Mel Renfro revolutionized the cornerback position during his 14-year NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys from 1964 to 1977.
Renfro saw time on special teams and free safety during his first several years in the NFL. When he switched to the cornerback position before the 1968 NFL campaign, great things happened.
Renfro was an absolute ballhawk who led all cornerbacks in interceptions in the 1969 NFL season.
Behind Renfro’s quickness and athleticism, he shut down the game’s best wide receivers in the first half of the 1970s. Consequently, he helped the Cowboys win two Super Bowl titles during that decade.
Renfro eventually earned ten straight Pro Bowl nods from 1964 to 1973. It wasn’t a coincidence he entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996.
Truly, Mel Renfro was one of the greatest defensive backs of his generation.
Melvin Lacy Elisha “Mel” Renfro, Sr. was born in Houston, TX on December 30, 1941. He has three brothers: Dallas Jr., James, and Raye.
Renfro’s family left the Lone Star State during World War II because Raye, Mel’s brother and future teammate at Jefferson High School, had asthma issues in Texas, per the Portland Interscholastic Hall of Fame’s official website.
Renfro’s father Dallas Sr. found employment in the shipyards of Vanport, OR soon after the family moved to the Beaver State.
The Renfro family relocated to Albina, OR after they correctly predicted a flood would destroy the city of Vanport. The four Renfro brothers were soon attending Boise-Eliot Elementary School after their latest move.
— National Football Foundation – Oregon Chapter (@NFFOregon) February 28, 2016
Their parents divorced when Mel was just nine years old. Fortunately, they remained friendly after they parted ways, per PILHallofFame.org.
The Renfro brothers were regular fixtures at Dawson Park and Knott Street Community Center in Portland, OR. They also built hurdles and a pit in the family backyard to help them train for their track meets.
For his part, Dallas Renfro, Sr. attended his kids’ athletic events during their high school years in the Pacific Northwest.
According to Mel Renfro’s Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 1996, his parents established his early foundation in church.
The Renfro brothers watched National Football League games featuring West Coast squads such as the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers when they got home from church.
Mel Renfro idolized Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown as a youngster.
“Jim Brown was my No. 1 guy,” Renfro told PILHallofFame.org in the summer of 2021. “Lenny Moore and Y.A. Tittle I admired, along with some of the 49ers.”
Although Renfro was a staunch pro football fan when he was growing up, he told PILHalofFame.org he never imagined himself playing in the National Football League someday.
Renfro spent his formative years in the Pacific Northwest on the outskirts of Portland, OR where many African-Americans lived.
Although Renfro witnessed racial tensions in his neighborhood, it wasn’t as bad as in other parts of the country.
When Renfro was growing up in Portland, OR, one of his grade school teachers, a certain Mrs. Honeywell, tapped his hidden potential.
Renfro remembered Mrs. Honeywell pulling him aside after fifth-grade class and telling him he was going to become a special individual in the future.
“I took her words to heart, and I stuck with athletics,” Renfro said in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech some forty-five years later.
It was around that time when Renfro climbed a fence to watch his older brothers play football for their high school football team, the Jefferson Democrats.
Mel Renfro attended Thomas Jefferson High School in Portland, OR. He excelled at halfback for Tom DeSylvia’s Democrats.
Renfro considered DeSylvia his second father. Under the latter’s leadership, Jefferson High School won thirty-four of thirty-five games during Renfro’s four-year tenure on the high school gridiron.
Renfro started at halfback for the Democrats along with his brother Raye, who played fullback. One of their teammates was the quarterback and 1962 Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker, who played for the Oregon State Beavers in college.
Demo History: Heisman Trophy winner and NFL #1 overall pick Terry Baker hands the ball off to NFL Hall of Famer Mel Renfro.
1959 Jefferson High Football best team in the country #DemosIsay pic.twitter.com/lguBj0bsDn
— DemosFootball (@Demosfootball) August 17, 2019
Mel Renfro also stood out on the track during his high school days. He set Oregon state records in two of the four events he won in his senior year. Renfro emerged victorious in the 880-yard relay, the broad jump, 120-yard high hurdles, and the 180-yard low hurdles.
Renfro also won both hurdle events in the 1959 Golden West Invitational.
Renfro’s legend as a two-sport star grew by leaps and bounds in the Rose City. Some local sports pundits even considered him in the same stratosphere as the famous Grayson brothers.
Not only that, but Oregon Journal sports editor George Pasero gave Renfro the moniker “Mel the Marvel,” per PILHallofFame.org.
