BYU’s first Jewish quarterback brings faith, fervor and love of football to Utah County
Junior college transfer QB Jake Retzlaff, who identifies as a Reform Jew, is flourishing at BYU after early bout with tonsillitis
Samuel L. Spector, leader of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, had a quick and witty response when Jake Retzlaff called from Provo a few months ago to let the young rabbi know that he is playing quarterback for BYU and Jewish, a sentence that almost certainly he had never heard uttered before.
“My family is all practicing Jewish, particularly my mom. I had a bar mitzvah and am a member (at Temple Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Pomona, California) of a congregation. I love my Jewish journey.” — BYU quarterback Jake Retzlaff
“I’ve always thought BYU needed more Jewish quarterbacks,” said Spector, according to Retzlaff, a transfer from California’s Riverside City College who has been in Provo for three months and is dueling with Pitt transfer Kedon Slovis and returned missionary Cade Fennegan to be the Cougars’ starting quarterback on Sept. 2 when they host Sam Houston at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Slovis is currently designated as QB1 on BYU’s depth chart and will quite likely open the season as the starter, barring injury. Offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick said after the spring scrimmage last week that Retzlaff and Fennegan are in a tight battle to be QB2.
Should Retzlaff ascend to the starting job — this year or next, when Slovis moves on — he would be the first Jewish starting QB in BYU football history. It’s a goal to which he aspires.
“Yeah, it is 100% something I have a lot of pride in, being a Jewish quarterback at BYU,” he said. “It is going to be kinda fun to show a face to the world that is Jewish, because you don’t see a lot of Jewish athletes in college football, or even in the pros.”
Retzlaff said he is extremely proud of his upbringing in the faith. He grew up watching Jewish athletes such as Julian Edelman, a former college quarterback who became the first Jewish player to earn Super Bowl MVP honors in 2019.
“It is fun to see that he is proud of his religion, so I can be, too,” he said.
Some nicknames for Retzlaff have started to pop up on social media, such as the “Hucking Hebrew,” but he said he’s partial to one he came up with on his own.
“I have started a little trademark on the nickname “B-Y-Jew” — which I think is pretty funny,” he said.
Make no mistake about it, however. The 20-year-old takes his religion seriously. He wears a silver Star of David pendant around campus, freely explains his beliefs to his teammates and coaches and credits his mother, Maxanne, as the driving force behind his adherence to Judaism.
“My family is all practicing Jewish, particularly my mom,” he said. “I had a bar mitzvah and am a member (at Temple Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Pomona, California) of a congregation. I love my Jewish journey.”
While Retzlaff was discussing Judaism with the Deseret News a few weeks ago, a pair of his non-Latter-day Saint teammates, Kody Epps and Micah Harper, joined in the conversation and Retzlaff said, only half-joking, that his goal was to convert Harper’s fellow safety, Malik Moore, to the Jewish faith.
One of the most famous Jewish athletes of all time was Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, who sat out of the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, a Jewish holy day, and then won Game 7.
Orthodox Jews also observe Shabbat from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, but Retzlaff said he is a Reform Jew and that it wasn’t an issue for him in high school or at Riverside CC and won’t be at BYU.
“For me personally, I choose to play football. It is what I am here at BYU to do and what I choose to do,” he said. “It is just as much of who I am, almost as much who I am, as being Jewish. So I will be playing football on Saturdays with no restrictions.”
Ready to stick out at BYU
Of course, Brigham Young University is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and more than 98% of the school’s roughly 33,000 students are members of that faith. University Chaplain and Assistant Dean of Students Jim Slaughter said there are currently 482 non-Latter-day Saint students at BYU, and Retzlaff is one of five students who identifies as Jewish. Two of the Jewish students are in BYU’s law school.
Slovis, who started his college career at USC, is on track to be BYU’s first non-Latter-day Saint starting QB since Kevin Feterik (1996-99). Other prominent non-Latter-day Saint BYU QBs were John Walsh, Steve Sarkisian and Jim McMahon.
