Didinger: Pete Retzlaff Is A Tough Act To Follow

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Dallas Goedert was introduced to Philadelphia with great fanfare. There was the rousing announcement of his draft selection by former Eagle David Akers followed by his press conference in Philadelphia. Literally overnight Goedert was big news in Eagles Nation.

It wasn't that way with Pete Retzlaff. He was signed for $100 in 1956, a free agent fullback who was originally drafted by the Detroit Lions and later cut. He spent two years in the Army before deciding to try his luck again with the Eagles. His arrival didn't even rate a line in the local papers.

Retzlaff went on to have a great career in Philadelphia. He is one of only nine Eagles to have their jersey number retired and his 452 receptions and 7,412 receiving yards rank second in team history. He is in the Eagles Hall of Fame and should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Hopefully, that will happen someday.

Older fans probably thought of Retzlaff when the Eagles selected Goedert on draft night. They are both tight ends who played their college football at South Dakota State - a small school that isn't exactly a pipeline to the NFL - but if the Eagles struck gold there once, who's to say it can't happen again?

Reporters asked Goedert if he had heard of Retzlaff. He said no but that's hardly surprising considering Retzlaff played at South Dakota State more than 60 years ago. However, the two former Jackrabbits - yes, that's the school's nickname - will have a chance to meet since Retzlaff is still living in the area and following the team at age 86.

At 6-4 and 260 pounds, Goedert is in the mold of the modern tight end. Retzlaff played at 6-1 and 210 pounds. He was a fullback in college and rushed for 1,016 yards as a senior. That caught the attention of the Lions who selected him in the 22nd round of the 1952 draft. The Lions were a powerhouse in those days and they simply didn't have room for the raw rookie. They released Retzlaff and the Eagles signed him for the waiver price.

At first, the Eagles used Retzlaff as a running back, but quarterback Norm Van Brocklin liked the way Retzlaff caught the ball so he suggested the coaches try the youngster at split end. In his first full season at the position, Retzlaff tied Baltimore's Raymond Berry for the league lead with 56 receptions.

"Pete was a great technician," said Tom Brookshier, the former Eagles cornerback. "He worked for hours on running patterns, getting every step exactly right. He was so disciplined in his routes, that's why quarterbacks loved to throw to him."

The quarterback - whether it was Van Brocklin, Sonny Jurgensen, or Norm Snead - knew he could count on Retzlaff being exactly where he was supposed to be in a clutch situation and once he had the ball in his hands he reverted to his days as a fullback breaking tackles and picking up extra yards.

In 1960, when the Eagles won the NFL Championship, Retzlaff led the team with 46 catches and averaged 18 yards per reception. For his career, he averaged 16.4 yards per catch and fumbled just four times. In 1964, Retzlaff moved from split end to tight end and became, along with Chicago's Mike Ditka and Baltimore's John Mackey, part of a new wave at that position. No longer were tight ends just blockers; they were big-play receivers.

In 1965, Retzlaff caught 66 passes for 1,190 yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns. He was named NFL Player of the Year by the Maxwell Football Club and the Washington Touchdown Club. He also won the Wanamaker Award as the outstanding athlete in Philadelphia that year. Berry, the great Colts receiver, called it "the best season a tight end ever had." Berry was so impressed he assembled a film reel of Retzlaff's games so he could study his moves.

No one knew Retzlaff played that whole season in pain. He had a heel injury that kept him from practicing most of the week. He would have his foot shot up with painkillers before he went on the field each Sunday. It didn't stop him from having another Pro Bowl season, the fifth of his 11-year career.

"I was a young guy just coming into the league and Pete was the guy, the receiver in those days," said Mel Renfro, the former Dallas safety and Hall of Famer. "He was a great route runner, more like a wide receiver than a tight end. Many times I had to grab his shirt as he ran by me. He was a quiet guy, never brought attention to himself, but a very tough competitor."

Eagles Hall of Fame linebacker Maxie Baughan, who played with Retzlaff on the 1960 championship team, said: "Pete was one of the first tight ends with enough versatility to be a receiver as well as a blocker. He changed the game because defenses had to alter their coverages to guard him."

Probably the best description of Retzlaff was the one authored by Philadelphia Bulletin columnist Sandy Grady, who wrote: "The mind's lens sees Retzlaff crouching then fighting out of the linebacker's grasp, then the No. 44 shirt tilting downfield, shoulders bulldog low. There is a head bob, a foot planted to the outside, freezing a cornerback for an instant and Pete careening into the middle snatching a ball in the mob's flurry, then knocking down people like bowling pins."

With his blonde hair and handsome features, Retzlaff cut a distinctive figure. Brookshier nicknamed him "The Baron" and the name stuck. Bill Campbell, the radio voice of the Eagles in those days, called him "Pistol Pete" and that, too, was a fit. He was a major player in that era, a star on the field, and one of the early leaders in the formation of what is now the NFL Players Association.

When Dallas Goedert does his research, he'll find Pete Retzlaff is a tough act to follow.

An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. Didinger is currently working on an updated version of The Eagles Encyclopedia Champions Edition which will be available later this fall. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here.

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