Julian Vandervelde: A man of many worlds


David Scrivner/The Daily Iowan
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Julian Vandervelde stands in line at Mesa Pizza, patiently waiting to be served. He peers over the glass to look at the gourmet options: slices of chicken pesto, barbeque steak and fries, and Southwest taco. From above, the selection looks like a cooking experiment gone wild. Nonetheless, Vandervelde — Iowa’s starting left guard — examines the spread with the same intensity he would a defensive front four.

Before he can make his decision, he’s interrupted.

A young woman with curly brown hair taps him on the shoulder.

“Are you really a football player?” she asks in a pitch usually reserved for high-school girls. It’s a fair question. Vandervelde wears a gray hooded sweatshirt with an Orange Bowl emblem adorning the pocket. That’s his only outward connection to the football team — besides, of course, the overpowering 6-3, 300-pound frame that has made him one of Iowa’s most consistent performers in his senior season.

But today isn’t about football.

It’s a beautiful Monday fall afternoon — the kind right after the leaves change colors and the wind coming off the Iowa River is a soothing breeze. It’s Vandervelde’s day off, his time away from football — except for that 6:30 a.m. lift or the film session on Wisconsin’s defense he digested earlier that morning.

Mondays are reserved for lunch at Mesa with his friends. Books about Japanese culture clutter the table. Talk of nightmare vortexes and giant sloths fill the conversation. And the group discusses going to see Serenity — a science-fiction thriller playing at the Englert Theatre that weekend. Iowa’s upcoming game against then-No. 10 Wisconsin isn’t broached. That’s the way Vandervelde prefers to keep it. He’d rather talk about the latest manga graphic novel — at least with this set of friends.

As Vandervelde walks out of Mesa, he turns to me and exclaims, “Welcome to your typical Monday with the nerdiest guy on the football team.”

Renaissance man

Vandervelde insists he’s boring. His life isn’t that interesting, he says with a chuckle. Even he can’t really believe that.

Never mind that he played on the Davenport baseball team that made it to the U.S. finals of the 2000 Little League World Series. Never mind that he sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” for President Obama and thousands of others during the president’s visit to Iowa City in March. Never mind that he plays Dungeon & Dragons — a game in which players play self-created mythical characters as they explore a fantasy world — and watches animé in his free time.

Vandervelde has started 36 games for the Hawkeyes in his career — tied for the highest number on the team with Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Jeremiha Hunter, Tyler Sash, and All-American Adrian Clayborn. He has been a team captain for 10 of the 12 games this season and Academic All-Big Ten every season since 2007. And he can speak Japanese — or, as he says, “You could drop me in the middle of Tokyo, and I could find my way out.”

Head coach Kirk Ferentz calls Vandervelde a Renaissance man. He even compares him with former University of Iowa President David Skorton in that Vandervelde possesses such diverse interests.

“We haven’t had many guys take Japanese, I know that,” Ferentz says with a dry smile.

Sitting in the couple’s Iowa City house a few blocks from Kinnick Stadium, Vandervelde’s girlfriend, Paula LisenBee, jokes that he started taking Japanese so “he could watch animé without the subtitles.” Vandervelde, a Japanese minor, laughs because it’s true. When he was a little kid — so young he can’t remember the age — he used to go to his grandparents’ cabin in Wisconsin. He and his mother didn’t have cable at home, so when he caught five minutes of “Dragon Ball Z,” he thought it was “the greatest thing I had seen.”

He decided then that he eventually wanted to live in Japan.

His mother, Cynthia Tobin, remembers when his passion for Japanese became a bit too much.

During his freshman year in Iowa City, Tobin decided to give her son “a hunk of money” so he could learn to budget his finances. Vandervelde spent it all in a matter of weeks. “Literally thousands of dollars,” Tobin said.

She can’t get through the story now without pausing to laugh so hard she loses her breath. But at the time, she was worried. She remembers thinking, “Oh God, he’s into drugs or something like that.”

In fact, Vandervelde had spent all of his money on manga graphic novels and comic books.

Unprompted, he tells this same story to me as we walk through Daydreams, 21 S. Dubuque St., the local store in which he spent all of that money. We walk to the back of the store, where a wall of manga sits. He gestures at it and shakes his head at the memory. His mother cut off his “family financial aid,” as he called it, soon after he owned up to the origins of his spending. “That was rough,” he says, cracking a slight smile.

‘I pretty much dropped my jaw’

Tobin first figured out her son had musical talent in kindergarten, when Vandervelde’s teacher chose him for the lead role in The Lion King. Tobin had her parental biases; she thought Vandervelde was gifted musically, but he hadn’t shown it yet in public.

She remembers the younger Julian being so shy that he wouldn’t sing for his mother. So, naturally, she was anxious to see his performance in a room full of people. Julian had “a voice that filled the gym,” she says proudly. “I pretty much dropped my jaw.”