Jaren Hall became BYU’s first Black starting quarterback in 2019 against South Florida; Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters, who has moved to running back, became BYU’s first Polynesian starting QB in last December’s bowl game against SMU.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Roderick, BYU’s quarterbacks coach since 2018 and its offensive coordinator since 2021. “I didn’t set out to do any of those things intentionally. It has just happened. The best guy plays — whoever gives us the best chance to win the next game is the guy who starts.”
Roderick said he didn’t know Retzlaff was Jewish until he arrived at BYU in early January.
“I knew he wasn’t (a Latter-day Saint), but I didn’t care,” Roderick said. “I just knew he was a fun guy to be around, a guy with a big personality.”
Slaughter also works in BYU’s new Office of Belonging and says he spoke to Retzlaff during the application process last December — his job is to interview all non-Latter-day Saint applicants to BYU — and was quickly convinced that the young man could thrive in Provo.
“People are excited about Jake being here and find it to be a huge positive,” Slaughter said. “My experience (through 19 years) is any time we get someone from a population that we haven’t had before, people are excited. … Those are positives for the university and the fanbase, and if they are a really good player and they win, it is even better, right?”
Slaughter said there are no (Reform) Jewish congregations in Provo or Utah County, so BYU has reached out to the congregations in Salt Lake City such as the one Rabbi Sam Spector oversees, as well as to Rabbi David Levinsky from Temple Har Shalom in Park City. Levinsky was part of a panel discussion at BYU last semester.
“We are hoping to have more Jewish students choose BYU,” Slaughter said. “It is not a big population, but there is a lot of interest in Judaism among BYU students.”
If Retzlaff is successful, or if Slovis isn’t, there is going to be even more. LaVell Edwards used to joke that the most popular person in Provo is always the backup quarterback.
“From my interview with Jake (last December), I was really impressed with him,” Slaughter said. “He is an outstanding young man, great character, great attitude. I think he is going to be a positive for the university and represent himself, his family, his faith and the university really well. That is my opinion.”
Having fun with faith, family and football
Here’s the first thing Jake’s father, Steve Retzlaff, said when he was contacted by the Deseret News for this article about his son: “It is quite a personality he walks around with, isn’t it?”
Steve and his wife, Maxanne — who often goes by “Max” — began raising their three sons in Claremont, California, where Steve coached football at Claremont McKenna College and other places for 25 years and Maxanne coached tennis at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps College for 20 years.
Steve says Reggie, Jake and Daniel literally grew up on fields and courts from the time they could walk.
The Retzlaffs now call Corona, California, home, and the retired coaches are now full-time teachers.
You all better be ready for the Hucking Hebrew— CougConnect (@CougConnect) March 29, 2023
Ceiling for this guy is sky high@jretz11
Yes, you need to attribute credit to CougConnect for coining the term Hucking Hebrew @gregwrubell https://t.co/tTErDAQLD5 pic.twitter.com/O8u5rWzpe9
Reggie is two years older than Jake and was his No. 1 receiver last year at RCC as the brothers combined for more than 1,200 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2022 in leading the junior college to the California Community College Athletic Association championship game and an eventual 12-1 record.
Roderick likes to say that Jake was the top junior college quarterback in the country last season, and it could be argued that Reggie was the top receiver. Older brother has offers from several four-year schools and is still weighing his options, Steve Retzlaff said.
The third boy, Daniel, is a junior at Centennial High — Jake’s former high school — in the Inland Empire and is in the middle of a standout baseball season as a left-handed pitcher. Danny even wears Koufax’s No. 32. In the fall, Daniel is a linebacker, which pleases Steve because he was a defensive coordinator for many years.
When BYU started recruiting Jake in 2021 when he was a freshman at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California, Steve told his middle son to take heed.
“We are a football family, so with BYU’s history, we did not need to go research it. We knew about them,” Steve said. “When Jake was first contacted by BYU, I immediately said, ‘That’s Quarterback U. That is as good of a place as any. I am not sure there’s a better place to be recruited to for you, for your skillset as a quarterback.’”
