Emotional homecoming ahead for former Wyoming QB JJ Raterink
LARAMIE -- Every December, the 23rd day of the month to be specific, JJ Raterink pulls out one of his prized possessions and adds it to his attire.
It's a large, diamond-encrusted ring, one you can't put a value on. It can't be bought, only earned.
For Raterink, it symbolizes a time of resurgence, pain-staking perseverance and immense pride. If there was ever another date to bust that cherished jewelry out of safe-keeping, this upcoming weekend would be ideal.
Instead, Raterink said, he will leave that behind in Greeley and simply share memories with longtime friends and teammates.
"I'll probably keep that one hidden," joked the former signal caller, who helped lead Wyoming to a 24-21 victory over two-touchdown favorite UCLA in the 2004 Las Vegas Bowl. "Not sure how that would look, having Steamboat flashing in the sun at some point.
"It's pretty special."
Raterink, who lined up under center in Laramie from 2001-04, will be on the opposing sideline inside War Memorial Stadium Saturday afternoon when the Cowboys and Bears meet for a 2 p.m. kickoff. Raterink just began his third season on the UNC staff. He coaches, you guessed it, the quarterbacks.
While this won't be his first trip back to the High Plains since his playing days, this will be his first opportunity to square off against his former team.
"I'm really, really excited," Raterink said. "I've thought about it. I'm sure there's going to be some emotion ... You know, being on the field, that won't change at all. It's still the same type of feeling. I'm curious how I'm going to react. Once the game gets going, you know, you won't think about it, but the week leading up to it -- and certainly pregame -- seeing a few people, it will elicit some of those emotions. I'm more looking forward to it than anything. It was such a special place for me."
The Longmont, Colo., product played sparingly during his five years at UW. Mostly serving in a back-up QB role behind brothers Casey and Corey Bramlet, Raterink served mainly as a placeholder on kicks.
His chances were sparse in those days. So was winning.
The Cowboys went 1-10 during his redshirt season under first-year head coach Vic Koenning. They only doubled that win total in the next two years. Joe Glenn was hired before the 2003 campaign. Despite claiming just four victories in 2003, the program was beginning to turn a corner.
The Pokes knocked off heavily favored Border War rival, Colorado State. They took down another nemesis in BYU.
During that span, Raterink attempted just five passes in mop-up duty, completing three of those.
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Now, nearly two decades later, the lessons learned during those turbulent times serve as teaching tutorial for his young UNC squad that went 3-8 last season after football was canceled due to the COVID-19 virus a year prior.
"When you're going through it, especially in college, you think, 'why am I doing this?' This is terrible. I can't believe this. You just have these pity parties," he said. "You become a coach, you say, 'OK, wait a minute, I'm not just sympathizing, I'm empathizing with my players.' I know exactly what they're feeling. I know what they're thinking. Again, not every time is there a magical phrase or word or something you can tell them. For the most part you can say, 'guys, we're going to get through this. I promise you, there's brighter days ahead. I've been through this. And we will. This isn't the end, it gets much better.'
"I've said that before to people, you wouldn't trade what you've been through, knowing what it did for you on the other side, so to speak, or what it led to later on."
What it led to for Raterink was an unforgettable senior season in Laramie.
Wyoming jumped out to a 4-1 record, its lone loss coming against Texas A&M inside Kyle Field. Back-to-back losses to CSU and BYU were followed by consecutive victories over Air Force and UNLV.
The latter earned the Cowboys bowl eligibility for the first time since 1999. Raterink had his fingerprints all over the team's first Mountain West road victory in its last 17 attempts.
That afternoon in Las Vegas, Raterink completed 22 of his 36 pass attempts for 227 yards. He also tossed four touchdowns in the Cowboys' 53-45 triple-overtime thriller over the Rebels. The first went to tight end Chris Cox from 17 yards out. Wade Betschart caught the next one. John Wadkowski, yet another tight end, hauled in a two-yard touchdown in the extra frame.
Raterink and Wyoming put a bow on this one when he connected with Jovon Bouknight on a 25-yard scoring strike in the third overtime before finding running back Ivan Harrison in the end zone for the game-clinching two-point conversion.
Turns out, he did all of that with a separated left shoulder. Thankfully for the Cowboy faithful, Raterink is a righty.
He was named the Mountain West's Co-Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts in Sin City.
Turns out, he wasn't done making memories in the desert.
Before Raterink embarked on a 12-year career in the Arena Football League, his first tryout took place inside that very same venue, Sam Boyd Stadium, on the outskirts of Las Vegas.
Before he even threw a single pass for scouts and coaches, he made a quick trip to the corner of the north end zone.
"I just kind of looked and went, 'man, I wonder if they threw that thing to me 100 times how many times I would've caught it?'" he said with a laugh. "Yeah, I relive that memory."
Of course, he's talking about the 22-yard touchdown pass he hauled in from Bouknight early in the fourth quarter of that stunning victory over UCLA that December.
It was a trick play.
Corey Bramlet, the starting quarterback that night, limped out of the huddle and off to the near sideline. Enter Raterink. He confidently stepped under center, barked out the cadence, took the snap and pitched the ball to his left in the direction of C.R. Davis. Wyoming's running back then flipped it to Bouknight on the reverse.
Raterink dashed upfield down the right seam. Off balance, Bouknight heaved it in his direction. The senior QB stopped and awaited the arching throw, reeling in the underthrown ball with both arms before falling to the turf (2:04:12 mark):
Bramlet would go on to fire a strike to Wadkowski from 12 yards out with just 57 ticks remaining. The Cowboys, for the first time in 38 seasons, were bowl champions.
"You didn't want to keep dwelling on the losses, you just wanted to be part of the solution," Raterink said. "To get that last season in, to get to a bowl game, to turn it around and to win it, it's so special, so vindicating in a lot of ways. All of that time, all of those hours waking up at 5:30, all those workouts and lifts, it was all worth it in the end.
"Certainly as you're going through it, you know, maybe you don't appreciate it, but in a weird way, I'm glad we went through all that pain. Hopefully it made us better players, as time went on, and hopefully better coaches, husbands or fathers."
Raterink has spent this week preparing his quarterbacks to face a young, talented Cowboys' defense. Both Dylan McCaffrey and Jacob Simon took snaps in the Bears' 46-34 season-opening loss to Houston Baptist last Saturday.
Who is starting in Laramie?
Raterink, as of Monday, didn't have that answer himself.
So while his focus is on winning a football game, he can't deny it, this one means more. The ticket requests, reminders and texts didn't need to remind him of that.
"You know, you can always say, 'Oh, I wish I had started for two or three years or played in more games and played more,'" Raterink said. "You know what, I couldn't have written a better script, as far as on the field and off the field. My experience at the University of Wyoming, from the school of business I went to, to everybody that I met as a fan, through the athletic department and all across campus, I wouldn't trade any of what I went through."