As with all great ideas, the initial plan was hatched by a couple of drunk guys at a bar who had nothing better to do.
Back in March, Brandt Tobler and Jeff Dye, two stand-up comedians, were in Marco Island, Fla., for four nights of shows, Thursday through Sunday. On Thursday, after wrapping up their sets, they headed out to a bar/restaurant called Vandy's Five Brothers, which sits a couple of miles down Collier Blvd. from the comedy club that was hosting them. Before they got there, Tobler and Dye knew nothing about the place.
"It was kind of random, actually," Tobler told me recently. "We really only went to Vandy's because it was really the only good bar."
Vandy's is a part sports bar, part pizzeria, part Italian restaurant. Its interior is adorned with Indianapolis Colts memorabilia, but Tobler and Dye didn't put two and two together until someone told them the joint is owned by Mike Vanderjagt, the former NFL placekicker. Tobler and Dye found that amusing. They were further amused when a few regulars started talking about Vanderjagt, sharing rumors about this and that. Eventually, the conversation turned to a story from last year. It was the one that made the news, the one about Vanderjagt grabbing some middle school kid by the throat. The kid had been taunting Vanderjagt about his famous missed field goal at the end of a January 2006 playoff game against the Steelers. Down on Marco Island, that story's still good for a laugh. Because even in his own bar, Mike Vanderjagt is still a good punch line.
Tobler and Dye stayed till closing. They had a good time. They got drunk. And then they made a discovery. Up on the wall, mounted in separate glass frames, were two Pro Bowl jerseys: one for Vanderjagt, and one for Edgerrin James. Inspired by a night of guzzling Fireball shots chased with beer, Tobler and Dye felt the jerseys were just asking to be taken. So right around closing time, as the place was clearing out, the two of them decided they should grab the jerseys off the wall and walk right out. And that's what they did.
Dye, 30, has had his own show on Comedy Central and is the host of Money for Strangers, a prank show that airs on MTV. This stunt had nothing to do with either program, however. This was just a drunken gag cooked up on the spot.
Tobler, 35, lives in Los Angeles. He's been traveling the country as a comic for close to 10 years. But he was once a runner for gamblers in Vegas. He said he lost big money when Vanderjagt missed that kick. He's still not over it.
"I hated Vanderjagt anyway," he said.
Tobler is also a Broncos fan. He wanted to bring Vanderjagt's jersey—which is from Vanderjagt's only Pro Bowl appearance—to Peyton Manning, who once described his former teammate as an "idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off." The jersey never did get to Peyton Manning. And this would not be the last time Tobler and Dye snatched it from Vandy's grasp.
After Vandy's closed, Tobler and Dye headed back to their hotel room. The comedy club had put them up in a penthouse near the water. Each night that weekend, Tobler and Dye brought several people back to the penthouse to keep boozing. Authentic Pro Bowl jerseys turned out to be terrific party props.
"Everyone wanted to wear them and put them on," Tobler said. "You couldn't believe how long they were. A girl put one on, and it would be down to, like, her knees. We passed them around and everyone just loved wearing them. I don't know. We were just drunk idiots that had Pro Bowl jerseys."
The next night, when they returned to the comedy club, Tobler and Dye told the club's manager, Brien Spina, that they had taken the jerseys.
"The whole thing was kind of a prank," Tobler said. "Everyone else we told, they were, like, 'Oh, that's awesome.' We told the comedy club manager, thinking that he would think it's funny. Because it seemed like everybody in town didn't like Vanderjagt anyway."
Spina didn't seem that impressed. By Saturday morning, he was calling Tobler and Dye, telling them he was nervous about what they had done, since word of it was now making its way around the island. Tobler and Dye tried to make light of the situation, insisting it wasn't a big deal. But soon their agents began calling them, too. Still, Tobler and Dye wouldn't budge. And then Spina got serious with them.
"He was, like, 'If you guys don't bring them back there in, like, 45 minutes, I'm calling the police,'" Tobler said. "I don't even think Vanderjagt knew it was us by that point."
Duly chastened, Tobler and Dye stuffed the jerseys back in the frames—unmounted—and prepared to bring them back to Vandy's. The jerseys had been passed around a couple of late-night parties on consecutive nights. They were now covered in glitter, and smelled like beer. Tobler and Dye didn't really care. Sometime before Vandy's opened, they dropped the jerseys off. Their drunken little prank was over. Except it wasn't.
Poor Mike Vanderjagt. He's still the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history, and yet it's hard to imagine a more fuck-with-able former player.
Part of that is his own fault. During his playing days, Vanderjagt was brash, to a degree totally out of proportion to his role and impact on a team. He dyed his hair and wore an earring, and he once asked coach Tony Dungy, as Dungy mulled whether to try a field goal late in a game, "Do you want to win now? Or do you want to keep playing?" He was a shit-talking placekicker, and there is nothing in sports more ridiculous than a shit-talking placekicker, except maybe a shit-talking bullpen catcher.
Vanderjagt didn't latch on with the Colts until he was 28. He had been cut from the CFL four times and bounced around the Arena Football League before finally making it in Indy. (He would later tell Yahoo's Eric Adelson that his bragging was a way of overcompensating for those itinerant years.) Still, that doesn't explain why, in January 2002, he saw fit to give a television interview in his native Canada in which he questioned the passion of Manning and Dungy. Manning responded by calling him the "idiot kicker who got liquored up," and from that moment on, Vanderjagt was the fattest fish in the smallest barrel.