Renfro also didn’t give college football much thought until he played in the yearly Shrine All-Star Game and earned MVP honors in 1959.
When Renfro reached the pinnacle of his high school football career, dozens of college programs such as the USC Trojans, UCLA Bruins, Stanford Cardinals, Oregon Ducks, and Oregon State Beavers were knocking on his door.
Renfro told PILHallofFame.org in 2021 that he whittled down his shortlist to the two in-state schools vying for his services: Oregon and Oregon State.
Renfro was leading toward Oregon State because his Jefferson Democrats teammate, Terry Baker, who was like a brother to him, committed to the Beavers. Renfro also liked Beavers head football coach Tommy Prothro.
However, the Ducks weren’t about to let their state rivals pry one of the best two-way players in the state away from them. They figured the only way to make Renfro commit was by convincing his father.
Oregon head football coach Len Casanova and track coach Bill Bowerman joined forces in convincing Dallas Renfro, Sr. to convince Mel to commit to the Ducks.
Two weeks before Mel Renfro was about to leave for Corvallis, OR, his dad had a heart-to-heart talk with him and told him he was going to Oregon.
“He was my dad, and I wasn’t going to go against his wishes,” Mel Renfro told PILHallofFame.org in August 2021.
A fortuitous turn of events Renfro’s senior year paved the way for a legendary career with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys several years later.
Air Force Falcons assistant coach Pepper Rodgers went to Oregon to recruit Renfro in 1960, per ESPN’s Todd Archer.
By some coincidence, the Cowboys – the NFL’s expansion franchise – held training camp in Forest Grove, OR. Rodgers introduced Renfro to Cowboys chief talent scout Gil Brandt, who, in turn, kept in touch with Renfro during his days with the Oregon Ducks.
Before long, Mel Renfro had emerged as one of the best two-way players in the country during his time in Eugene, OR.
College Days with the Oregon Ducks
Mel Renfro attended the University of Oregon from 1960 to 1963. He suited up for Oregon Ducks head football coach Len Casanova.
When Renfro entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996, he gave credit to Casanova for helping turn him and his teammates into men. The Ducks’ head football coach helped his players on and off the college gridiron and instilled the work ethic they needed to succeed in life.
On the other hand, Renfro was also a member of the Ducks’ track and field squad under head coach Bill Bowerman. Renfro’s blazing speed helped secure Oregon’s first national track title, per Portland Monthly’s Christopher Warner.
When Renfro strutted his wares on the college gridiron, he became one of the best two-way players in Oregon Ducks football history. He blossomed into an All-American halfback and defensive back during his three-year tenure with the Ducks from 1961 to 1963.
According to Warner, Renfro experienced a personal milestone during a football game against the Rice Owls on October 13, 1962.
The Owls allowed Renfro’s relatives to cheer him on behind the Ducks’ bench. The vast majority of the stadium was segregated and filled with white spectators.
“They let a dozen or more of my relatives, including my grandfather whom I had never seen, sit in an area behind our bench,” Renfro told Portland Monthly in January 2018. “It must have been a spiritual thing, because I had one of my best games ever.”
An inspired Mel Renfro had 233 all-purpose yards on offense and returned an interception 65 yards the other way on defense. He also performed punting and kicking duties for good measure in Oregon’s emphatic 31-12 road win.
Renfro was so good on that day that Owls fans paid him homage by tearing parts of their clothing which they gave him after the final whistle.
— CollectionConnection (@CollConnFraming) January 30, 2015
Renfro, who was torn between Oregon and Oregon State as his high school days wound down, told the Portland Interscholastic League Hall of Fame’s website in 2021 that going to Oregon was the best decision he made for himself.
The Ducks won an average of six games per year in Renfro’s three-year tenure from 1961 to 1963. They beat the SMU Mustangs in the 1963 Sun Bowl, 21-14.
Renfro finished his college football career with 1,540 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns on 269 carries. He also had 644 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns.
Renfro also finished his three-year stint in Eugene, OR on a strong note. He earned Consensus All-American honors in 1962 and Second-Team All-American honors in 1963.
By this time, Mel Renfro had been in touch with the Dallas Cowboys for three years. They would eventually draft him in 1964 and witness him become one of the best defensive backs in their franchise’s storied history.
Pro Football Career
The National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys made Mel Renfro the 17th overall selection of the 1964 NFL Draft.
On the other hand, the American Football League’s Oakland Raiders made Renfro the 79th overall selection of the 1964 AFL Draft.
