August 2021 ~
If you’re having a dinner party for the greatest all-around athletes in Oregon high school history, Mel Renfro (Jefferson, 1960) has to be on your invitation list. And very possibly he should be seated at the head of the table.
Renfro is 79 and living in Dallas, where he played all 14 of his NFL seasons with the Cowboys and was the fifth of 19 players placed on the team’s Ring of Honor at Texas Stadium.
It would take about the length of a football field to list all of his athletic accomplishments, dating to his dual-sport days at Jefferson High.
Renfro graduated from Jefferson in 1960, after starring in football and track and field. He was inducted into the PIL Hall of Fame in 1982 – just one of his many honors.
He hasn’t been back to Portland or Oregon much in recent years but says he’ll always feel a part of this place.
“I love Portland. I love Oregon,” he says.
Here is a bit of his life story:
Renfro was born in Houston. The family moved to Portland during World War II because son Raye, one of four boys (no girls) had asthma and breathing problems in Houston. The Renfros initially lived in Vanport, the wartime housing development along the Columbia River (co-named for Portland and Vancouver) largely for ship builders.
A flood in May 1948 destroyed the city. The Renfros were smart and saw it coming and got out beforehand, relocating in Albina.
Mel and his brothers (Dallas, James and Raye were older) attended Boise Elementary School.
Their parents divorced when Mel was 9, but they remained friends, and dad Dallas was on the sidelines for pretty much every Renfro athletic contest at Jefferson.
The kids played nearly every day at Knott Street Community Center and Dawson Park and in the family’s large backyard, where they set up hurdles and a pit for the broad jump and high jump.
Mel used to walk to Jefferson to catch his older brothers competing for the Democrats. “I’d climb through a fence on Friday night to watch them,” he says.
The school was strong in sports, and had been for years. And the Democrats got even stronger when the likes of Mel and Raye and a quarterback/three-sport star named Terry Baker began walking the hallways with all the other top athletes on hand.
“We had such a great tradition at Jefferson, with families that had played there years earlier,” Mel says. “The School of Champions.”
Mel turned out for basketball but decided after freshman year that doing a third sport would be too much to go with the demands of classwork.
He and Jefferson were difficult, if not almost impossible, to beat on either the gridiron or the track. “Mel the Marvel,” was how Oregon Journal sports editor George Pasero referred to him.
Mel’s three varsity football seasons resulted in a 34-1 record, two dominating rides to the state championship with Baker and one bitter, 7-6 loss to Medford in the state title game Mel’s senior year and before a state-record 21,512 fans at Multnomah Stadium. Renfro threw a touchdown pass and was the defensive player seemingly about to make a tackle on what resulted in Medford’s TD.
“We lost on a clip that wasn’t called,” he says, with the frustration and displeasure still clearly in his voice. “Got cheated out of that one.”
Tom DeSylvia was just about the perfect football coach for those Democrats. Renfro laughs at how simple he kept things. “He never really gave us a pregame pep talk,” Mel says. “He’d say, ‘Reach down to your granddaddy’s genes!’ That’s all he’d say.”
Mel remembers a lot about competing with Raye, who was a year older and joined him in the Jefferson backfield to form a dynamic duo that was also a terrific trio with Baker, a future Heisman Trophy winner at Oregon State, at the controls.
Mel and Raye did the relays, broad jump and hurdles. “That was a highlight,” Mel says.
Raye, a state champion in track and PIL Hall of Famer, died in 1978 at age 38 of complications from diabetes and a pancreatic tumor.
Mel won four events at state as a senior, setting state records in two. He captured the 120-yard high hurdles, 180-yard low hurdles and broad jump and ran on the winning 880-yard relay. The only other team that surpassed his 32 ½ points was Marshfield, which was second at 39 to Jefferson’s victorious haul of 68.
Mel went on to be the top performer at a national track meet, the Golden West Invitational, winning both hurdles, nearly setting a national record in the highs, and placing fourth on weary legs in the broad jump.
Growing up, the Renfro boys would run home from church on Sundays to watch the grainy telecasts of NFL games, mostly featuring the West Coast Los Angeles Rams or San Francisco 49ers.
“Jim Brown was my No. 1 guy,” Mel says. “Lenny Moore and Y.A. Tittle I admired, along with some of the 49ers.”
But to imagine ever playing pro football against those titans? “Not at all,” Mel says. “Never for a moment.”
He says he even didn’t think much about playing football in college until he was a senior at Jeff, when he was MVP of the annual Shrine All-Star Game.
By then, he “had offers from dozens of colleges from coast to coast – UCLA, USC, Stanford, you name it. But it came down to Oregon and Oregon State,” Mel says. “I knew I wanted to stay in the state.” Baker was at Oregon State, and Mel “really liked” Beavers football coach Tommy Prothro. “I was headed to Oregon State,” Mel says. “Terry was like a brother.”