In his interview with Adelson, the kicker swore he wasn't drunk at the time. "I was 198 percent sober the night I went on TV," he said, adding that he had Manning sign a three-page legal agreement asserting that the "liquored up" comment wasn't true. But he'd been branded for life. He was the village idiot. He was an idiot when he bombed out of the NFL after spending the 2006 season with the Cowboys, and he was an idiot three years later, when he asked to be released after one final season in the CFL, too. (USA Today's headline: "'Idiot kicker' Vanderjagt released by CFL's Toronto Argonauts.")
And then last year, the idiot choked a middle schooler. He was working as a part-time soccer coach at a charter school. A student had been shouting "wide left, wide left" through a rolled-up piece of poster board as Vanderjagt walked through the school's parking lot. The reference was unmistakably to Vanderjagt's big miss against the Steelers (never mind that it had sailed wide right). Witnesses told police Vanderjagt approached the kid, grabbed him by the throat, and cursed at him. Vanderjagt was suspended from coaching, but the state attorney's office decided not to press charges. He apologized to the kid and the kid's family. The kid apologized to him. It was all, well, idiotic.
Mike Vanderjagt went back to being just another middle-aged guy running some remote restaurant out on the far reaches of Florida's southwest coast. "Am I in hiding?” he had said to Adelson. "In a way, yes." But Tobler and Dye had found him. And they weren't done with him just yet.
Tobler and Dye went back to Vandy's again on Sunday, March 24, their last night in town. Though they didn't know it, it also happened out to be Vanderjagt's birthday. Vanderjagt had been at Vandy's, but he left before Tobler and Dye arrived. A party had been thrown for him inside the bar, and what was left of it was still going on.
"There was nowhere else to party," Tobler said. "We went in there with the intention that if someone says something to us, we'll just say, 'Hey, we're sorry.' It was our last night. We wanted to try to get some girls and go back to the penthouse."
Once they got there, they couldn't help but notice the two giant blank spaces on the wall where the jerseys had been. Still, no one mentioned anything to Tobler and Dye. They blended back in with locals. But as Tobler got drunk, he came up with another bright idea.
"I just said, 'Fuck it, let's steal it again on his birthday,'" Tobler said. "And once that dumb idea got going in our heads, we were, like, 'We got to find it.'"
So Tobler and Dye went on a search mission. Because it was a Sunday night, the bar wasn't heavily staffed. Tobler and Dye peeked into the kitchen. They tried to check out a back office. Eventually, Tobler found a room marked "Private." He opened the door and saw the frames with the jerseys just sitting there, demanding to be stolen again. He took Vanderjagt's jersey out of the frame, crumpled it up, and hid it under the front of his own shirt. His immediately ducked out a side entrance and called Dye.
"We were just laughing," Tobler said. "We thought it was the funniest thing in the world."
One problem: Marco Island is tiny, and word of the second heist began to spread right away. "I'm sure everyone told on us, too," Tobler said. "We weren't trying to be discreet about it." According to Tobler, there was also one other problem: "Vanderjagt came in on Monday. There was a surveillance tape that caught everything."
Early Monday morning, Dye flew to New York, taking the jersey with him. Even before Tobler left town, he started getting phone calls. The police were getting involved. For a day or two, both Tobler and Dye ignored the calls. But then Vanderjagt himself began texting and leaving Dye voice mails.
"He was, like, 'Hey, come on, man, give me my jersey back,'" Tobler said, mimicking a kind of sadsack voice. (Vanderjagt did not respond to a message I left for him at Vandy's.)
At this point, Tobler and Dye had every intention of returning the jersey. But they wanted to talk about it publicly first, particularly on a handful of comedy podcasts, where they also hoped to show it off. That prompted Vanderjagt to take action. Still smarting from the media fallout from that story involving the middle schooler, he had his lawyer draw up a contract. It called for the jersey to be returned, but it also insisted that Tobler and Dye pay him $2,700—$2,000 for two new frames, plus $700 for the contract. The deal even included a condition that neither Tobler nor Dye could discuss what they did publicly, even on stage as part of their routines. They refused to sign. They also tore up the contract.
"We didn't do this dumb-ass prank so we could never tell anybody," Tobler said. "At first, we were just assholes to him, we were, like, 'Fuck you.' What were they going to do, extradite us from L.A.? It's not like they were going to come get us. We stole a fucking jersey out of a bar."
Soon, Tobler's and Dye's lawyers leaned on them to return the jersey, telling them the theft could constitute a felony because it's a one-of-a-kind item. Vanderjagt also still wanted the $2,700. Again, Tobler and Dye balked, saying they'd return the jersey and leave it at that. That's when Vanderjagt threatened to press charges. To the left is part of a text Vanderjagt sent to Dye around this time.
At that point, both Tobler and Dye were getting a lot of heat from their management and from their lawyers. It had been a month since they took the jersey. Dye suggested they give in. They returned the jersey and paid Vanderjagt the money he demanded. But there was one condition Tobler and Dye insisted was non-negotiable: they would not keep this story out of their acts. In fact, Dye had started telling the story on stage within a week of taking the jersey; he even played Vanderjagt's voice mails for the crowd, and to great effect. Dye did decline several requests to discuss his role in this story with me. No matter. The tale was a hit, and soon it started making its way around comedy gossip circles, where it's become the stuff of legend.
"We were kinda douchey—we shouldn't have stole that dude's shit," Tobler said. "But I'll be getting phone calls from people I don't even know who are, like, 'Yo, did you guys really jack that dude's jersey?' At the time, we thought it was the greatest prank ever."