BYU’s Jewish quarterback is balancing football with High Holy Days observances this month
Jake Retzlaff says ‘I owe it to my brothers’ to be on the field on game days and during practices, even during Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana
As a backup quarterback on BYU’s 3-1 football team, junior college transfer Jake Retzlaff knows he has to be ready to play at a moment’s notice if starter Kedon Slovis gets injured or otherwise can’t play.
That preparation, as the Cougars gear up to play their first-ever Big 12 home game on Friday against Cincinnati (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN), has been a bit more difficult for Retzlaff as the 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior from Corona, California, balances some of his beloved faith traditions with football.
“For me, (Yom Kippur) is a big deal. It is a huge holiday. I will tell you, though, at the end of the day, I owe it to my brothers on this team that I will be on the field on game day and (for) practices. So that is not a concern of mine.” — BYU quarterback Jake Retzlaff
Retzlaff identifies as a Reform Jew, and has been in the middle of one of the holiest weeks of the year for Jews, the High Holy Days. They began with Rosh Hashana — the Jewish New Year — and end with Yom Kippur, which begins Sunday night at sunset and concludes Monday at sunset.
“Shana Tovah — have a sweet new year,” Retzlaff said with a smile Wednesday when the Deseret News asked him if he would be willing to talk about what this time of the year means to him, and his plans.
Some Jewish athletes have refrained from participating in games and practices during the High Holy Days — Los Angeles Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax’s decision to sit out the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur is the most famous example — but Retzlaff made it clear in an interview last spring that he is at BYU to play football and won’t miss anything for religious reasons.
“It is just as much of who I am, almost as much who I am, as being Jewish,” he said before BYU’s Big 12 opener at Kansas. “So I will be playing football on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) with no restrictions.”
Some Jews get nervous before praying & doing mitzvahs in public. @jretz11 proudly wrapped tefillin on the field of the 63,000 seat home of #cougarnation— Chaim Zippel (@UtahCountyRabbi) June 15, 2023
Good luck to defenses that will need to go up against the force that is the #BYJew pic.twitter.com/BVoMbZB7Oe
Retzlaff was talking that March day about how Orthodox Jews observe Shabbat from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, but noted that he is a Reform Jew and it wasn’t a thing for him in high school or at Riverside (California) Community College, where he was widely considered the top juco QB in the country his sophomore season.
He reiterated that position Wednesday in regards to the High Holy Days.
“For me, (Yom Kippur) is a big deal. It is a huge holiday,” he said. “I will tell you, though, at the end of the day, I owe it to my brothers on this team that I will be on the field on game day and (for) practices. So that is not a concern of mine.
“With that being said, it is still a big holiday in the Jewish community,” Retzlaff said. “I will do what I can, with what time I have to observe it. It is a big event and a lot of fun.”
Retzlaff said the decision of how to observe Shabbat, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is a “personal one” for many Jews, but that he is willing to share his reasoning publicly.
“For me, being Jewish is a big part of who I am. That has opened up a lot of opportunities for me and helped me make my life the way it is today,” he said. “I have learned a lot of lessons from Judaism, and a lot from football.
“I will still continue my Jewish journey, and learn from that, as much as I learn from my football journey in the same way. So that’s kind of how I see it. … The reasons for religion are very similar to the reasons for sport. So that’s why I am out here.”
After the Deseret News profiled Retzlaff last April, Rabbi Chaim Zippel of Chabad of Utah County reached out to the quarterback and invited him (and a half-dozen or so other Jews at BYU) to become a part of their Jewish community in Lehi.
Zippel recently noted on social media that BYU has a new Jewish baseball player, catcher Gavin Taylor of Los Angeles.
“Rabbi Chaim has been great,” Retzlaff said when he was asked how he will observe the High Holy Days. “If he ever has an event, he lets me know and as long as I have the time and the availability I will be there. That’s kind of how I go about it.”
Got to meet the #BYJew @jretz11 on campus today and celebrate his Bar Mitzvah as Jake wrapped tefillin for the very first time!— Chaim Zippel (@UtahCountyRabbi) April 20, 2023
Never heard of him? You may want to hit google. You'll be seeing a lot of Jake come August 🏈@BYUCougars @Deseret @drewjay pic.twitter.com/fwVAU1RwPD
For some Jews, fasting is a big part of the week’s observances, but Retzlaff said he won’t be doing that — for athletic reasons.
“That would be a huge step back for me when it comes to athletic performance,” he said. “There is fasting. My mom (Maxanne) will fast. But for me, it would be a huge setback that I don’t know that I could afford to do and stay in tip-top (shape).”
Retzlaff has yet to see action this season, although he was listed as QB2 on BYU’s depth chart for the Kansas game. Slovis gave way to third-stringer Cade Fennegan in the fourth quarter of BYU’s 41-16 win over Southern Utah on Sept. 10, which was part of the plan offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick presented to all the quarterbacks when fall camp ended.
Because Fennegan has used his redshirt season and Retzlaff has not, Retzlaff will not play in mop-up situations in order to preserve his redshirt. NCAA rules allow players to participate in up to four games and not lose their redshirt year.
“It’s been awesome,” Retzlaff said of his experience so far.