1975 Dallas Cowboys Player Rankings #11 Mel Renfro
With a mile-long list of sporting accomplishments to his credit, Mel Renfro was widely regarded as one of the premier athletes of his generation. He was a track-star in high school, an All-American running back at the University of Oregon, and an All-Pro wizard as both a safety and cornerback with the Dallas Cowboys. Ability, as you can plainly see, was never a question with Renfro.
But after more than a decade as an NFL star, the drollness of a lengthy career began to affect Renfro, causing the fires of desire to wane. It was only through a series of unforeseen calamities that the future Hall of Famer rediscovered the fighting spirit which had defined his younger days and reminded him of the simple joys of playing a game for a living.
Like many of his veteran teammates, Renfro was disheartened by the Cowboys’ 8-6 finish to the 1974 season. Not only was it a personal embarrassment to miss the postseason for the first time in nine years, but it also stung deeper with the realization that he wouldn’t be able to collect any playoff money either.
Renfro was then shaken a few months later when he was involved in a car accident that could have easily left him maimed, or worse. With a reminder of his mortality fresh upon him, Renfro set out to re-dedicate himself to his craft. He moved his family from Oregon to Dallas. And after getting settled, Renfro inspired dozens of onlooking Cowboys during off-season workouts by training with all the innocence and gusto of a rookie underdog.
“When you see a guy like Mel Renfro out at the practice field working twice a day during the off-season, you’d have to say the attitude of this team has definitely changed,” said wide receiver Drew Pearson. “It’s just an inspiration to me to see somebody like that out there working that hard.”
Said defensive backs coach Gene Stallings of Renfro in August: “He’s shown more quickness and dedication than he has in years.”
Renfro’s workload in preseason was noticeably light, as head coach Tom Landry gave the majority of defensive snaps to younger players. In the fifth exhibition match versus Oakland at Texas Stadium, Renfro played only three snaps before bowing out.
With his 33-year old legs feeling fresh and rested, Renfro came out of the regular season gates in 1975 with an impeccable performance against Los Angeles, earning the team MVP award by intercepting two passes in an 18-7 Dallas victory. After the second of his thefts, CBS television cameras caught him dancing with teammates on the sideline, an act which was later mentioned by the press.
“I feel like it has all come together,” said Renfro after the game. “I feel young. It’s all in the legs. My legs feel great. Even when I wasn’t intercepting them, and they were throwing away from me, I was running right with my man. It was like the old days. I was running with the football and I got excited.”
Though he emerged from Dallas’ Week 3 victory in Detroit with bruised ribs, Renfro managed to start at right cornerback the following Sunday against the New York Giants. Aided by a swirling wind inside of Shea Stadium, the Cowboys pitched another defensive gem, Renfro picking up his third interception of the season to help Dallas to a 13-7 win.
What was shaping up to be a fine individual season was nearly derailed for Renfro by a November to forget. Going into the Cowboys’ Week 8 showdown with Kansas City on Monday Night Football, Renfro’s ailing feet were already a concern among the Dallas coaching staff. But when he popped up with the flu just hours before kickoff, Landry declared Renfro inactive and started Benny Barnes in his place.
A week later in New England, Renfro’s day was cut short against the Patriots when the pain in his feet flared up again. His presence on the sidelines, which was later complemented by fellow starting cornerback Mark Washington, nearly led to a monumental collapse by the Dallas defense. But, despite a trio of second-half touchdown tosses from Jim Plunkett, the Cowboys managed to hang on for a 34-31 victory that snapped a two-game slide.
Against Philadelphia in Week 10, Renfro notched his final theft of the regular season, picking off a Roman Gabriel pass and authoring a conspicuously circuitous 21-yard return. Renfro was quick to admit in the postgame locker room that had he been six years younger and his feet in better shape, that 21-yard runback would have easily resulted in a touchdown.
It was a cold day in St. Louis that nearly sealed the Cowboys’ playoff fate, and sent Renfro to the bench for the remainder of the regular season. Caught in a three-team battle between division rivals for two playoff spots, Renfro and the Cowboys were barbecued during a first-place tussle with the Cardinals, leading some inside the Dallas locker room to look to the heavens out of frustration.
“I tell you, I thought that catch had to be an act of God,” said Renfro of Terry Metcalf’s 30-yard touchdown reception to open the scoring. “I thought I was going to intercept it but it must have gone right through my hands. Cliff (Harris) was there too. I think Metcalf had to be down or falling and the ball just got through all of us into his stomach.” Nobody in the press bothered to depress Renfro further by telling him that rookie safety Randy Hughes was also in the vicinity.
On the next possession, Mel Gray raced past Renfro for a 49-yard touchdown to give St. Louis a 14-3 lead. After the game, Gray said: “I’m not going to knock Mel Renfro, but let me say this- there’s not a defensive back in the league that Mel Gray can’t beat deep.”
After watching the tape and hearing the medical prognosis, Landry deemed his veteran cornerback an official defensive liability, benching him for the Cowboys’ must-win matchup with rival Washington on the following Saturday. Renfro’s feet, simply put, needed rest.
It was only after his teammates took care of business against the Redskins to clinch a playoff spot that Renfro knew he would get another chance to wipe out that forgettable outing at St. Louis. On Dec. 28, exactly three weeks since he last played, Renfro teamed with Washington in locking down on Minnesota Vikings wide receivers John Gilliam and Jim Lash inside cold, gray Metropolitan Stadium. In a game that few gave the Cowboys a chance to win, Renfro’s first quarter sideline interception of Fran Tarkenton helped Dallas stay close in the early going, a moment often swallowed up by the Hail Mary ending.
Said Renfro of his interception: “I honestly think Tarkenton saw I had the guy covered and was trying to throw it away. He didn’t throw it far enough. The two games’ rest I had helped – I’ve got a bone chip and all that in my foot – and allowed me to be the kind of player I like to think I am.”
A rejuvenated Renfro finished the postseason strong, pitching a near shutout of Harold Jackson in the NFC Championship Game before enjoying a respectably quiet afternoon in Super Bowl X. As so many Dallas fans have pointed out since that day in Miami, the Cowboys’ trophy case would have been better served if Washington could have claimed the same.