Renfro ultimately chose to sign with legendary head coach Tom Landry’s Cowboys. He joined Dallas in its fifth year of existence in the National Football League.
Renfro also had his sights set on competing as a decathlete in the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
However, he told PILHallofFame.org in 2021 that he changed his mind and focused on football after deciding there wasn’t much money in track and field in the 1960s.
Mel Renfro’s injured wrist held up the 1964 NFL Draft for six hours. Physicians had to examine the wrist thoroughly before the draft festivities continued.
Renfro injured his wrist after he punched a glass medicine cabinet in reaction to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in the fall of 1963.
Brandt remembered Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi approaching the Cowboys’ table and asking their scouts and executives if their computer broke down.
Dallas had one of the most advanced scouting methods in the NFL at the time. Some of their opponents made fun of how they sized up their prospects.
After the Cowboys received the go-signal from the doctors, they promptly took Renfro – a prospect they had been eyeing since his senior year at Thomas Jefferson High School in Portland, OR – off the draft board.
Gil Brandt, the Cowboys’ chief talent scout, boarded a United Airlines flight bound for the Rose City the following day. He met Renfro at the soonest possible time because he was concerned the AFL might make a move on him.
Before leaving Chicago, Brandt called Renfro and told him he would arrive in Portland at 1 p.m. Pacific time.
Renfro met Brandt as soon as the latter disembarked from the aircraft. Brandt told ESPN in 2014 that Renfro signed his Cowboys contract at Portland International Airport in the spring of 1964.
Brandt and Renfro made their way to Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR, so a third party could serve as a witness. It was a requirement during the height of the competition between the National Football League and the American Football League in the 1960s.
Renfro became part of a memorable 1964 NFL draft class that produced eleven future Hall of Famers including Philadelphia Eagles tackle Bob Brown, Washington Redksins halfback Charley Taylor, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Carl Eller, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Paul Warfield, Washington Redskins safety Paul Krause, San Francisco 49ers defensive end Dave Wilcox, Detroit Lions tackle Bill Parcells, and Cleveland Browns running back Leroy Kelly.
The Dallas Cowboys had the most number of future Hall of Famers from that draft class. They selected Renfro, wide receiver Bob Hayes, and quarterback Roger Staubach in 1964.
All three men played major roles in Dallas’ resurgence and Super Bowl runs in the 1970s.
— Football Dallas (@FBDallas) May 9, 2014
The Cowboys struggled mightily in their first four years in the NFL from 1960 to 1963. They averaged just three wins per season during that time frame.
Renfro was one of the difference makers who helped change Dallas’ fortunes in the late 1960s. He made his mark as a punt and kickoff return specialist for the Cowboys from 1964 to 1966.
Renfro made an immediate impact in the National Football League. As a free safety, he had a team-leading seven interceptions in his rookie season. He also led the league in punt return and kickoff return yardage in 1964.
To nobody’s surprise, Renfro earned the first of his ten consecutive Pro Bowl selections and the first of his four career Second-Team All-Pro selections in 1964.
The Cowboys emerged as a legitimate title contender in Renfro’s third year in the NFL in 1966. It was a trend that continued until Landry’s final years with the Cowboys in the mid-1980s.
Dallas averaged a gaudy ten wins per season from 1966 to 1968. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get past the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Championship Game and the Cleveland Browns in the Divisional Round during those three years.
The Cowboys lost 21-17 to the Packers in the 1967 NFL Championship Game – the “Ice Bowl Game” played in freezing sub-zero temperatures at Lambeau Field.
“The most horrible sports event of my life,” Renfro told PIFHallofFame.org more than fifty-four years later.
It was so cold that it took Renfro 20 minutes to remove his gloves after the game. Had the game been played in less inclement conditions, Renfro was confident the Cowboys would have prevailed.
In Renfro’s Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech, he recalled people referring to the Cowboys as “next year’s champions.”
Renfro and his teammates couldn’t go out of their houses and shop for groceries without people criticizing them harshly for always falling short of their Super Bowl aspirations. Worse, their kids also received the same treatment from their classmates in school.
Landry moved Renfro to the cornerback spot in the latter’s fifth pro football season in 1968. It didn’t take long for him to adjust to his new position.
Renfro became one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL over the next decade. His 10 interceptions were the most among NFL cornerbacks in 1969.
Renfro loved playing cornerback more than playing safety because the latter involved more skills.
“The demands at corner I liked much better,” Renfro said in 2021. “At free safety, you can make a lot of tackles, but the corner is a skill position. You have to shut down your man.”
