James and the Giant Bear

Iowa QB tells the story of his 350-pound black bear from northern Saskatchewan

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March 31, 2014 | 8:25 pm

IOWA CITY -- As it turns out, the hardest part about shooting a bear with an arrow is the path to the stand high up in the tree.

It was early morning in northern Saskatchewan when Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg and his crew, including Hawkeye receiver Nick Nielsen and  Olivia Vandenberg, his sister, set out to the forest in late May. The forest was thick and the light was low, which kind of goes along with the territory when you're talking about a place with no cell phone service within six hours.

It's a bear hunt from a tree stand. Only the bears don't know they have to wait for you to be safely perched above the forest floor. During the walk to the stand, it's anybody's ballgame.

"You're walking through the woods kind of in the semi-darkness with no flashlight," Vandenberg said Wednesday. "You can only see as far from me to you [about three feet].

"It's so thick that every two to three minutes, the guide gets down on his knees to see your bear. This thing could pop out from anywhere."

Vandenberg made it and took a 350-pound black bear with a bow and arrow.

It became a viral sensation, with the satirical Iowa sports website Black Heart Gold Pants chiming in with, "James Vandenberg killed a bear this weekend. What did you do?"

So yeah, James "The Arrow of Truth" Vandenberg, the quarterback Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz called "Opie" last fall because of his wholesome look and down-home demeanor.

How do you like him now?

"I've hunted in my backyard with a BB gun," said tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, a native of the Chicago suburbs. "I've never been out sitting for hours waiting for something to run by. A bear, 350 pounds? I wouldn't mess with it."

We should note at this point that Fiedorowicz is 6-7, 265 pounds. Not that it needed any help, but Vandenberg's huddle presence can now claim a bear with the head the size of a middle schooler.

So, what do you do with the bear when you're half a continent away from your home in Keokuk? There are some practicalities.

-- You eat some of the meat in camp. That's the hunter's way, and the Vandenberg party -- Vandenberg, Olivia, their dad Toby Vandenberg, Nick Nielsen, and Dr. Brandon Beauchanmp -- chowed down.

-- The rest of the meat was donated to the local Indian village, because it can't be transported across the border.

-- You can take the hide and the skull into the states.

"Nick Nielsen carried his onto the plane," Vandenberg said. "It was a frozen carry-on."

The basic protocol is shipping it home in a cooler and then taxidermist.

Vandenberg has decided that his bear will be made into a rug, perhaps the ultimate conversation piece, whether you're for or against hunting.

"It's going to be a pretty big rug for wherever I live the next 50 years," he said.

Vandenberg is an avid outdoorsmen. He loves to bow hunt and said he killed his first deer at age 9. The senior also has gone fishing with KCRG sports director John Campbell.

This was his second bear hunt. The first time he went he only saw two cubs. This time, he saw two bears at the bait barrel before he took his shot.

"I passed a nice-sized brown one the first night," he said. "The third night, a little one was in there for a few hours and mine was just a goliath.

"This was my first trip out into the real wildnerness. I think more than anything, it's a great escape to be able hang out with some friends. I mean there's no electricity unless they turn on the generator. It was a cool trip."

Vandenberg received a ton of text messages and e-mails congratulating him on the bear. At the Iowa Ladies Football Academy last weekend, the bear was a popular topic.

And then there was the text from his old friend and teammate Pat Angerer, the former Iowa linebacker who's now a starter with the Indianapolis Colts. If you remember back to the '09 season, Angerer and Vandenberg revealed that they had a bit of an mixed-martial arts showdown at Angerer's apartment. All in fun, of course.

They've stayed in touch since Angerer was drafted and Vandenberg ascended to No. 1 quarterback in Iowa City. [Read this, Vandenberg basks in the Tao of Angerer. Explains it all.]

Yes, Angerer sent his ol' buddy a text.

"He said my bear looked like a baby," Vandenberg said. "That was his immediate feedback."

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