The Ducks had other ideas, though. Especially their legendary track coach, Bill Bowerman, who joined the recruiting battle alongside football coach Len Casanova, and got to Mel’s father. “Two weeks before I was going to leave for Corvallis my dad sat me down and said, ‘Son, you’re going to Oregon.’”
Mel became a Duck.
“He was my dad, and I wasn’t going to go against his wishes,” Mel says. “Bowerman and Casanova had convinced my dad Oregon was the best place for me, that I could do both sports there.”
Mel became an All-American in both sports, helping Oregon win the 1962 NCAA track and field title. He had four firsts in the national championships at Hayward Field and the Ducks scored 65 points to 40 3/7 for runner-up Villanova.
On the gridiron, he was named the most outstanding college back in America.
Mel says he doesn’t think much about how he and Baker would have done as Beaver teammates. The successes he had at Oregon lead him to still say, “It turned out that was the best decision for me.”
There wasn’t much Renfro couldn’t do in track and field, including the pole vault.
“I was training for the decathlon when I got drafted by the Cowboys,” he says. “I could have not signed and gone to the 1964 Olympics. That was my goal. But there was no money in track in those days.” And by then Renfro knew he had what it took to play in the NFL.
“I was a gifted athlete. I had confidence in my ability to do things,” he says. “I had done well in the College All-Star Game (against the 1963 NFL champion Chicago Bears).
“I had no question I could make the team.”
Make the team? How about make the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Renfro started the 1964 NFL season as a “good athlete” for the Cowboys, and “I was thinking offense, running back and wide receiver.”
John Robinson, a legendary football coach who was early in his career and on the Ducks’ staff when Renfro was there, told Renfro biographer Bob Gill that “if we had used him as an I-formation tailback, he could have won the Heisman.” Robinson ranked Renfro with Marcus Allen and Eric Dickerson as a running back.
“He could have played many positions in the NFL,” Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach wrote in a foreword to Gill’s book, “Mel Renfro, Forever A Cowboy.”
Coach Tom Landry, a former defensive coordinator, settled the question, of whether Mel would play offense or defense – along with performing his duties of returning kickoffs and punts. Defense it would be, and the 6-foot, 190-pound defensive back grabbed seven interceptions that ‘64 season as Dallas went 5-8-1.
“I played so well on defense, and their defense improved 70 percent with me in there,” Renfro says, explaining what led to Landry’s decision.
When Renfro made that year’s Pro Bowl – his first of 10 consecutive – “I was absolutely in heaven.”
There he was, alongside Brown, Moore and so many other idols he grew up watching on TV.
“You can’t even imagine that kind of stuff,” he says.
Renfro played mostly cornerback in the NFL, also spending a couple of years at free safety and one year at strong safety.
“The demands at corner I liked much better,” he says. “At free safety, you can make a lot of tackles, but corner is a skill position. You have to shut down your man.”
How was Renfro able to do that so well?
“I had great skills and quickness and knew my receiver, his moves and tendencies. And I made sure I knew the quarterback and his eyes,” he says.
He was also unusually proficient at running in reverse gear.
“I would run backwards a lot to strengthen my legs for track,” he says. “I’d do a lot of 100-yard sprints backwards. So in football I never had to come out of my backpedal. That made it easy to keep my eyes on the receiver and the quarterback and cover one-on-one.
“With my speed and ability to move, it was a piece of cake.”
Playing defense rather than offense “probably prolonged my career by four or five years,” Renfro estimates.
And what an era he and the Cowboys had. The club, whose expansion year was a winless 1960, improved to 7-7 in 1965, then sprang into national prominence. Renfro and his teammates became winners. Big winners. And they developed a huge following.
“We made them America’s Team,” he says.
By 1966, the Cowboys were in the NFL championship game, losing to the Packers 34-27.
Dallas returned to the final in 1967, only to fall 21-17 in the famous “Ice Bowl” clash in Green Bay when Bart Starr sneaked into the end zone behind guard Jerry Kramer in the closing seconds.
The temperature was about minus-15 degrees at kickoff, with a wind-chill temp of minus-36.
“The most horrible sports event of my life,” Renfro says – and he’s referring to the weather conditions along with the disappointing defeat.
“It was the one game I did not want to go out and play. It was miserable the whole time. My hands were numb before we went on the field, and I was wearing gloves. I could not feel my fingers. It took me 20 minutes after the game just to get my gloves off and put cold water on my hands to where I could take a shower.
“The game should not have been played. I didn’t want to participate, and I wasn’t alone. The field was like a skating rink, no traction at all.
“If we’d played them on a good field, we’d have blown them out, no question.”
The Cowboys were competitors the rest of Renfro’s run with them. But four years in a row, “we were always ‘next year’s champions,” Renfro says, of Dallas’ initially coming up short in the playoffs.
