McFeely blog: Pete Retzlaff, a most gracious man

Former Philadelphia Eagles star made for an unexpected special day

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 Forum
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 Forum

The best days often are those that sneak up on you unexpected, with little planning and no anticipation. This is, of course, because there are no presuppositions. The day begins as a blank slate and gets filled in only as things unfold, not following a plan or road map. The day just ... happens. And at the end of it you sit back and say, "That was a pretty good day."

Such was Jan. 19, 2018, for me. That was the day I had the honor of meeting and writing about a most gracious man , former Philadelphia Eagles great Pete Retzlaff.

Pete died Friday, April 10, at the age of 88. He lived on a beautiful acreage an hour or so outside of Philadelphia, on a piece of land he and his wife of 66 years, Patty, bought more than 50 years ago and added to over the years.

Pete was a legend in Philadelphia, one of the best athletes and most popular stars that excellent sports has known. He played 11 years for the Eagles beginning in 1956, becoming one of the first tight ends to be a downfield receiving threat. It's not unusual in today's NFL, but in the 1950s tight ends mostly blocked. Players in that position catching passes and running downfield with the ball didn't become common until the 1980s.


The stats are the stats and they are impressive -- you can look them up -- but perhaps most telling about Retzlaff's impact on the Eagles is this: He is one of only nine players in franchise history to have his jersey number retired. Donavan McNabb, Reggie White and Chuck Bednarik are among the others, for reference. A banner with Retzlaff's No. 44 hangs prominently in Lincoln Financial Field.

Some of this I knew prior to Jan. 19, 2018, but most I did not. I knew Retzlaff played for the Eagles decades ago and I knew he was from Ellendale, N.D., which was my interest in Retzlaff. I was traveling to Philadelphia to cover the Eagles-Vikings game in the NFC Championship and, of course, to provide updates on Bismarck, N.D., and North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz of the Eagles and Detroit Lakes, Minn., and Minnesota State-Mankato receiver Adam Thielen of the Vikings.

I had been to Philadelphia a few times before to write about Wentz and had exhausted most of the angles when it came to fan reaction or how the town felt about the former Bison. Besides that, Wentz was sidelined with an injury and wasn't going to play against the Vikings anyway. The quarterback job belonged to Nick Foles.

I was scheduled to fly into Philadelphia on Friday afternoon, so I needed a column to send from there on Friday night for Saturday's print edition of The Forum. I tracked down Pete's phone number earlier in the week and called him, explaining my situation and asking if I could contact him once I got to Philly. I told him, frankly, I'd like to meet with him in person to chat for a bit and write a column from our interview. Would he be somewhere in Philadelphia or nearby where I could take a cab or Uber to meet him?

Pete explained that he lived about an hour outside the city and at his age, 86 at the time, didn't get into Philadelphia much any more. He said he maintained an office not far from his home and suggested I call there when I got into Philly and maybe we could just talk over the phone. It wasn't perfect, he said, but maybe it would have to do.

I called Pete's office from the Philadelphia airport after landing, wanting to check in with him to see when I could call him later in the afternoon or evening. I figured I could sit in my hotel room, chat with him and tap out a column afterward. Not ideal, but given the timing it might have to suffice. My plan for Saturday was to find Vikings fans around Philly and talk with them for a column in Sunday's paper and then the game was late Sunday afternoon. I just needed something Friday to appear in Saturday's paper.

"So you just want to talk over the phone?" Pete said when I called him. "You could drive out here. I could meet you at our house."


I didn't have a car rented and wasn't sure I'd be able to drive the two-plus hours round trip in Philadelphia traffic to his home and back, and still have time to file a column by the time I needed to.

"That's up to you, but you are welcome if you want to. I could show you around a little bit," he said.

What time are you going to be home?

"We could meet at 4 o'clock."

This would be a razor-thin timeline, given it would take an hour or more to visit with Pete and take some photos and video and the drive back to Philadelphia would be at least an hour and then the writing of the column and processing of the photos and video would be more than an hour and by that time it's getting toward when our copy desk really wants the copy and ...