Jake Retzlaff threw for 3,302 yards and 23 touchdowns at Golden West, but transferred to Riverside for his second season of college football to play with his brother and be coached by Tom Craft, who had coached Steve Retzlaff at Palomar Junior College in the late ’70s.
Ironically, Steve remembers backing up standout offensive tackle Steve Rogers at Palomar before Rogers transferred to BYU.
BYU had reached out to Jake when he was at Golden West, but it was his numbers and performances at Riverside that really caught Roderick’s eye, he said. He threw for 4,596 yards and 44 touchdowns, with 14 interceptions, and was sacked just seven times.
“In my opinion Jake Retzlaff was the best junior college quarterback in the country the past two years,” Roderick said. “He just kinda fell through the cracks because his senior year of high school was the COVID year. We are super excited about Jake.”
A pandemic-altered high school career
Retzlaff began his youth football career as a nose guard, before his dad and other coaches realized his speed, stamina and throwing ability were extraordinary. Jake posted a time of five minutes, 8 seconds (5:08) in the mile run as a seventh grader.
Playing for legendary coach Matt Logan at Centennial, Retzlaff wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school for a number of reasons.
As a junior, he shared time with two seniors, playing about one-third of the snaps.
COVID-19 robbed him of his senior season in 2020 as California shut down high school sports that fall. They held a five-game season in the spring, but Retzlaff had fractured his elbow and appeared in only four games and rotated series with a couple of sophomores because Logan was admittedly already preparing for the 2021 season.
“Coach Logan loves Jake. He has a quarterback at Stanford right now; he’s had them at Nebraska. He’s had plenty of good quarterbacks. He knows what he is doing,” Steve said. “He has made it clear that there are none that he likes any more than Jake. He thinks Jake is as good as any quarterback he’s ever coached. It was just an unfortunate situation, with COVID and the injury and the rotations.”
Warming up to BYU
Jake Retzlaff said he knew a bit about the church, BYU and its strict honor code that forbids premarital sex, drugs, alcohol and coffee, because his best friend in high school is a member and is currently on a church mission.
“I mean, it was something to think about, but I don’t think it bothered me at all or hindered my recruitment here at BYU,” he said. “I think a lot of people of other religions, non-LDS people, have succeeded here, and so I figured I could do the same.”
The quarterback lives in what they are calling the “transfer house” with UNLV transfer Aidan Robbins, Missouri State transfer Ian Fitzgerald, Cerritos (California) College transfer Jayden Dunlap and two transfers from the Pac-12 who are out of eligibility — running backs Chris Brooks (Cal) and Houston Heimuli (Stanford).
“I’ve found nothing but love and support here,” he said.
Steve Retzlaff said they are “a fairly religious family ourselves” and that his sons neither drink nor smoke.
“They do like to have a lot of fun, but they don’t do those things BYU doesn’t allow, so it is a pretty squared-away deal,” he said. “I told Jake, ‘For what they are going to do for you, so what? You might have to adjust your life a little bit.’”
First-conquered tussle: Tonsillitis
Retzlaff first contracted tonsillitis back in December, which caused his first official visit to BYU to be canceled. It flared up again just before spring camp was to start, and the quarterback got a tonsillectomy. However, there were complications, which required two more procedures.
The health struggles meant he couldn’t fully practice the first three weeks of spring camp, and it was hard for him to watch Slovis, Fennegan, freshman newcomer Ryder Burton and walk-on Nick Billoups get reps while he recovered.
“It is fairly common surgery, so I wasn’t really concerned. What concerned me was the amount of complications that happened,” he said on March 29. “But I got over it and so I am doing good now.”
Retzlaff outplayed Slovis in the spring scrimmage — the caveat being that Slovis more often went against the first-team defense — and Roderick said afterwards that the junior has seemingly recovered from his health issues nicely.
The Cougars took this past week off, then will have three more practices this week before putting a wrap on another spring camp — with a wide array of quarterbacks vying for playing time next fall, including the first Jewish QB who is incredibly proud of that label.
Correction: The original version of this article noted there were no Jewish congregations or synagogues in Utah County, but in November 2022 the Chabad of Utah County was launched.