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Mel Renfro, the original Prime, and best-ever in Cowboys’ defensive backfield

Four men have roamed the defensive backfield with such ferocity and prowess that they have permanently etched their faces onto our Mount Rushmore of .

All four have won to go along with the respect of every opponent they faced on the gridiron. One player was decades ahead of his time.

The Original Prime

Mel Renfro came out of college as a two-way player, renowned as one of the best running backs in the of the University of Oregon.

In 1966, his third season in Dallas, he got to play on the offensive side of the ball.

But his star shined brightest on .

During the first six of his 14 seasons in Dallas, Renfro played at before moving to . Over 174 games he would pick off 52 passes — he's still the team's all-time leader in this category — with three interceptions returned for touchdowns.

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys CTK: Franchise Interceptions Leader Mel Renfro Takes #20 1

He recorded 10 interceptions in 1969 alone and added 13 fumble recoveries.

Seeing as how he had to cover in practice for many years, his opponents on Sunday must have seemed to be moving in slow-motion.

Renfro was also a threat on special teams, with 109 punt returns and 85 kickoff returns. He had a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown in his rookie year in 1964. His two kickoff returns for touchdowns went for 100 yards (1965) and 87 yards (1966).

In the one year he was allowed to play both ways, he added eight carries for 52 yards and four receptions for 65 yards. He failed to score while on , however.

Still, he could be called the of the 1960s.

Renfro won two Super Bowls with Dallas (VI and XII). He became the fifth player added to the in 1981 and was inducted into the in 1996.

An Undersized Linebacker

walked onto Arizona State as a . When then Cowboys saw him he knew he had his of the future.

He would play 178 games over 12 seasons at the position, picking off 23 passes and recovering 11 fumbles.

He would return two of those picks for scores.

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys CTK: New Ring Of Honor Member Darren Woodson Tackles #28 6

But his prowess was in how hard he hit a ball carrier or a receiver during or after a catch. He is credited with 967 tackles. Unfortunately, no stats were kept on how many bone-jarring hits he unloaded.

He was drafted in the second round by the Cowboys in 1992. That draft pick had been acquired by Dallas in the .

Oddly enough, he grew up a Steelers fan and hated the Cowboys.

When he was drafted, a friend called to tell him, giving him the “bad news” that he'd been drafted by Dallas.

Woodson said he was just happy to be picked, even if it was by the Cowboys.

Woodson was inducted into the Ring of Honor in 2015. He has been eligible for the Hall of Fame since 2008 but has yet to be inducted.

Undrafted Greatness

was not drafted by any team in the 1970 draft. The only college that offered him a scholarship was Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.

He was invited to the Cowboys' and signed as a . He would play free for the next 10 seasons in Dallas.

Cowboys Blog - Cliff Harris Crashes His Way Through #43 5

His teammates would call him “Captain Crash,” while Redskins George Allen called him “a rolling ball of butcher knives.”

He played free safety but, like Woodson, hit like a linebacker.

He would win two Super Bowls in Dallas and be inducted into the Ring of Honor in 2004. The Hall of Fame would induct him in 2020.

Hold That Tiger

started out as an offensive standout for the Clemson Tigers in college, as both a and a receiver.

But the Cowboys took him in the of the 1970 draft and moved him to the defensive backfield.

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys CTK: Charlie Waters Owns #41

At first, the experiment seemed doomed. He nearly got cut his first year and only started at cornerback in just over half of his 70 games during his first five seasons.

Still, he was proving to be a ballhawk with 20 interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

When Cornell Green retired after the 1974 season, Waters moved into the strong safety slot and became a force in the backfield.

He played in five Super Bowls, earning two rings.

To this day he remains the record holder for postseason interceptions all-time (9) and in a single game (3). He also had a knack for blocking punts, especially in playoff games.

Waters is not in the Ring of Honor, nor is he in the Hall of Fame.

Honorable Mentions

Green, , and all nearly made the top four. It was very close. But Waters' success in the pushed him over the line just ahead of all three.

Richard Paolinelli
Richard Paolinelli
Richard has covered sports at all levels - from local, prep, college, and professional - since 1984. He has been a fan of the Dallas Cowboys since 1969. Since retiring as a full-time sports writer in 2013, he has written and published several novels, two dozen short stories and two sports non-fiction books.

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