Late entry no detriment for Ratzlaff

Damian Ratzlaff’s most impressive accomplishment as a starting linebacker for the Tabor College football team may be that he’s on the field at all.

In addition to his exploits on the gridiron, Ratzlaff is also a full-time student majoring in business management, a full-time compounding technician at Abbott Laboratories in McPherson, and a full-time husband to Amy and father to three preschool children.

In that context, the fact that the Hillsboro native happens to be a first-year college player at the ripe old age of 28 seems almost coincidental.

“I think the primary concern (about going out for football this fall) was whether I would be able to get enough sleep,” he said. “That’s still a fairly primary concern.”

In a typical week, Ratzlaff is at his job in McPherson by 10 p.m. and returns home around 8 a.m. the following day. Every Tuesday and Thursday he has classes from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., then prepares for football practice around 2:30 p.m.

“On weekends you try to catch up on sleep as much as you can,” he said.

Beyond his demanding schedule, though, Ratzlaff’s age and relative lack of football experience-he played only one season while at Hillsboro High School-does set him apart from most college football players.

“Travis Stevens (who is 27) is on the team and all the guys were calling him ‘Old Man,'” Ratzlaff said. “Then I came out and realized I was older than he is-and I knew I was in trouble.”

As for his inexperience in the sport, Ratzlaff said he always felt he was too small to play the game during his early years at HHS.

“I was short, skinny and mostly just scared to play in high school,” he said. “But my buddies talked me into it when I was a senior. I had grown a little by then. So I went out and had a great time.”

Remembered by most local sports fans for his contributions as a senior to a state basketball championship in 1991, Ratzlaff said he never really discovered the value of weight training until after he had graduated from high school and entered the job market.

He began working in Marion at first, then for about six years, he and Amy owned the Body Shop fitness center in Hillsboro.

“Once I got out of high school, I started getting into that and put on some weight,” said Ratzlaff, who has grown from being 6 feet 2 inches and 165 wiry pounds as a high school senior to being 6-2 and 205 well-muscled pounds today.

“If I had done that before, when I played in high school, and seeing some of the players that had come through, I always wondered how I’d stack up against them,” he said.

A convergence of circumstances prompted Ratzlaff to find out.

Most important, Amy joined the Tabor faculty as head volleyball coach, resulting in a tuition discount that would enable him financially to pursue a degree.

When his youngest brother, Tyson, joined the football team last year as a true freshman, “it seemed like good timing,” Ratzlaff said.

Amy, a volleyball standout when she played at Bethel College, threw in her support immediately, Ratzlaff said.

“She knew how important it could be to play and to get it out of my system.”

By going out for the team, Ratzlaff, the oldest of five siblings, is the latest one to make an athletic impact first at HHS and then at Tabor. Oldest sister, Taryn Ratzlaff Jost, was a standout in basketball and volleyball. Youngest sister, Tesha Ratzlaff Werth, starred last year in both sports at Tabor and is a potential All-America selection this year in volleyball. Brother Micah stars on the basketball team and Tyson, only a sophomore, has already made his mark in football and basketball.

Damian said his only real concern about going out was whether he’d be good enough to play.

“I wasn’t going to invest all the time if there wasn’t a chance that I was going to see the field,” he said.

That’s where his youngest brother helped.

“Tyson lives with us during the summer, and we would do our workouts together,” Damian said. “He was giving me a pretty good idea how I would stack up. I was pretty confident I could compete.”

As it turns out, playing time hasn’t been a problem. Ratzlaff has started all three of Tabor’s games this season.

“It’s amazing how he’s picked it up,” head coach Tim McCarty said about Ratzlaff’s transition to college football. “No. 1, he’s smart. He’s also older and wiser. He knows how to train and how to read people. From a coaching standpoint, he absolutely listens because he knows how to. You tell him to do something, technique-wise, and he does it.”

Those traits are rooted in a maturity that comes with age-something McCarty said may be Ratzlaff’s key contribution to this year’s squad.

“He actually has helped stabilize our team,” McCarty said. “He attacks adversity differently. He stays calm and doesn’t let things get to him. He’s brought a calming affect out there.”

In turn, Ratzlaff said his teammates have given him a lot, too.

“I’m having a good time,” he said. “You get to meet a lot of new people. For a long time, you always picture yourself being college age, even when you’re past it.

“It does feel good to be able to compete, to play with those guys and joke around with them. It makes you feel young.

“I’m amazed with how well the whole team gets along,” Ratzlaff added. “I think that’s unique to Tabor’s team this year, just from what I’ve heard from players in the past.”

Winning has helped.

“I’ve been in Hillsboro my whole life and I’ve seen Tabor get trounced week after week,” Ratzlaff said. “It’s been great just seeing a team out there that’s confident and knows it can go out and compete.

“And this year it feels like we’re doing it with a little bit of class,” he added. “We’re not getting five personal fouls in a game. You can feel proud of how you’re playing even if you’re not dominating.”

Ratzlaff said although teammates tease him about his age, the only time he has felt it has been while trying to recuperate from the wear and tear of a very physical sport.

“I don’t know if it’s being older or not getting any sleep that my body doesn’t heal-or if it’s just college football,” Ratzlaff said. “But I’m fairly healthy right now and everything is working all right.”

As a family man, Ratzlaff is aware more than most of the risk of permanent injury, but he doesn’t feel the risk outweighs the opportunity.

“It’s always in the back of your mind, but I think if you get the chance to compete, and you want to put the doubts out of your mind that you could ever do it, then you’ve just got to step up and do it,” he said.

McCarty said Ratzlaff’s determination to balance family priorities with personal goals sets an example for coaches and teammates.

“My hat’s off to him in the way he’s balanced his life,” McCarty said. “There’s a lesson to be learned there. This young adult wants to see some closure in some areas of his life. He’s talking about his degree and wants to compete and be part of a team-and he’s been an integral part of it.”

Said Ratzlaff: “I’ve been lucky that everything has worked out. I never imagined that I’d ever get a chance to do it. But things just kind of fell into place.”

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