Ryan Retzlaff had a long road ahead of him.
He worked for the City of Medford paving roads during the summer of 2009, rising at 5 a.m. and working until 4. Up and down baking asphalt he went, the son of a former Division I wrestler, the grandson of a football legend, the brother of a gridiron standout. The former South Medford star had his own athletic resume, but he kept it put away.
Vehicles rattled by and life rolled along at an awkwardly normal pace for someone who dreamed of more. The wide receiver's aspirations of playing in college had all but faded away after he suffered a devastating knee injury his senior year.
RYAN: Junior wide receiver is second in nation with 49 catches. He has 647 yards and seven touchdowns.
MATT: Redshirt freshman wide receiver leads the nation with 15 touchdowns (11 receiving, four rushing). He has 38 catches for 515 yards.
"There were no looks going my way," he says.
An ember of hope survived though. It smoldered as he went to Oregon State University and Rogue Community College as an ordinary student. It smoldered as he returned to the game with the semi-professional Southern Oregon Renegades. It smoldered as he tried out, and made, the Southern Oregon University team.
Eventually — after a journey through uncertainty and frustration — the flicker turned into a flame.
The 22-year-old Ryan is one of the nation's top receivers for the NAIA Raiders. His younger brother, redshirt freshman receiver Matt, leads the nation in touchdowns. Both are 5-foot-11, 185 pounds.
It's made-for-movie stuff. Behind the scenes, it wasn't so glamorous.
"It's been a long, tough road," Ryan says.
Here are eight things to know about the brothers.
1. Nothing came easy for Ryan:
The 2009 South Medford High graduate attended OSU for two terms before transferring to RCC for personal reasons.
He said joining the Renegades was a big first step toward his dream of playing college football.
"I needed to start off small," he recalls.
Ryan, who is a senior with junior eligibility, cold-called SOU head coach Craig Howard and got his tryout in 2011, ultimately earning a walk-on trial.
It was miserable at times, Ryan recalls. He struggled to grasp the Raiders' wildly explosive offense and develop the position-specific skills needed to thrive in it. Up until this season, he and others were also far behind All-American receivers Cole McKenzie and Patrick Donahue, who once zoomed around Ashland like cheetahs chasing prey.
Ryan had trouble lining up in the correct formation, getting the signal and, after finishing the play, quickly moving on to the next one. His footwork was also off.
"It was a whole new language," says Ryan, who was originally placed at slot. "They moved me out to wide receiver. At that time, I had no coaching at receiver. I was getting yelled at every single day. There was very little praise. I was competing with Cole McKenzie ... I was just in the background."
From scout team to second string to starter, Ryan rose.
"The guy who has surprised me is Ryan," Howard says. "He may be the most improved player right now. It is heartwarming to see him work so hard and come from having to replace an All-American to becoming one."
But Howard says he could tell Ryan was determined early on.
"I thought he had a real chip on his shoulder," Howard says. "He wanted to prove he could do it."
Now, Ryan feels right at home in the system. Receivers coach Matt Adkins helped Ryan tremendously, he says.
"I know the offense like the back of my hand," Ryan says.
2. Their statistics are something to behold:
Ryan, who plays the X position, is second in the nation in receptions for SOU (3-3). He is a deep threat with great speed, Howard says.
The 19-year-old Matt, who plays the slotback Y position, has a nation-leading 15 touchdowns (11 receiving, four rushing).
In six games, Ryan has made 49 catches for 647 yards and seven touchdowns. He owns an average of 13.1 yards per catch and 8.2 receptions per game.
Matt has 38 receptions, 515 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 13.6 yards per catch through six games. He also plays in the backfield sometimes and he returns punts.
"Matt is really shifty," Howard says. "He is so intelligent. He is like a quarterback, he reads the coverage so well."
3. Playing with quarterback Austin Dodge is a pleasure:
Quarterback Dodge leads the nation in total offense (six games, 416.8 yards) and passing (2,470 yards) with 29 touchdowns, four interceptions and 411.7 passing yards per contest.
"They got their timing down with Austin Dodge," Howard says. "He throws as good a deep ball as any quarterback. They get open and run great routes."
Says Matt: "Honestly, he is a Division I quarterback playing at the NAIA level. He is the most blessed thing SOU and the receiving corps can have now. He delivers great passes and we finish for him."
4. Howard needed these guys:
"Building the program, I needed Southern Oregon guys who would be cornerstones," the coach says. "Marquee names."
5. Howard and the Retzlaffs go way back:
Howard played football at Grants Pass High and, when he first began his coaching career, received advice from the late Fred Spiegelberg, who was Matt and Ryan's grandfather. At a clinic many years ago, the famous Medford coach shared much of his knowledge with a young Craig Howard.
"If he was still alive he would be the happiest man in the United States," Howard says.
6. They need each other:
Being on the same team is a treat, Matt says. He was a freshman in high school when Ryan was a senior and the two had never shared a team until now.
"It's definitely an incredible feeling playing out there with your brother," he says. "We have only played with each other during Thanksgiving turkey ball maybe."
Says Howard: "There is an inherent competition between brothers. The competition between the two has motivated them to a higher level."
7. They work hard:
The brothers caught hundreds of balls daily during the offseason. Three to four times a week, they would lift, run and condition.
Practices during the fall are just as intense.
"They line up and run 700 wind sprints all day," Howard says. "We just run routes full speed from start to end. ... A lot of work goes into leading the nation. They ran routes all summer. It just doesn't happen in the fall. It happens when other guys are at the lake."
Says Ryan: "Growing up with the Singlers, I was always the underdog. They got me better and playing with Matt got me better. I have always felt like I needed to prove myself. If it's not perfect, it's not a good day for me. I just have to go out and work."
8. They live together:
The two brothers both live at home with their parents, Mike and Shawn.
"My dad appreciates us being home," Matt says. "We can do a little more yardwork."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribunecom. Follow him online at facebook.com/danjonesmt