What the hell, I said. I'll meet you at your house at 4 o'clock. Give me directions.

A car was rented with drop-off scheduled for a few hours later and the trek to the Retzlaff home in Gilbertsville, Pa., began. After some twists and turns and a couple of calls to Retzlaff to re-ask directions, I arrived at Pete's and Patty's property. A long, winding driveway. An old red barn. Split-rail fence. A rushing river cutting along one edge of the property. A farmhouse that was more than a century old.

(Watch video of Mike McFeely's interview with Pete Retzlaff:)


They had named it Jon-Le Farm, after the previous owners, and it was perfect. The proverbial slice of heaven an hour away from one of the largest cities in America.

After Pete showed me around the property some, pointing out trees he'd planted 50 years ago and telling me how they'd tried to buy the land a few times before the owner finally relented, we went inside to visit. He told me stories of growing up in rural North Dakota, of going to South Dakota State, of meeting Patty in Brookings, S.D. (her hometown), of being drafted by the Lions and of being claimed on waivers by the Eagles for the $100 fee.

"That was a pretty good hundred bucks the Eagles spent," I said.

"It worked out OK for them and for me," Pete replied.

A half-century later, Pete still marveled that when he came to Philadelphia there wasn't a soul who knew about him or his talent.

"It wasn't like I was Doak Walker," he said, sitting in his chair next to the fireplace.


Patty eventually came home and joined the conversation, gently correcting Pete when he told a story that might have contained an inaccuracy and filling in blanks when Pete couldn't quite finish the thought he'd started.

We talked of the old NFL, of how the Eagles moved Pete from fullback to tight end and how that changed his career, of how the Eagles claiming him changed his life. He was grateful to the team and the city of Philadelphia for what he had. He'd carved out a pretty good life. He'd had a great NFL career and the job as the Eagles' general manager for a few years when his playing days were done. Pete was a local celebrity who had radio and TV gigs after retirement and he'd had an enduring marriage to his college sweetheart that produced four children, who'd blessed them with 10 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Not bad for a kid from Ellendale (actually Albion Township) whose first NFL contract with Philadelphia was for $5,000 with a $500 bonus. He'd been part of an NFL championship team in 1960 when the Eagles beat the mighty Packers and legendary coach Vince Lombardi.

"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."

I probably stayed too long and, by the end of our visit, Pete looked and sounded tired. I excused myself and began the drive back to Philadelphia. It was dark now and early evening had turned to mid-evening and so I figured I'd better find a place to write and file my column pronto instead of waiting until I got back to my hotel.

Bars and restaurants are my first choices for sitting down and pecking out a column on the road, if a hotel room or press box isn't available. There were none that I drove past the first few miles from the Retzlaff place, so I pulled off into the parking lot of a convenience store at the corner of two rural highways and began typing. I also uploaded some photos I'd snapped with my phone and rushed together a quick cell-phone video with some footage I shot.


Finished, a small strip mall across the road had a couple of businesses open so I stopped in a yoga studio and asked if I could use their wireless to file a newspaper story. The young woman working behind the counter shared the password.

It was not great writing, nor was any ground-breaking news on Pete Retzlaff revealed. But it was a slice of flavor to send back home, a look into a great North Dakota athlete who became a great NFL athlete. It worked. It also ended up on the front page of the next morning's Forum.

Let's put it this way: It was better, a damn sight better, than whatever I might have concocted off a phone call from a hotel room.

And it was made possible by the graciousness of Pete Retzlaff, who invited a stranger into his home and was willing to share stories and be pestered with questions for a couple of hours.

What might have been just another day for me turned into one of those days that, when I was sitting in a downtown Philadelphia restaurant later that night having a plate of pasta and a see-through cocktail, I could look back on and say, "That was a pretty good day."

It won't be forgotten, special in part because it was so unexpected.

Thanks for that day, Pete. Rest in peace.



Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
What To Read Next
Get Local


Must Reads