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One for the ages

ASHLAND — Some football players are known for their talent, others for their intangibles as a teammate.

A special few, though, seem to have that “it factor,” where there’s a perfect combination of skill, leadership and charisma.

At Southern Oregon University during the tenure of head coach Craig Howard, there’s no question Medford’s Matt Retzlaff has been that rare breed of player who transcends the role of a typical gridiron standout.

“I’ve coached for over 40 years and I would say he is in the top three all-time of having that special spirit,” Howard says of the 22-year-old Retzlaff. “Tim Tebow would be another, and I’d have to think really long and hard for the other, but Matt’s in the top three, for sure, for that special ‘it factor.’ I’ll miss him.”

Retzlaff will wrap up an impactful career at Southern Oregon on Saturday when the Raiders (5-5) play host to No. 6-ranked Montana Tech (8-1) in their season finale at Raider Stadium. Kickoff for the homecoming game is at noon.

For someone as eternally optimistic as Retzlaff, the fact that his career has reached this point is a little mind-boggling.

“I remember taking my recruiting trip to Ashland and it feels like it was just yesterday,” says the 5-foot-10, 190-pound slot receiver. “I didn’t think five years could go by so fast. I thought my redshirt year (in 2012) went by really slow but the last four years … it accelerated way too quickly.”

In the span from excelling at South Medford High to his final day as a Raider, Retzlaff has made a sizable mark on the landscape of football in the Rogue Valley.

Entering Saturday, Retzlaff is the career leader at SOU in receptions (237), receiving yards (3,365) and receiving touchdowns (39), and needs 40 receiving yards to become the eighth Raider with 1,000 yards in a season.

Retzlaff also ranks recond in career punt return yards (544) and third in total TDs (46) and is likely on the verge of his fourth first-team All-Frontier Conference honor. His career postseason totals of 48 catches, 692 yards and six receiving TDs in eight games are also SOU records.

Retzlaff also shares the single-game school record for TDs (five) and holds the record for longest punt return for a TD (91 yards).

Of all those highlights, which also include an NAIA national championship in 2014 and runner-up finish in 2015, Howard says there’s much more to the affable Retzlaff than can be put on paper.

“I think he holds about every record that has to be as a receiver,” says Howard, who came to SOU in 2011, “but more important has been his record of leadership and integrity and the things that bind our program together: character, strength and honor. Matt Retzlaff is certainly a man of character, strength and honor.”

Howard will forever remember Retzlaff as a leading reason why Southern Oregon has been able to go from a rocky period where there were more head coaches (three) than winning seasons (two) from 2003-10.

“He bought in five years ago when the program was not where it is today and bought into a dream of a national championship,” says Howard. “I told him then he was a local player that would change our program and he came when it wasn’t good and made it good. He was a part of building this program and a central figure in this whole championship story and rise of Raider Nation being among the top programs in the nation. He’s had a big impact, not only as a player but as a person.”

Looking back, Retzlaff says he couldn’t be happier with the decision he made to join the movement under Howard at SOU. It offered him a chance to play football with his older brother Ryan for the first time in a team atmosphere, offered him a chance to learn about himself and grow through his time in Ashland and, more importantly, offered him a chance to give back to a hometown area he dearly loves.

“Of everything, I’m most proud of being able to be a local kid from Medford, Oregon, and represent the one school we have down here in Southern Oregon,” says Retzlaff. “Being able to stay and play for the local university, and having so much success where we were able to put Southern Oregon University on a national map, it’s all been very rewarding.”

With the support of “Mr. Raider” Stan Smith, who passed away last year after decades of devotion to SOU, and a host of incredible coaches and teammates over the years, it didn’t take long for Retzlaff to latch onto the role of promoting his school whenever and however he could.

“I took pride in all the support I was given and so whenever I wear any Southern Oregon University stuff around the valley, I like to wear that with my chest puffed out saying, ‘Yeah, I’m from Medford, I went to Ashland and Southern Oregon University and we are successful out there,” he says. “It goes to show that people are proud of this area. It’s a beautiful area, and more and more people are flooding into it because they’re realizing it, but there’s no place else in the country like the Southern Oregon area.”

As for his on-field pursuits, Retzlaff credits, among others, his parents Mike and Shawn for instilling in him a steady work ethic, as well as advice given to him years ago at South Medford that hit home.

“The harder you work, the luckier you become,” says Retzlaff. “I’ve been told that by coach Dennis Murphy for years and I’m a strong believer in that. And if you’re able to bring other guys with you and have trust and faith in what you’re doing, there’s endless opportunities.”

Another factor that has helped Retzlaff over the years is the realization that there’s always room for improvement. Working closely with former SOU assistant coach Matt Adkins and current assistant coach Nathan Chin has inspired him to keep pushing.

“I’ve had very special coaches (at SOU) that have truly cared about their players,” says Retzlaff. “Matt Adkins, who was my first receivers coach, and coach Nathan Chin, both those guys not only knew the aspects of being a good receiver but they coached with their hearts and showed that they love each and every one of their players. And when you have a coach that loves you, that makes you want to play so much harder for them and gives you that ability to push yourself that much more.”

A little extra push will be needed Saturday if the Raiders are to turn back Montana Tech and post five straight winning seasons, a feat that has been accomplished only twice in team history (1960-65 and 1987-91).

“Selfishly looking at it, you want to finish your last game as a Raider with a win, and that’s kind of what I’m looking for,” says Retzlaff, who will get his diploma after this term in business marketing with a minor in communications. “(The Orediggers are) a good team and they cause a lot of havoc on defense and they’ve got a special running back in the backfield, but like any other team in our conference, everyone’s beatable. We’ve had a down season this year but we’re still just as much of a threat as anyone else.”

Retzlaff says SOU’s limited success during his senior year isn’t exactly how he had hoped to go out, but he has no regrets as he takes a big-picture approach.

“It’s going to eat at me a little bit but then again there’s so much that was accomplished, it’s hard to hang your head on that too much,” he says. “It will eat me up because it’s a team sport and I love every single one of my guys and I want them to have as much success as I have had. I’ve been telling them all these last two weeks that this season will go completely to waste if you don’t learn from it. So hopefully they’ll build off of it and then continue to have success in the following years.”

As for his own record run at SOU, Retzlaff doesn’t look at it like he’s any more special than those who came before him.

“They’re huge personal accomplishments and it feels rewarding to know that hard work does pay off,” he says of his records. “I still think to this day, those records who I did beat by Cole McKenzie, Dylan Young, my brother Ryan, Mike Olson … those guys I still have high respect for because if it weren’t for them, I would have never learned to become the receiver I am today. I still feel like it is their record. Looking at it, I jumped them in numbers but they are such great receivers that it’s hard to put myself ahead of them just because of a stat. But it’s definitely a good feeling and accomplishment. It’s been great being a Raider.”

As for his next step, Retzlaff says only time will tell.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Southern Oregon University's Matt Retzlaff, a former South Medford standout, concludes his career on Saturday as the school's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. DENISE BARATTA/MAIL TRIBUNE