Vande Zande wore many hats
Chad Vande Zande of Oconomowoc has come full circle. From high school football standout to NCAA Division 1 starting defensive tackle, to winning an America's Cup in sailing, to becoming a full-time parent.
It's been quite a ride for the 42-year-old father of two, who doesn't compete any more but enjoys watching his two daughters play competitive sports.
The best part of it all is that Vande Zande, one of the top football players in Oconomowoc High School history, is back where it all started, in Oconomowoc.
"I've been very fortunate in my life to have had a lot of things go right," Vande Zande said. "I was lucky enough to have a lot of success in sports and in life. And I owe a lot of the credit for that good fortune to my parents, two of my high school coaches, Ed Rux and Gale Douglas, and a lot of the guys who played before me at Oconomowoc. Without all of those people, I'm not sure things would have worked out for me."
As a defensive end and offensive tackle at OHS, his varsity teams lost only two games in 1983 and 1984. Unfortunately, both of those losses came in the WIAA playoffs.
As a senior in 1984, he was named the high school Player of the Year in Wisconsin, and the recruiting floodgates opened.
"I was pretty much getting letters and contacts from just about every school in the country," Vande Zande said. "It seemed like every time I would stop into Coach Rux's office, a college head coach would be there. Gerry Faust, who was coaching Notre Dame at the time, was there one day and a few days later, Lou Holtz, who was coaching Minnesota, was sitting there. That's how much respect college coaches had for the Oconomowoc football program and coach Rux."
Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne of Nebraska, one of the most successful coaches in college football history, sat with Chad and his family to watch the Super Bowl one year.
But in the end, it was the Wisconsin Badgers that won out. Vande Zande had narrowed his choices to only Big Ten schools and eventually he said it was a simple decision. He wanted to play in Madison.
"Dave McClain was the UW coach and I really wanted to play for him," the 1985 OHS graduate said. "I had watched former Oconomowoc players like Steve Wagner, Steve Rux, Glenn Derby and a bunch of other guys play at Camp Randall Stadium, and that did it for me. Those guys helped me out a lot, and I wanted to be a Badger, just like those guys. It was fun going up there and carrying on the Oconomowoc tradition."
Tragedy strikes UW
Unfortunately for Vande Zande, who played four years and was a three-year starter at UW, McClain died of a heart attack after spring practice of Vande Zande's sophomore year. Jim Hilles coached one year, and the ill-fated Don Morton era took place when the 6-2, 290-pound Vande Zande was a junior and senior.
"It was a big blow to the Wisconsin program when coach McClain died," Vande Zande said. "He had everything going in the right direction. After he died, we struggled for a period of time. We didn't do much under Morton. While it would have been fun to win more games, playing four years of football at Wisconsin is something I'll never forget."
Vande Zande's football career came to an end, and an unusual career switch was afoot.
On the water
Buddy Melges was the captain of the 1992 America's Cup team and needed some muscle for his boat. After going through several tryouts, Vande Zande was selected for the crew, and Melges and his boat won the prestigious sailing championship in San Diego.
"They asked me if I knew anything about sailing and I just told them, 'yes,'" Vande Zande joked. "I had never sailed in my life. They just assumed that I lived in Oconomowoc and I must have sailed. That was a great experience. Imagine going from working a job to being on the winning America's Cup team."
Seven years later, he was back on the US America's Cup boat, this time sailing with a team out of New York City. That year, he competed in New Zealand, but the 80-foot boat broke in half during an early race and did not finish.
"Sailing the America's Cup was a great way to finish off my athletic career," Vande Zande said. "I was lucky enough to play Division 1 football and then sail in the biggest races in the world. When I think back on it all, I know just how lucky I really was to be able to compete like that."
Vande Zande also was a highly successful high school wrestler, and brother Darin played college football at Iowa.
He now spends his time with his wife Carrie, watching their two daughters play soccer and basketball.
"We don't miss many games now that the kids are playing," Vande Zande said. "It's great that we got back into the Oconomowoc school system. The sports programs are moving forward, and it's fun to be part of it again. It's fun to be on the sidelines and not on the field."
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