BYU’s First Jewish Quarterback Jake Retzlaff Reflects on Historic Season

Jan 23, 2024 | Jews in Sports

“Embrace all of you.”

Jake Retzlaff’s four-word motto has constantly guided him throughout his life, yet it recently became even more significant in his college athletic pursuits. Last November, Retzlaff became the first Jewish quarterback to start for Brigham Young University’s (BYU) football team. While almost 98% of the school’s population are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), Retzlaff was part of a small percentage of students who came from a different religious background. When he could have focused on how his faith separated him, Retzlaff chose to embrace the opportunity and how his Jewish values could make him the best version of himself, both on and off the field.

Before he committed to BYU, Retzlaff was a standout high school quarterback for Centennial High School in Corona, California. He was set to be a promising recruit before the Covid-19 pandemic stripped away his senior year. His only options once the recruitment process restarted were junior college (JUCO) schools, and he committed to Golden West College for his freshman year. Retzlaff led the team to an impressive 11-1 season that ended, as Retzlaff described, “on the one-yard line” in the state semifinals. In his freshman season, he threw for 3,302 yards and rushed for 380 yards, with 23 total touchdowns scored and a passer efficiency rating of 143.3.

At the conclusion of the season, Retzlaff was named National Southern League Offensive Player of the Year, Region III Player of the Year, and selected to the All-California First-Team. He received a few offers after his freshman season from some smaller Division I schools, but decided to stay local and play at Riverside City College. He led the Tigers on a powerful run similar to his freshman season, this time a 12-1 season that ended in a state championship loss. Retzlaff threw for a whopping 4,596 total yards while averaging 353.5 per game, in addition to 44 total touchdowns and a passer efficiency rating of 165.5. After his sophomore season, Retzlaff was named the No. 1 quarterback in ESPN’s Junior College 50.

He had been gaining attention since his freshman year of college, and one of the teams most interested in him was BYU. Although he described himself as a “thrower-first” quarterback, Retzlaff was also appealing due to his impressive mobility. His speed and rushing abilities led BYU to remain interested. He kept in contact with the team during his sophomore year at Riverside and “they were ready to pull the trigger on me after that,” Retzlaff said. He officially announced his commitment in January, 2023. Retzlaff prepared to come to BYU as a backup quarterback, with senior transfer Kedon Slovis slated to start for the BYU Cougars.

However, due to Slovis battling injuries, Retzlaff got his chance to become the team’s starter towards the end of the season. He ended up assuming that role for the remaining four games of BYU’s season, with a chance to put his name up for the starting role in 2024. Transitioning from JUCO to a Division I school is no easy feat, but Retzlaff handled it with poise and intention. “Playing at BYU is an incredible experience,” Retzlaff said. “The fans and the support are unbelievable, and it’s pretty incredible to be a part of it.”

While showing his skills on the field, Retzlaff also brought another unique feature that set him apart from other college quarterbacks: During the 2023 season, he made history as the first ever Jewish quarterback to play for BYU. Retzlaff knew when he entered BYU that he would be part of a very small group of students who are not Latter-day Saints, but instead of viewing it as a major difference, he chose to focus on the commonalities. “The faith-centered university of BYU allows you to be present in your faith, and you don’t need to be LDS for that to be true,” Retzlaff highlighted. Although they preach different values and beliefs than Judaism, he said that the school’s focus on faith actually allowed him to feel more comfortable there. “It made it easier for me to find Shabbat services on a Friday night because that religious pursuit is done so much around me that it’s encouraged by everyone,” said Retzlaff.

At home in Corona, California, Retzlaff grew up attending synagogue fairly regularly with his family. He remembered it becoming more challenging to show up for Shabbat services in high school because Friday nights were when all of his football games were scheduled. He recalled that aside from himself and his brothers, there were only two other Jewish students in his whole high school. It became harder for his family to consistently attend synagogue, but they still celebrated the High Holidays and practiced in other ways at home. “Being Jewish has always been a big part of my identity and who I am. It’s something I learned to be proud of,” Retzlaff said.

At BYU, Retzlaff found a congregation in Salt Lake City that he’s able to attend. He also mentioned his appreciation for Rabbi Zippel in Utah County, which is closer to where the school is located in Provo, who hosts events and helps him find other spaces to practice his Judaism. Retzlaff is very grateful for the support he’s been able to find at BYU, and he values how important faith is to all of its students.

Although he decided to come solely for the opportunity to play football there, Retzlaff is aware that he’s making Jewish history for BYU. He also knows that there are younger Jewish athletes looking up to him in hopes of following in his footsteps one day and making a mark of their own. To Retzlaff, one the most important aspects of his playing career is staying true to himself. “In sports, you always find yourself comparing yourself to other people. It took me a while to learn that being true to you is always the best person, the best athlete, and the best form of you,” Retzlaff said. He doesn’t take anything for granted in his athletic pursuits, and sees his unique position at BYU as a best-of-both-worlds scenario. “It’s an opportunity for me to embrace the quarterback in me and my faith at the same time,” he said.

Retzlaff is preparing to enter his senior season with BYU. There are many uncertainties for him, such as if he will take over the starting quarterback role for 2024, but he remains focused on his goals. “I want to win the Big 12 Championships and get into the College Football Playoff,” Retzlaff said emphatically. He described himself as a team-oriented quarterback, and wants to be the best player he can be for his team. He mentioned his aspirations to play in the NFL upon graduation, as it’s always been a dream of his. “But the only way to do that is to focus on what’s right in front of me,” Retzlaff said.

Retzlaff continues to inspire the next generation of Jewish athletes, and all those looking to take a step out of their comfort zone. By embracing all of himself and his identity, Retzlaff has shown how important it is to stay true to one’s values and beliefs, and has proven that it makes him a better athlete in the process.

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