And so began Vandervelde’s adventures into music — and really everything else, too. Tobin’s main parenting strategy was to get him involved in as many activities as possible. As he says, “Frankly, there wasn’t much that I wasn’t good at, and there wasn’t much I didn’t like.”

He did it all during his time at Davenport Central High: band, choir, speech and debate, musicals, plays, yearbook, football, wrestling, baseball, track and field, swimming. He won the Class 4A shot-put title as a junior and senior — and went to the state wrestling tournament as a junior — but football was always his primary focus.

On a recent Monday night, A.J. LisenBee — a friend of Vandervelde, a high-school teammate, and a relative of Paula LisenBee — went over to the couple’s house. It was A.J. LisenBee’s 24th birthday; they had intended on going out to celebrate by seeing the movie Red later. But before they did that, they started in on some of their high-school football memories. A.J. LisenBee reminisced about their coaches’ comical approach to teaching zone blocking. He said, “Their idea of teaching us how to block was, ‘All right, hit the guy in front of you.’ No technique. It was bad.”

As I nibbled on one of Paula LisenBee’s chocolate-chip cookies, and Vandervelde devoured homemade fried chicken, I wonder how he got from there to here.

Vandervelde’s not quite sure himself. His expectations were to “spend four years essentially on the scout team” at Iowa. He started at right guard in Iowa’s 2007 season-opener against Eastern Illinois — his redshirt-freshman year.

Since then, the Hawkeyes have played 47 games. Vandervelde has been on the field for 45 of those.

“He has played a lot of football,” said quarterback Ricky Stanzi, a three-year starter himself.

Perhaps that’s why in the week following Iowa’s Sept. 18 loss to Arizona — during which the offensive line gave up three-consecutive sacks to close out the game — lineman Adam Gettis said, “[Vandervelde] is going to really get us moving this week. He’s the one who gets the tempo going, and he gets everything moving.”

Offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe took a similar approach when I asked about Vandervelde. He noted the effect Vandervelde had on nurturing a line that had three new starters at the beginning of the season.

“You can’t underestimate the value of what Julian’s steadiness has meant from a leadership standpoint,” the coach said. “He has done a really nice job, and he’s playing some of his best football ever right now.”

Faith, family, football

Vandervelde is involved in a lot. He knows that. But for some reason, none of it seems to faze him. The reason, he says, is “faith, family, football” — the paradigm by which he lives life.

Most notable of the three is faith. He says his relationship with God is the reason he doesn’t get stressed out or overwhelmed. He’s a faith-filled person — which started at Monday-night Bible studies freshman year with such former football players as Seth Olsen and Vernon Jackson and current defensive tackle Mike Daniels.

Vandervelde says, “I can only do so much. I’m a fat kid who gets lucky from time to time. I can’t do this by myself. … God has been pretty damn good to me.”

But more than his faith, he is a religious-studies major. He learns about the scholarly nature of the Bible in class. Is God an all-knowing figure? He had a five-minute answer. He wants to get a Ph.D. in religious studies and write a book about the evolution of God over time.

When he eventually gets to Nagasaki, his goal is to help rebuild the Christian community there and teach English, his other major. He will graduate in December. “That’s one of those dreams where it’s like, ‘Some day I could do this,’ ” he says. “Who knows when it will actually happen.”

One man, many worlds

It’s a Monday night in mid-October. Vandervelde and his friends — the same ones who joined him for lunch earlier that day at Mesa Pizza — have just finished playing Dungeon & Dragons. In between demoralizing strikes and double augments — Vandervelde’s character is a half-elf Japanese noble — no football was discussed.

As the encounter ends, the group walks outside into the chilly Iowa City night.

The woman with the curly hair is there, a new addition to the party. So, too, is Cinco — one of Vandervelde’s good friends outside football. As Vandervelde gets ready to hop on his moped, Cinco has an idea: Let’s see if you block me. Vandervelde laughs loudly. He knows this isn’t a good thought, but he agrees to it.

He flexes his knees and straightens his back, ready for Cinco, who is in a three-point stance across from him. As a last-ditch plea, Cinco says, “Don’t knock me down.”

Vandervelde replies, “What do you mean? That’s my job.”

Cinco doesn’t get knocked down, but he doesn’t get past Vandervelde, either. Not even close.

I think back to a conversation Vandervelde and I had earlier that day. He talked often about separating his many interests — “compartmentalizing” them is how he described it. He rarely overlaps football with, say, manga. That’s the way he likes it.

But in this moment, something changed. He walks back to his moped, wrapping his arm around Cinco. He smiles, revealing the gap in his front teeth. It’s the rare intersection of Vandervelde’s many worlds.

The Renaissance man whisks off under a starry night. Nothing stopping him.

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