Big things have little beginnings. Pete Retzlaff was a Little All American selection as a fullback at South Dakota State University in 1952. He began his professional career as a 22nd round draft pick by the defending champion Detroit Lions. Stuck behind a deep and talented backfield, Retzlaff was cut and was out of football for the 1953 season. He then missed the 1954 and 1955 seasons due to service in the Army, where he was a first lieutenant. After his service he returned to football but the Lions waived him. There, his career could have easily been over. But the Eagles, desperately in need of talent, claimed him, giving up $100 to do so. Despite never catching a pass in college, the Eagles moved him to end, where in a part time role he caught 22 passes in his first two years.
In 1958 the Eagles acquired quarterback Norm Van Brocklin from the Rams. In training camp that year Van Brocklin, who had total control of the offense, thought that Retzlaff’s route running reminded him of Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, one of Van Brocklin’s two Hall of Fame pass catchers in Los Angeles. Tom Brookshier said he couldn’t cover him in practice. They weren’t wrong. Van Brocklin worked Retzlaff hard in practice to basically teach him how to catch, turning Retzlaff’s catching style from bringing the ball into his body to going and getting the ball with his hands. The results were fantastic. That year, his first as a starter, Retzlaff led the league in receptions and finished fifth in receiving yards, earning him a Pro Bowl appearance and 2nd team All Pro awards.
After a down year in 1959 in which he missed two games, Retzlaff, Van Brocklin and Tommy MacDonald, another hidden gem unearthed by Van Brocklin and head coach Buck Shaw led the Eagles to the NFL Championship. Retlaff led the team in receptions and yards, but in the title game had only one catch. But it was a big play, a 41 yard reception that set up a field goal.
After the season Van Brocklin retired and Sonny Jergensen took over at QB. The Eagles passing game barely missed a beat, with MacDonald having one of the best seasons of his Hall of Fame career and Retzlaff establishing a then career high in touchdowns. In 1962 a broken arm limited what could have been a great season, in four of his seven games Retzlaff had over 100 receiving yards.
In 1963 the Eagles moved Retzlaff to tight end, a position that was beginning to come into its own at the time thanks to Mike Ditka and John Mackey. Retzlaff was just as good. From 1963-1965, Retzlaff was top ten in receptions and receiving yards all three years, and twice was top ten in touchdowns, he made the Pro Bowl all three years.
During this time he also made his mark off the field as President of the NFL Players Association from 1962-1964, fighting for the league and the players to reach a collective bargaining agreement, be paid for training camp and for exhibition games.
The 1965 season was taxing on Retzlaff. He played most of the entire season hurt, missing many practices and getting as many as three novocain shots in his heel on game days in order to play. All he did was finish with career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns, earning first team All Pro honors and, in the words of Hall of Famer Raymond Berry, "arguably the best season a tight end ever had." He received the Bert Bell Award as the Maxwell Club’s player of the year. His 66 catches and 1190 yards were at the time team records and his 23 games with 100 receiving yards is still a team record.
Retzlaff thought about retiring after the toll that season had on his body, but stuck with football for another season. After the worst year of his career as a starter in 1966, but one still good enough to see him finish sixth in touchdown catches and 16th in yards per catch, he retired.
He wasn’t just noted for his hands. One day some Eagles players went to a military base for a meet and greet with soldiers. They were asked by a rifle instructor if they would like to try their aim, Retzlaff accepted. He supposedly hit the bullseye in all nine of his shots, and Tom Brookshier remarked that he looked like "Baron von Somebody", and a nickname was born.
Retzlaff worked as a sportscaster on WIP and WCAU in 1967 and 1968, then in 1969 new Eagles owner Leonard Tose made him general manager. His highly successful playing career couldn’t translate to the front office. In his four years as general manager from 1969-1972, the Eagles won 15 total games. Poor drafting doomed Retzlaff’s era, the Eagles only drafted a handful of merely good players, and some of them such as Bob Kuchenberg and Mark Moseley, never played for the Birds. As general manager he complained about players getting paid to much, an ironic twist from his days fighting for more money as the leader of the union.
But Retzlaff’s front office failures don’t diminish his greatness on the field. Immediately after he retired from playing, the Eagles retired his #44. He is second all time in Eagles history in receptions and receiving yards behind Harold Carmichael, who he coincidentally drafted. He is fifth all time in team history in receiving touchdowns and is one of thirteen Eagles to go to at least five Pro Bowls. In 1989 he was inducted into the Eagles Hall of Fame with teammate Tom Brookshier. Not bad for $100.
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