Renfro compared himself to fellow Hall of Fame defensive back Deion Sanders during the pinnacle of his iconic 14-year pro football career.
Although they were at par in terms of ball-hawking abilities, Renfro felt he was more physical than Sanders.
“He is a lot like I was. We’re probably the same type as far as ability is concerned,” Renfro told the Eugene Register-Guard in the summer of 1996. ” I was a lot more physical than Deion. I would come up and hit and tackle.”
Aside from Renfro’s physicality, he felt his ability to read the quarterback’s eyes, quickness, and knowledge of opposing receivers set him apart from other defensive backs during his heyday.
Renfro also thought his 100-yard backward sprints as a college track star helped him in the NFL. He never had to come out of his backpedaling stance so he could lock his eyes with the receiver and quarterback.
Renfro felt playing as a defensive player instead of an offensive player extended his pro football career by four or five years, per PILHallofFame.org.
With Renfro at the top of his game, the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl title in 1971. They beat the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI, 24-3.
Dallas won its second Super Bowl title six years later. The Cowboys beat the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII, 27-10.
By then, 36-year-old Mel Renfro’s knee was practically shot – he knew Super Bowl XII was his final NFL game.
Despite hobbling badly during the game, Renfro went out on a high note. He had earned his second and final Super Bowl ring.
— Cowboys History (@CowboysHistory) June 18, 2014
The Cowboys averaged ten wins per year from 1964 to 1977. They won two Super Bowl titles and nine division titles during that memorable time in franchise history.
Mel Renfro retired from the National Football League following the 1977 NFL season.
Renfro concluded his legendary 14-year pro football career with 52 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles, and 13 fumble recoveries.
Renfro returned those 52 interceptions for 626 yards. His kickoff return average of 26.4 yards from 2,246 yards and 85 kickoff returns was one of the best during his era.
Mel Renfro and his wife Elizabeth currently reside in the Dallas, TX area. Renfro has three stepchildren: Tara, Michelle, and Chris. Renfro also has several grandchildren.
Renfro’s brother, Raye, who was his teammate with the Jefferson Democrats’ football and track teams, passed away in 1978 due to diabetes and pancreas issues, per PILHallofFame.org. He was 38 years old.
The city of Portland, OR had deteriorated considerably after Renfro retired from the National Football League following the 1977 NFL season. Drugs and other issues took their toll on the Rose City in the 1970s.
Renfro wanted to help his city but couldn’t find other people who had the same ambition. A frustrated Mel Renfro lived a vagabond life in St Louis, MO, Las Vegas, NV, and Los Angeles, CA for the next several years while thinking about his beloved Portland.
#CowboysNation July 27, 1996: Mel Renfro (DB: 1964-1977) is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
2X Super Bowl Champion VI, XII
10X Pro Bowl (1964–1973)
7X 1st Team All-Pro
NFL interceptions leader (1969) Cowboys 25th Anniversary Team
Cowboys Ring of Honor pic.twitter.com/sdBvkEqyDK
— Dallas Cowboys Old School (@CowboysOld) July 29, 2020
By the time Renfro earned his gold jacket and bust in Canton, OH, he envisioned building a Christian community center called The Bridge Center that would help mold kids into responsible citizens.
Mel Renfro became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1996. His head coach with the Dallas Cowboys, Tom Landry, was his presenter.
Part of Renfro’s enshrinement speech reads:
“I can honestly say that I wasn’t sure that this day would ever arrive. I was eligible for fourteen years. When each year went by, my friends would say, ‘You’ll make it next year, Mel.’ Now I have made it at the last second, and I am so very thankful.”
Mel Renfro was part of a group of former NFL players who filed a lawsuit against the league in the spring of 2015 for allegedly allowing teams to provide risky painkillers to their players.
The medicines brought temporary relief to the players and allowed them to continue playing. The former players also claimed their teams filled out prescriptions without their consent and approval.
Sadly, Renfro’s son Melvin Jr. passed away due to a heart attack on January 7, 2020. He was 55 years old.
Mel Renfro is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, the National High School Hall of Fame, the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, the Portland Interscholastic League (PIL) Hall of Fame, State of Texas Hall of Fame, the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, and the University of Oregon Athletic Hall of Fame.
Renfro watches four or five Cowboys games with team alumni every year. He told PILHallofFame.org in 2021 that he had nine concussions during his playing days.
Renfro currently walks around with a cane or walker. He also attends physical therapy several times weekly.
“I’ve lived an incredible life,” he told PILHallofFame.org. “Going from Vanport to Albina to Jefferson to the University of Oregon and to the Cowboys.”