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The 'no-catch catch' of the century

Long after Mike Renfro’s tenure as Cowboys waterboy in the late '60s/early '70s, he became poster boy for instant replay in the NFL.

"The Renfro Play" occurred Jan. 6, 1980, in the Oilers-Steelers AFC Championship at Pittsburgh.

It was the "no-catch catch" of the century, or at least it was in Houston.

Renfro, who later would play for Tom Landry's Cowboys in the mid-'80s, was a second-year wide receiver for the Luv Ya Blue Oilers of Bum Phillips in January 1980.

Late in the third quarter, he beat Steelers cornerback Ron Johnson to the right corner of the end zone and made an apparent game-tying TD catch.

But side judge Donald Orr ruled "no catch," indicating that Renfro didn't get both feet inbounds. The Oilers never recovered and lost the game 27-13.

Not even belated regrets sent by Pete Rozelle (who confirmed the call was missed) could soften the blow or take the dent out of Bum's cowboy hat which he spiked to the ground.

Renfro was about as dejected as a player could possibly be.

"By the next afternoon, I was on a plane to Cancun, Mexico," he recalled. "It was a bit overwhelming."

While media attention in January 1980 wasn't what it is today, Renfro recalled, "My phone kept ringing. Relative to the time, a lot of people wanted my opinion. If you know me, I wasn't the kind of guy who needed to be sitting on the front row. I left that to others on the team."

By the time Renfro returned from Cancun, the "no-catch catch" had become back-page news. All eyes were on Pasadena, Calif., where the Steelers were getting ready to win a fourth Super Bowl in six years.

As recently as last week when Terry Bradshaw was asked if he still had the pair of ostrich boots that Bum Phillips gave him more than 25 years ago, Bradshaw replied, "Sure do. Bum gave 'em to me the day of the [conference] championship game when Renfro caught that pass in the end zone and they didn't call it."

I had to ask Renfro: Does it make you feel any better today that literally everyone knows it was a catch?

Or does it make you feel worse?

"I just wish they had been a little more open about it when it happened," said Renfro, a bit tongue in cheek. "Maybe they could've influenced the officials."

What came out of this blown call was instant replay, which NFL owners approved on an experimental basis in 1986.

"It brought about the use of instant replay a lot faster than it would've gotten here," Renfro said. "I do know that."

The Fort Worth native and former TCU Horned Frog was playing in Dallas when instant replay was finally voted in.

He was traded before the 1984 season for Butch Johnson and a fifth-round pick, which the Cowboys used in '85 to secure the NFL rights to Herschel Walker, who was with the USFL's New Jersey Generals.

Renfro's best season -- 60 catches for 955 yards and eight touchdowns -- was 1985. But his best game came in the '87 Thanksgiving Day game when he caught three Danny White TD passes in a 44-38 overtime loss to Minnesota.

But what the gritty Renfro remembers best about that game was a skirmish with Vikings safety Joey Browner.

"Browner was as big as most linebackers," said Renfro. "He grabbed me, hung me by my foot ... and shook me. I got up and threw the ball at him or something."

Nate Newton, quickly followed by several more behemoths from the Cowboys offensive line, rushed to Renfro's aid.

"That was a fun part of that day," Renfro recalled.

His late father -- Ray "The Rabbit" Renfro -- played for the Cleveland Browns (1952-63) and later coached for Dallas. The elder Renfro was Landry's quarterbacks/receivers coach ('68-72).

"It was a total surprise to be traded by Houston," Renfro said. "But once I got up here, I remembered all the great memories. This was the team I followed growing up. This was the team I was the waterboy for that first Super Bowl win."

Mike had just entered his teens when he was the Cowboys' waterboy in a SB V loss to the Colts in Miami and a SB VI win over the Dolphins in New Orleans.

Even before that, he stayed after Saturday practices and caught balls from Don Meredith and Craig Morton.

He would tag along with his father for bed check at the old Hilton on Mockingbird and run the halls.

"So, coming home rejuvenated me," Renfro recalled. "I was contemplating retirement when I got traded. I had had a minor knee injury, and we had had those great but disappointing Luv Ya Blue runs."

Instead, he got in another four seasons with the Cowboys.

Renfro is director of business development at Lone Star Park. He closely follows the NFL and maintains a kinship with the Phillips family.

Renfro felt Wade's pain after "seeing him do things all the right way" in getting a 13-3 team into position for a Super Bowl run -- only to have it unceremoniously snapped by the New York Giants.

"Maybe the Giants had what we had going into that [January 1980 AFC championship] game at Pittsburgh," Renfro said. "The Steelers were meaner and stronger and tougher and more talented than everyone else, but we really thought we could beat them. We were the wild card, similar to the Giants, and we were that confident.

"The only difference -- obviously -- we didn't get the job done.”"

Renfro was asked whether, after 28 years, he still thinks about the "no-catch catch" when watching football on TV?

"Oh, yeah," he replied. "I think about it even if I'm not watching football."