Matt Retzlaff landed in Stockholm on a frigid day in mid February this year.
The snowy sky was a vault of darkness that seemed to never change.
This was very different for a guy from Southern Oregon.
“My first impression of Sweden was it’s a little chilly,” says the ex-South Medford High and Southern Oregon University football star, who had arrived to play football for the Stockholm Mean Machines. “There was a little culture shock.”
It didn’t take long for the 24-year-old Retzlaff to heat up on the gridiron. And along his European adventure, he’s developed a love for Sweden that outshines any cold weather.
In four games this season with the Swedish Superserien league team, the former NAIA All-American wideout has 518 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 33 catches. He erupted for 246 yards and three TDs on 15 catches against the Uppsala 86ers on April 20.
The Mean Machines franchise, established in 1982, is one of the oldest American football teams in Sweden
Last season, Stockholm finished 6-4 after falling to the Örebro Black Knights in the Swedish semifinals. It was a turnaround year for the Mean Machines, who went 5-44 from 2012 through 2016.
Retzlaff’s presence has given Stockholm even more hope.
“He’s a lot of positive,” says teammate Axel Forsberg, a defensive back from the South of France. “I think he say the right things at the right moments. ... He’s a playmaker. I think our quarterback (Anders Hermodsson) has a lot of confidence in him.”
Retzlaff made the big move to keep his football dreams alive.
After wrapping up his record-breaking career at SOU in 2016, he participated in a a regional NFL combine in Seattle. It was a great experience, Retzlaff says, but it didn’t go how he’d wanted. He then did several tryouts for Canadian Football League teams but never got any callbacks.
Retzlaff worked full-time at Dutch Bros and assisted as receivers coach for South Medford during the 2017 season while emailing and cold-calling European franchises. Matt Adkins, one of Retzlaff’s coaches at SOU, had worked a season in Sweden and helped connect Retzlaff with Hermodsson.
“(Hermodsson) told me that Stockholm was actually looking for a wide receiver,” the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Retzlaff says. “A day later, I got a call from head coach (Fredrik Pilbäck) to play. It was very wild. I had heard good things about the city of Stockholm, so I said, ‘You know, let’s do it.’”
Ryan Retzlaff, Matt’s older brother, had played in Munich, Germany, in 2015.
“He gave a little advice,” Matt says. “He said to take it all in, do as much traveling as you can, be careful with the girls — because they like the American accent — and live it up every single day.”
Retzlaff committed to the Mean Machines in November and left for Stockholm on Feb. 14. Camp started that week and the club’s first league game was a 6-0 win over the Göteborgs AFK Marvels on April 6. The Mean Machines (2-2) next host the Carlstad Crusaders on Friday. Former SOU All-American defense back Julius Rucker plays for Carlstad.
Football is growing in Sweden, Retzlaff says, and he’s seen attendances of about 100-900 spectators at games. Only two Americans are allowed to play on each Swedish Superserien squad. Larenz “Lucky” Abston of Emporia State University is the Mean Machine’s other player from the United States.
“The football competition is a little different,” Retzlaff explains. “I am playing wide receiver as an American import. You can’t help but bring attention to yourself. The goal during every week’s practice is to coach up the other guys and get our receivers and running backs as good if not better so they can be the same threat and bring the same attack.”
Life overseas has been amazing for Retzlaff since adjusting, he says. He lives in a six-bedroom apartment with teammates from France, New Zealand and Sweden. Retzlaff has picked up on some Swedish and says the locals appreciate it when foreign visitors attempt to speak it.
“To be honest, this is a really good lifestyle we’re living,” Retzlaff says. “We’re being treated almost like pro athletes. Stockholm the city is a beautiful place with a lot of beautiful people. There’s plenty to do. This is my first time living in a big city. We wake up, get a workout in, have a nice lunch every day and venture around the city before practice.”
The food is incredible, Retzlaff adds.
“The fish is fresh. The vegetables are fresh. It is phenomenal,” he says. “They have something called Kardemummabullar — it’s like a Swedish cinnamon roll.”
Still, Retzlaff misses his parents and his dog Vinny. But he’s a man on a mission.
“I’m never satisfied,” he says. “My goals are always to compete at the highest level.”
Reach freelance writer Dan Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.