Pete Retzlaff, who never caught a pass in college but caught 452 of them during his brilliant 11-year career with the Eagles, died Friday.
He was 88.
Retzlaff, whose No. 44 is one of only nine numbers retired by the Eagles, was a five-time Pro Bowler, first-team all-pro and 1989 inductee into the Eagles Hall of Fame.
“Pete was proud to have played his entire career in Philadelphia,” the Retzlaff family said in a statement. “Our family can’t thank the Eagles and the wonderful fans enough for their support that bolstered his playing years and beyond. Pete set lofty goals for himself. He believed in hard work, honesty, and always giving 100 percent effort. Throughout his life, he believed in giving back to the community as a thank you for what they gave to him. Thank you to all of Philadelphia.”
Retzlaff was the Lions’ 22nd-round draft pick in 1953 out of South Dakota State, where he was a fullback, but he didn’t make the team team and spent two years in the Army before the Eagles acquired his rights on waivers.
He was 25 when he finally made his NFL debut in 1956, and he didn’t become a major contributor until his third season. But from 1958 through 1966, he caught 430 passes for 7,13 yards and 47 touchdowns, ranking 6th in the NFL during that span in receptions, fourth in yards and 13th in TDs.
No player in history drafted as late as Retzlaff had as many yards, catches or TDs.
Only six players in franchise history have made more Pro Bowls — teammate Chuck Bednarik, plus Reggie White, Brian Dawkins, Jason Peters, Donovan McNabb and Pete Pihos.
Retzlaff played his entire 11-year career with the Eagles and made Pro Bowls after the 1958, 1960, 1963, 1964 and 1965 seasons. He was a first-team all-pro in 1965, when he had 1,190 receiving yards, breaking long-time teammate Tommy McDonald’s franchise record of 1,146, set three years earlier.
To this day, 54 years after he retired, Retzlaff ranks 2nd in Eagles history with 7,412 receiving yards, trailing only Hall of Famer Harold Carmichael (8,978).
He’s also still 3rd in Eagles history with 452 receptions, behind only (589) and Zach Ertz (525), who passed him this past season. And his 47 TD catches are 5th-most in franchise history.
When he retired after the 1966 season, Retzlaff ranked 7th in NFL history in catches and 6th in receiving yards.
“We are saddened to learn of the passing of Eagles Hall of Famer Pete Retzlaff. Pete was a revolutionary tight end and one of the most productive players in the history of our franchise,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said in a statement. “He was a five-time Pro Bowler, a key contributor on our 1960 Championship team, and of course his number 44 was retired after he established numerous receiving records over his 11-year career. But Pete’s legacy goes far beyond the success he was able to achieve on the field. He gave so much to this organization and to our sport as a player, general manager, broadcaster, and leader of the NFLPA. He stayed connected with the team and the city of Philadelphia for many years after his retirement. I had the pleasure of spending time with Pete over the years and I will always remember him as a true gentleman who was kind and genuine and who connected so well with others. On behalf of the organization, our thoughts are with Pete’s family and friends as we mourn the passing of an Eagles legend.”
Retzlaff grew up in Ellendale, N.D., and played football and track at South Dakota State in Brookings, S.D.
After his NFL career, he worked as a sports broadcaster with WCAU, then Philadelphia’s CBS affiliate, and then he spent 1969 through 1972 as the Eagles’ general manager.
After that he worked in TV production and also operated a cattle ranch in Texas.
Retzlaff was instrumental in the formation of the NFL Players Association, the union that represents current and former NFL players. He was president of the NFLPA for two years during his playing year.
Retzlaff is survived by his wife of 66 years, Patty, four children, 10 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Retzlaff is the third long-time Eagles who has died in the past week. Kicker Tom Dempsey, who spent the 1971 through 1974 seasons with the Eagles, and Eagles Hall of Fame inductee Timmy Brown both died last Saturday.
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