The Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio is one of the most exclusive clubs in the entire world. Only three hundred and eighteen men have been enshrined in Canton as the best of the best at one of the most difficult sports to play. One of those enshrined is Portland, Oregon’s own Mel Renfro, who played defensive back for the Dallas Cowboys from 1964 until 1977.
Though he was born in Houston, Texas in 1941, Renfro moved to Portland, Oregon as a child, and attended Jefferson High School. There, he starred as a two-way football player (playing both offense and defense). During his sophomore and junior year, the team won a remarkable twenty-three straight games, including back to back Class A-1 football state championships in 1957 and 1958. The Jefferson Democrats’ 1958 team is arguably one of the greatest in Oregon prep football history. With a backfield that included him at halfback, his brother Raye Renfro at fullback (in 1958 he broke a Portland Interscholastic League record with 24 touchdowns), quarterback Terry Baker (1962 Heisman Trophy winner at Oregon State), and halfback Mickey Hergert (one of the leading rushers in the nation at Lewis & Clark College), it’s no wonder they were so difficult to defeat. After Baker graduated, Renfro played quarterback as a senior in 1959 and was also an all-state selection at running back, as Jefferson sought a historic third straight state title, falling short to Medford in the title game, 7-6.
He was also a track star and, in 1983, was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.
He starred at the University of Oregon and, in 1964, was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. Though he had made his name as a halfback, he was moved to Cornerback. This decision proved fruitful as in fourteen seasons, he intercepted fifty-two passes, returning them for six hundred and twenty-six yards and three touchdowns. He also recovered an astonishing thirteen fumbles which he returned for forty-four yards.
In the 1970 NFC Championship Game, Renfro had a key interception that led to the Cowboys’ game-winning touchdown over the San Francisco 49ers which helped them get to Super Bowl V, where they were defeated by the Baltimore Colts, 16–13. Dallas returned in Super Bowls VI, X, and XII, Renfro’s last NFL game, a Cowboys’ 27–10 victory over the Denver Broncos. He remains the Cowboys all-time leader in interceptions and in career kickoff-return average (26.4 yards). His fourteen seasons with the team ties him for second place in franchise history.
Renfro, who now works as a motivational speaker, serves as an example of hard work and dedication that is emblematic of the spirit of Portland residents even today. He is not only a local treasure, but a national icon as well and I couldn’t be happier to share Portland with him.