That tendency was about to change. The Cowboys won their first NFC title and got to Super Bowl V during the 1970 season, only to lose to the Baltimore Colts 16-13.
And the following year, Dallas left no doubt, beating the 49ers in the NFL title game and then whipping the Miami Dolphins 24-3 in Super Bowl VI.
“Should have been 31-3,” Renfro says. “Calvin (Hill) fumbled on the 3-yard-line near the end of the game. But 24-3 is good enough.”
Renfro says he remembers “the relief” that came in winning that Lombardi Trophy, and he got one more Super Bowl ring in what was his NFL swan song.
That came in Super Bowl XII, 27-10 over the Denver Broncos. The 36-year-old Renfro, hobbled by a knee injury, came off the bench to go most of the way at cornerback in his 195th pro game.
“I hadn’t played in seven games, and I pretty much knew that was going to be my last game,” Renfro says. “Benny Barnes went down, and the coaches came to me and said, ‘Fro, can you go?’ My knee was gone. It was obliterated. I could barely run. But (Denver quarterback) Craig Morton didn’t come at me. Our defensive line harassed him badly. He barely had time to get the ball off.”
Denver was 8 for 25 passing for 35 yards and one first down, with four sacks and four interceptions.
Defensive end Harvey Martin and defensive tackle Randy White were co-MVPs.
“They helped me a lot that day,” Renfro says.
Renfro called it a career – after 22 years of football, including four at Jefferson and four at Oregon.
“That’s a lot of hard knocks,” he says.
Renfro says he’s glad he spent his entire career with one team, with Dallas.
“Absolutely,” he says. “I probably could have made a lot more money if I’d switched teams a couple of times, but there’s just something really nice about being a Cowboy for life.”
And Renfro says he’s still amazed, with a smile big enough to show through the cell phone, at how the boy from Portland got to run into so many celebrities along the way.
“I remember early in my career I was at the Hollywood Bowl, at a restaurant, and Roy Rogers is walking out. He winks at me. He knew who I was. Roy Rogers! I grew up watching him on TV and in movies,” he says.
Renfro finished with 52 NFL interceptions. He was All-Pro five times. He was with the Cowboys for four NFC titles and the two Super Bowl wins, plus nine division crowns. Dallas was 136-57-3 in regular-season games and 13-9 in the postseason during his career.
A year after Mel’s induction into the PIL Hall of Fame, he went into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame. He’s also in the State of Texas Hall of Fame, the National High School Hall of Fame, the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame – and Landry was the presenter when Renfro was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996.
“I’ve lived an incredible life,” Renfro says. “Going from Vanport to Albina, to Jefferson, to the University of Oregon and to the Cowboys.
“I just look back on all that stuff, and it doesn’t get any better than that, with all the people I’ve known, what I grew up with, with all my accomplishments and victories in high school, college and the professional level.
“You look back on that and just say, ‘Wow, what a ride.’”
Renfro lives with wife Liz. The list of grandchildren is in double digits. Mel gets to four or five Cowboy home games a year and joins other ex-Dallas players in a team suites. A bunch of the old gang signs autographs at games.
At home, “we’re cat people,” Mel says. “Had five. Down to three – Star, Casper and Pearl. One is sitting in the armchair with me right now.”
He suffered nine concussions on the football field, and has plenty of other licks and wounds to show for his efforts.
“I’m OK,” he says. “I can’t complain. Still travel a lot.”
But getting around isn’t easy.
“My legs don’t move except with a walker or a cane,” he says. “I do physical therapy two or three times a week to try to keep some movement in my legs. My pain level on a 1-10 scale is 6 or 7 most of the time. Headaches, bone spurs, other things … it’s a mess. But I can’t cry over spilled milk.
“I’m a tough guy. I can handle it. And my vitals – heart, lungs, etc. – are good.
“I hear about some other guys and what they’re going through and I feel blessed.”
Dallas is “a good place to live,” he says. “I had great teammates, developed a lot of great friendships. We were all like brothers, we loved each other. That’s why we played so well. We had each other’s back.”
Renfro was a big part of Dallas’ renowned “Doomsday Defense,” and he says “it was a pleasure to stand shoulder to shoulder with those guys.”
So, is Mel Renfro the greatest athlete ever to come out of an Oregon high school?
He laughs in a way that seems to indicate he does enjoy the question.
“That is a very, very good question,” he says. “I look at people like Steve Prefontaine. A super distance runner, a great competitor. But that’s all he did.
“A lot of other guys have done great things. I’ve done dozens of great things. So I don’t know. I don’t want to brag. But you look at my resume and accomplishments and you match them with anybody else and what do you come up with?
“I’d like to be known as the greatest athlete ever to come out of Oregon. I’d love that. But who’s to judge?”
Best-ever or not, what a career Mel Renfro had. What an athlete. What a PIL Hall of Famer.