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McFeely: Long before Carson Wentz, Pete Retzlaff went from N.D. farm kid to Philly legend

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Pete and Patty Retzlaff stand outside their home near Gilbertsville, Pa., Friday, Jan. 19. Pete Retzlaff played high school football in his hometown of Ellendale, N.D., and at South Dakota State University in Brookings before a long career with the Philadelphia Eagles. Mike McFeely / The Forum2 / 5
In 11 seasons with the Eagles, Retzlaff made the Pro Bowl five times and was a two-time first-team All Pro. Mike McFeely / The Forum3 / 5
Pete Retzlaff is pictured during his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles. Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles.4 / 5
When Pete Retzlaff, No. 44, retired after the 1966 season, the Philadelphia Eagles retired his jersey. Retzlaff is also a member of the Eagles Hall of Fame. Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles5 / 5

GILBERTSVILLE, Pa.—Pete and Patty Retzlaff's slice of heaven is about an hour west of Philadelphia, among the rolling hills and trees of the Pennsylvania countryside. It is not exactly rural, not exactly suburban, but it is surely not the madness of America's sixth-largest city where Pete made a name for himself and made all this possible.

They call it Jon-Le Farm, named after the land's previous owners. The original farmhouse is still part of the larger home Pete and Patty built to raise their four children. A large red barn stands to welcome visitors. There is a long, winding driveway and a split-rail fence. Behind the house rushes Swamp Creek, its waters heard if not seen from the back porch.

"If you see pine trees or oak trees that are 50, 60 feet high, I planted those," Pete says.

They bought the land in the late 1960s, shortly after Pete's playing career with the Philadelphia Eagles ended. They'd owned a home in neighboring New Jersey but wanted to buy land and move to the country. It started off small, around 80 acres, but Pete bought a couple of neighboring farms through the years and now it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 240 acres.

"That's not much for somebody from the Dakotas, but for around here it is a lot," Patty says. "People from the city are trying to move out here and get any sliver of land they can, even if it's an acre."

The Retzlaffs have done all right. Not bad for a couple of farm kids from Ellendale, N.D., and Brookings, S.D. Pete was born in Albion Township near Ellendale and Patty (maiden name Kennard) was raised outside Brookings.

It is a life accomplished in large part because Pete was an astounding multi-sport athlete who went from high school in North Dakota to South Dakota State and then to the National Football League.

After being drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1953, Retzlaff did not make the team. He went into the Army for two years and upon his return was told by Detroit that the team had "made arrangements" for him to go to the Eagles—meaning they'd sold him to Philadelphia for a $100 fee.

The rest is sports history for both North Dakota and Philadelphia. Retzlaff, a running back with SDSU and the Lions, moved to tight end and receiver with the Eagles and became one of the greatest players in franchise history. He remains one of the greatest athletes North Dakota has produced.

In 11 seasons, Retzlaff made the Pro Bowl five times and was a two-time first-team All Pro. Despite never catching a pass in college, Retzlaff led the NFL with 56 receptions in 1958.

When Retzlaff retired after the 1966 season, he was Philadelphia's all-time leading receiver with 452 catches for 7,412 yards and 47 touchdowns. He's a member of the Eagles Hall of Fame and the team retired his No. 44 jersey.

Retzlaff also was a significant member of the NFL Players Association, fighting to help players get pension and health insurance benefits. He even served as the Eagles general manager for four years.

"That pretty much consisted of me trying to meet budget while paying the players as much as I possibly could," chuckled Retzlaff, the former player trying to take care of his own as a manager.

"His first contract as a player, and we have it upstairs, was for $5,000 with a $500 bonus," Patty said. "The second year he got a raise to $5,700."

There is also this bit of history: Retzlaff played for the last Eagles team to win an NFL championship. It came in 1960, long before the birth of the Super Bowl and a year before the Minnesota Vikings came into existence. The Eagles beat the Vince Lombardi-coached Green Bay Packers 17-13 at Franklin Field in Philadelphia.

That was a long time ago, which is why Sunday's NFC Championship game between the Eagles and the Vikings is such a monumental event to a sports-crazed city. The winning team advances to the Super Bowl in Minneapolis on Feb. 4.

"I think our quarterback, this Nick Foles, is pretty good and I think he can do it," Pete said. "I just don't think he is as good as our quarterback who got hurt."

That, of course, would North Dakota's own Carson Wentz, the former North Dakota State star from Bismarck. Wentz was the Eagles' franchise player, its undisputed leader, before injuring his knee late in the season.

"I see a lot of similarities between Pete and Carson, because they are both from North Dakota," Patty said. "People from the Midwest are different. We're strong. We're tough people. And like Pete, Carson didn't come from one of the big colleges. But you could see what Carson brought to the Eagles was an amazing thing. Those players looked up to him.

"I really think he brought something special to this team, just like Pete did when he came here."

Pete parlayed his time with the Eagles into sportscasting jobs on local radio and television, eventually deciding those jobs kept him away from home too much. He worked in downtown Philadelphia and commuted back and forth each day along the winding, narrow roads of Montgomery County. So he quit and got into investing and acquiring land.

Part of the spoils can be seen on the wonderful piece of land a few miles outside of Gilbertsville. Retzlaff is 86, and some of the memories don't come back to him as quickly as they once did. But Patty is there to fill in the spaces that need filling.

"Things have worked out pretty good. I can't complain," Pete said. "There are always going to be bumps along the way, but sometimes the bumps help you. You learn from them. Coming to Philadelphia is probably about the best thing that could've happened to us. It led to a lot of really good things."

That's what happens when you're a legend. People remember you. Not bad for a farm kid from Ellendale.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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