(Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Eagles)
Talk of Fame Network
by Ron Borges
If there was an Innovator’s Hall of Fame, Pete Retzlaff would be in it. Whether he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is an issue long overdue for debate.
Retzlaff, along with Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and John Mackey, turned the tight end from a glorified third tackle into a pass catching threat, laying the ground work for what the modern day tight end would become. They were revolutionaries in the passing game and Retzlaff led the way despite having never caught a single pass until he came into the NFL, a league he entered three years later than he should have.
Drafted in the 22nd round by the Detroit Lions in 1953 as a fullback out of South Dakota State, Retzlaff was cut and after a year of working back in South Dakota he joined the Army. When he returned to civilian life in 1956, Retzlaff still had value to the Lions but apparently not much. They waived him again and Eagles’ general manager Vince McNally acquired his contract for $100 but he labored in Philadelphia for two years as a reserve blocking back until the arrival of future Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin in 1958. Only then did somebody finally noticed, “Hey, this guy can catch!”
Van Brocklin compared his route running to his former Rams’ teammate Elroy Hirsch (also a Hall of Famer) and thus inspired the coaching staff to move Retzlaff to wide receiver in 1958. All he did in his first season at his new position was tie future Hall of Fame receiver Raymond Berry for the NFL lead in receptions with 56. It would be the first of five times Retzlaff made the Pro Bowl.
Two years later, the Eagles would win their last NFL championship and Retzlaff would lead the team in receptions (46) and receiving yardage (826) despite the presence of future Hall of Famer Tommy McDonald at wideout. Despite that success it was not until 1963 that Retzlaff would find his true calling.
That summer the Eagles switched him to tight end, creating a new hybrid position that capitalized not only on the blocking ability he’d honed as a fullback but also the pass catching skills he developed at wide receiver.
Retzlaff made the Pro Bowl for the next three seasons and in 1965, at the age of 34, posted his best year, catching 66 passes for 1,190 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 18 yards a catch. Thus was born the deep threat tight end that would later be dominated by names like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski.
Berry once called it “arguably the best season a tight end ever had,” and admitted to studying film of Retzlaff’s precise route running that season to perfect his own legendary skills.
“When you watched Pete on the field, it was like watching the diagram (in the playbook) come to life,” former teammate Tom Brookshier once told long-time Philadelphia sportswriter Ray Didinger (himself a Hall of Famer by the way). “That’s why quarterbacks loved to throw to him.”
Indeed they did, which is why he remains second in Eagles history in both career receptions (452) and receiving yardage (7,412) while averaging 16.4 yards per catch for his career. His five Pro Bowl appearances are the second most of any Eagles’ receiver and his number 44 was long ago retired. What he was not was named to the All-Decade team, a circumstance probably the result of the fact he was a tweener, his best years being sandwiched between the late 1950s to mid-1960s. Many such players miss All-Decade status, and the fact in those days they did not pick a second team, as they now do, also cut down the number of players so honored.
But Retzlaff may also have had another problem he could not overcome, one that had nothing to do with his production on the field but rather his stance off it.
Retzlaff was the second president of the NFL Players Association, a union movement not popular at the time with either owners or Hall of Fame voters. Perhaps that helps explain why he somehow slipped through the cracks and was never even once discussed for enshrinement in Canton.
Whether the 83 year-old Retzlaff deserves to join the seven of his teammates already enshrined as Hall of Famers or is merely a player who helped changed the game remains open to debate. What does not is that he long ago earned the right to have that debate made.