Mel Renfro played 13 seasons for the Dallas Cowboys.
His first 10 were spent at the Pro Bowl.
He returned punts and kickoffs. Oh, did he ever. He once returned two punts for touchdowns in a Pro Bowl.
He was lock-down cornerback (after starting out his career at safety).
He was a second-round choice in the 1964 draft and the seventh Cowboy to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When Renfro retired, after Super Bowl XII, Adam “Pacman” Jones was still five years, eight months away from being born.
(Memo to Pacman: Longtime Cowboys fans have a standard for even the most highly decorated, punt-returning CBs to follow — and it’s way up there.)
“I’m kind of opinionated about these things,” said Renfro, now 66, and a limited partner in Hall of Fame Mortgage on Preston Road in Dallas. “In my day, someone’s chances of making the pros were 1-in-10,000. Certainly, that makes it a privilege.”
While the Cowboys await NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision on when, or even if, Jones’ suspension will be lifted, Renfro expressed a willingness to give Pacman Jones a second chance.
“The guys who hurt you most are the me-me-me guys,” Renfro said. “But I think Pacman is a team player. He’s had some off-field issues, but I certainly know he’ll help this team. Everyone deserves a second chance.
“But I really hope he maintains a level of integrity off the field.”
Old Cowboys are very protective of that blue star on the side of a silver helmet.
For those coached by Tom Landry, in particular, it wasn’t enough to be a good player; everyone was expected to be good citizens as well.
Renfro was a lot of both.
He still calls a stretch of postseason games (through SB V and the ’71 Pro Bowl) his absolute career “highlight,” quickly explaining the timing of these four games:
“Remember, we’d lost in the playoffs in ’66, ’67, ’68 and ’69.”
How can anyone forget?
Date: Saturday, Dec. 26, 1970
Game: NFC Divisional Round
Stadium: Cotton Bowl
Score: Cowboys 5, Lions 0
An ominous hush fell on a sellout crowd of 73,167.
With 2:18 left in a 5-0 game, Detroit made an effective quarterback change. Bill Munson came off the bench (in place of Greg Landry) and immediately moved the team.
The Lions’ deepest penetration of the game — Dallas 29 — occurred with 1:11 left on a 30-yard pass from Munson to the speedy Earl McCullough. This came on fourth down.
“For longtime Cowboys fans,” wrote the Star-Telegram the next day, “the thought flashed that bitter history might write the cruelest of all chapters.”
Because three plays later, on third-and-10, Munson threw deep to McCullough on a down-and-in.
“I was expecting them to throw at me,” Renfro told the S-T in its Dec. 27, 1970, editions. “I wanted them to.”
Nearly 38 years later, Renfro still sees the ball coming his way.
“The pass was overthrown. It bounced off McCullough’s hands — right into mine,” Renfro said. “That was it. Did that ever feel good.”
In this game, Craig Morton completed only 4 of 18 passes for 38 yards. Duane Thomas and Walt Garrison combined for 207 yards rushing, and the Cowboys’ Doomsday Defense scored a safety when George Andrie spun Greg Landry in the end zone like a top.....allowing Jethro Pugh to clean up with a tackle.
Date: Sunday Jan 3, 1971
Game: NFC Championship
Score: Cowboys 17, 49ers 10
San Francisco QB John Brodie came into this game having thrown only 10 interceptions all season.
He was picked off twice — by Lee Roy Jordan and Renfro.
“Renfro once more was the flashiest defender, and his was frequently the most difficult job of all — guarding [Gene] Washington deep,” it was written in the next day’s Star-Telegram.
Said Renfro: “I can still remember intercepting that pass in the third quarter because it kind of helped seal the game, and — finally — we were into the Super Bowl.”
The Cowboys not only ran their winning streak to seven games, but they exorcised some demons along the way. They had missed out on chances to play in SBs I or II with back-to-back losses to Green Bay, and lost twice to Cleveland to end up playing in the so-called “loser bowls” of ’68 and ’69.
But now they were officially hot. They had a defense that was rolling into Super Bowl V — allowing just one touchdown in the last 25 quarters.
Date: Sunday Jan. 17, 1971
Game: Super Bowl V
Stadium: Orange Bowl
Score: Colts 16, Cowboys 13
Some losses are harder than others to accept. This was one of those.
Perhaps it was best summed up by Bob Lilly’s helmet toss as soon as the game ended.
“Lilly yanked off his helmet and sailed it left-handed 50 yards upfield,” wrote the Star-Telegram the next day.
And what did Renfro do?
“I just sat on the bench and cried,” he said.
A Sports Illustrated photographer captured a solitary Renfro, mired in his own misery on the Dallas bench, long after everyone else had left.
“I sat there with my helmet buried in my hands,” Renfro recalled. “I didn’t move for four or five minutes.”
Date: Sunday Jan. 24, 1971
Game: Pro Bowl
Stadium: LA Memorial Coliseum
Score: NFC 27, AFC 6
This was the first Pro Bowl after the NFL-AFL merger.....and it was especially therapeutic for Renfro.
“I went to the Pro Bowl [for a seventh consecutive year — and his first as a cornerback].....but I was so down and dejected,” he recalled. “There was so much pain involved with losing the Super Bowl. We felt the game was stolen from us.”
He needed this Pro Bowl.
“If I hadn’t had a good game in the Pro Bowl,” Renfro said, “I don’t know how I would’ve dealt with my emotions all off-season. I would’ve been a wreck.”
He would play all four quarters and never allow a pass to be completed against him. And the AFC certainly had plenty of chances with Daryle “The Mad Bomber” Lamonica of the Raiders throwing deep nearly every down to either Miami’s Paul Warfield or Oakland’s Warren Wells.
“Then, in the fourth quarter, I got a chance to return two punts for touchdowns,” said Renfro. “And the strange thing about it, I was voted Most Valuable Offensive Player as a defensive back.”
“[An] elusive Mel Renfro,” reported the Jan. 25, 1971, Star-Telegram, “put the game out of sight with electrifying punt returns of 82 and 56 yards.” Renfro told reporters that the first return nearly wasn’t returned at all.
“I was going to let the ball roll but it bounced up and I thought I could split the middle,” he said after the game. “Maybe [the coverage team] thought it would roll dead.....[and by then] there was a good hole, lots of blocks and I just had to run.”
He had no choice. After all, he was Mel Renfro.....a proud player with extraordinary skills.
Back to that memo to Pacman: Now you see, there was a similar guy who played here before you ever talked, walked or even crawled. And he was pretty good.
Renfro reiterated that playing pro football is not a birthright. It’s a privilege.
Even after he played his best four-game stretch of a Hall of Fame career, Renfro could stop and think how this made “others” feel good.
“To me, I represented the Dallas Cowboys,” he said. “I could imagine that people could see what I did at the Pro Bowl and think, ‘Hey, maybe the Cowboys are coming back.’ And, of course, we did.
“We won the Super Bowl the next year.”