.

That made it 21-14. The Wolverines still had the entire fourth quarter to work with. But they couldn’t get anything going offensively behind quarterback Steve Smith, who was making his first career start.

Smith completed three passes to his receivers. And three passes to Vanden Boom.

On recording the interception hat trick, the 6-foot-3, 198-pound Vanden Boom said, “We got a good pass rush on the first one. He (Smith) had to roll a little bit to his right. He had one option and I just sort of baited him and when he threw it up, I won the battle in the air.

“The second one was over the middle and Carter was the target. He pump-faked and I was able to come from the outside and break on it. I used a little bit of a shoulder dip and got good position on it. The third one, he just threw it high and right to me. You like those kinds.”

Smith was 3-of-18 for 39 yards. More symbolism. Vanden Boom was No. 39.

“I watched the game years later and I didn’t realize how well our offense played because I was so focused on defense,” said Vanden Boom, now 57. “Jess played a masterful game. And we literally wore them down and held the ball and kept them off the field and made some big plays obviously.”

That 1981 defense was one of the stingiest and hungriest in the Big Ten. The line of scrimmage was controlled by Krumrie, Darryl Sims and Mark Shumate. The linebackers were tough and active (Dave Levenick, Larry Spurlin, Guy Boliaux and Kyle Borland). The secondary was loaded with ballhawks.

The Badgers had 26 interceptions (12 games), which is still the school record. Vanden Boom had six picks, as did safety David Greenwood, one of the best athletes to ever wear a UW uniform. Eleven different players had at least one interception.

“The whole roster was full of talent,” said Vanden Boom, also singling out starting cornerbacks Von Mansfield and Clint Sims, “and that was pretty reassuring.”

Talent runs in the Vanden Boom family. Matt and Amy’s son, Danny, is a freshman quarterback at Wisconsin. Besides leading Kimberly to back-to-back state titles while compiling a 28-0 record as the starter, he was second team all-conference in basketball and all-state in baseball.

“As a three-sport athlete, he enjoyed competing at all levels — it’s in his blood,” said the elder Vanden Boom, who lettered in the same three sports as a prep. “But he loves football and it won out on the other two sports. He’s just solid. He’s extremely poised. He doesn’t get too high or low.”

It’s obvious where he gets that from.

Thin Photo collage of images of Wisconsin football player Matt Vanden Boom