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Mel Renfro’s senior card from the University of Oregon

Image: Michael Novak

This month, another ballyhooed Super Bowl kicks off, featuring teams not from here. Although the void may leave some Portlanders caring more about commercials than the final score, we can all take pride in Jefferson High School grad and former NFL great Mel Renfro, who played in no fewer than four Super Bowls (winning VI and XII), racked up 10 straight Pro Bowl nods, and eventually landed in the Hall of Fame. Not bad for a kid who grew up far from football’s traditional hotbeds.

“I think  it’s every player’s dream to win the Super Bowl,” Renfro said recently, via phone from his home in Dallas. “There’s nothing like it.” 

Melvin Lacy Renfro was born on December 30, 1941, in Houston. After his family relocated to Oregon, he became a multisport standout at Jefferson. On the gridiron, he starred at halfback alongside his older brother, fullback Raye, who set a local league record with 24 touchdowns in a season, and quarterback and future Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker. Under head coach Tom DeSylvia, the Democrats won consecutive state championships—with the 1958 squad generally regarded as the state’s best ever. “Coach was like a father figure,” says Renfro. “He never hollered or got angry. He made it fun.”

Renfro continued his dominance in football and track at the University of Oregon, earning All-American honors in both and leading the school to its first national track title, under visionary coach and Nike cofounder Bill Bowerman. Another memorable highlight occurred on October 13, 1962, at a segregated “white-only” stadium in Houston against the Rice Owls. “They let a dozen or more of my relatives, including my grandfather whom I had never seen, sit in an area right behind our bench,” he says. “It must have been a spiritual thing, because I had one of my best games ever.” Playing on both sides of the ball, Renfro tallied 233 yards, returned an interception 65 yards and handled kickoff and punt returns in a 31–12 Ducks win. He was given a rousing ovation from the crowd—some Rice students tore off pieces of their clothing to give him—prompting a Houston paper to run the headline, “Renfro Runs Rice Ragged.”

In 1964 the Cowboys drafted him in the second round and immediately named him a starting defensive back. He would spend the next 14 seasons in Dallas and later saw his name added to the Texas Stadium Ring of Honor. Now 76, when asked about his highly coveted Super Bowl bling, the soft-spoken star admitted, “I don’t wear them all the time, but I do at certain events and special occasions.”

So would we, Mel. So would we. 

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