Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg will get chased by a lot of 300-pounders this season, but it's doubtful any of them will cause his heart to flutter like the black bear he shot with a bow and arrow last month. And they don't make for nearly as good a rug.
A photo of Vandenberg with his kill made the rounds a couple of weeks ago, and the Hawkeyes senior talked about his unique hunting trip with reporters on Wednesday. That seemed to be about all anyone has wanted to talk about with him.
"I've taken a lot of jokes, and coaches and teammates have done a lot of imitations," Vandenberg told ESPN.com. "We've all had fun with it."
Bow hunting is the Vandenberg family's idea of fun. His great grandfather earned the nickname "Bear" in the 1940s for killing one of the animals. James grew up hunting with bows, killing 10-12 deer with arrows by his estimation. His father, Toby, and younger brother, Elliott, are the most adventurous hunters in the family, shooting moose, caribou, elk and even a few bears over the years.
Toby decided to take James and his sister, Olivia, along with Iowa receiver Nick Nielsen, on a guided bear hunt to Saskatchewan last month as a graduation present (Olivia graduated in May, while James will get his degree in December). They went to a remote area -- "a long, long way from phone service," Vandenberg says -- and stayed in a cabin with only a small generator for power.
They would fish for walleye and pike in the morning, and then get picked up by a boat in the early afternoon to go to their tree stands. They'd stay there, about 14 feet off the ground, for five or six hours until the guides retrieved them.
"A lot of times, you'd see three, four, five bears a night," Vandenberg said. "There were a lot in the area."
While the rest of his hunting mates reported seeing more than 10 bears during their trip, Vandenberg shot the third one he saw, on his third and final night in a stand. He'd been watching a small, baby bear in front of him for a couple of hours when all of a sudden a fully grown one appeared.
"It came from behind me," Vandenberg said. "It kind of smelled me, smelled where I went up the tree. It walked right up to the tree and reared up. I almost got to the point where I had to poke it on the head to get it to turn around."
Bears can smell but can't see very well, so the bear eventually got back down and walked out toward the smaller one. "That's when my heart went back into my chest," Vandenberg said.
It's also when he got his best shot at the animal. He aimed his bow toward the bear's front legs and shot it near the heart and lungs. The beast was eventually weighed and checked in at more than 300 pounds.
"It was such a neat experience because of how far you are away from everything," Vandenberg said. "The wilderness there is like nothing you've ever seen. It's a little scary, but I think more than anything it's kind of an adrenaline rush seeing bears walking around in their environment not knowing you're even there. It was kind of neat, and the fact that I got a pretty big one made it even better."
All five people in Vandenberg's party shot a bear, the four guys using bows and his sister killing one with a muzzleloader rifle. The native Americans in the area cooked the meat over an open flame, and Vandenberg and his friends ate some of it before donating the rest to the village.
"It's a little darker than deer meat," he said. "That was a real outdoor experience."
They each brought back their bears' skulls and fur. All five are getting their furs made into a big bear rug.
"Bears have good fur in the spring," Vandenberg said. "It's going to be a really good rug."
And he already has a great story from his trip, one that teammates are still talking about.
"If I wanted to go hunting, I'd think about shooting deer," said tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, who's no shrinking violet at 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds. "I don't think I'd attempt to shoot a 350-pound bear. I'd be too afraid that thing would chase after me. It earns him a little more respect. That's a cool thing to do."
Vandenberg said head coach Kirk Ferentz was aware of and approved his hunting trip and insists that black bears "really aren't that dangerous." That kind of fearlessness could serve him well in the pocket on Saturdays this fall.
"It's always going to be a little nerve-wracking with a bear, and it's always going to be a little nerve-wracking with a linebacker running up the middle at you," he said. "I think that's why I play football. Being able to handle that rush is what keeps you here."
Vandenberg says he's hanging up his hunting gear for awhile and is focusing solely on football. He's the leading returning passer in the Big Ten and figures to throw the ball more this season in a new offensive system led by former Texas coordinator Greg Davis.
Hawkeyes fans will hope he's as cool under pressure throwing the football as he is shooting his bow and arrow from a tree.