Successful offenses in the NFL seek “big chunk plays” – plays that gain significant yardage.
“Big chunk plays” create first downs, shift field position, and indirectly or directly result in points and ultimately in victories.
One way to generate “big chunk plays” is to have a speedy receiver who can catch passes for long gains and touchdowns.
One such receiver for the Cleveland Browns was Ray “Rabbit” Renfro.
Renfro used his speed to outrun defenders and consistently generate “big chunk plays” for the Browns over a 12-year career.
He scored three touchdowns in NFL championship games and helped Cleveland win two of its four NFL championships.
On This Date in Texas Sports History – Birthday of TSHOF member Ray Renfro (1929-1997) standout WR for @MeanGreenFB and @Browns pic.twitter.com/6Ybu8FSGlP
— Texas Sports HOF (@TXSportsHOF) November 7, 2018
We take a look at the life of Ray Renfro – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Austin Raymond (“Ray”) Renfro was born on November 7, 1929 in Whitesboro, Texas.
Whitesboro is located in northeastern Texas, near the Texas-Oklahoma border and about 70 miles north of Dallas.
When Renfro was growing up, Whitesboro had a population of approximately 1,500 to 1,800 people.
Renfro’s parents were Jewel Floyd Renfro and Dolly D. (Preston) Renfro.
Weldon E. (“Dean”) Renfro was Renfro’s younger brother.
Dean Renfro (who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the second round of the 1955 NFL draft) played running back with the Baltimore Colts in the NFL and the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League.
Renfro attended Leonard High School, in Leonard, Texas.
Leonard is also located near the Texas-Oklahoma border, about 50 miles east of Whitesboro.
Renfro played on the Leonard High School football team.
After graduating Leonard High School in 1948, Renfro headed to North Texas State University in Denton, Texas (a suburb of Dallas) to attend college.
At North Texas State University (now known as University of North Texas), Renfro was a three-year letterman in football in 1949, 1950, and 1951.
As a running back (principally) and receiver, Renfro helped North Texas post three winning records and win two conference titles (one as co-champions and one as sole champion) from 1949 to 1951.
In 1949, North Texas had an 8-4 record.
North Texas was co-champions of the Gulf Coast Conference in 1950 with a 1-1-1 conference record; its overall record in 1950 was 7-2-1.
In 1951, North Texas had a 2-0 conference record and was sole champion of the Gulf Coast Conference.
North Texas had an overall record of 8-4 in 1951.
Renfro had a standout season his senior year in 1951.
On September 22, 1951, in a 33-0 North Texas shutout of Texas Western, Renfro rushed for 207 yards and averaged 15.9 yards per rushing attempt.
He also scored three touchdowns and threw a touchdown pass in the game.
In a 61-0 North Texas shutout of Midwestern on November 10, 1951, Renfro set a North Texas school record for a game, averaging 36.2 yards per rushing attempt (minimum 10 rushing attempts or 100 rushing yards gained).
His 95-yard run in the game tied the North Texas school record for longest rushing play in a game.
For the 1951 season, Renfro rushed for 959 yards on 127 rushing attempts.
His 7.5 average yards per rushing attempt set a North Texas school record for a season (minimum 80 rushing attempts).
Renfro also scored 15 touchdowns in 1951.
For his play in 1951, Renfro was voted first-team Little All-American (for smaller colleges) at back by the Associated Press and first-team All-Conference at back by the Gulf Coast Conference.
Over his career at North Texas, Renfro rushed for 1,556 yards on 230 rushing attempts.
His 6.8 average yards per rushing attempt set a North Texas school record for a career (minimum 175 rushing attempts).
Renfro’s average yards per rushing attempt records at North Texas evidence his explosiveness and ability to make “big chunk plays” that would also define Renfro’s career in the NFL.
Renfro scored 21 touchdowns over his North Texas career.
Renfro was also on the track and field and cross-country teams at North Texas.
After North Texas, Renfro continued his football career in the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
Renfro was drafted in the fourth round of the 1952 NFL draft (the 48th overall pick) by the Cleveland Browns.
As a rookie in 1952, Renfro joined one of the best teams in the NFL.
The Browns had won the NFL championship in 1950 (Cleveland’s first year in the NFL) and advanced to the championship game in 1951 before losing to the Los Angeles Rams.
With such future Pro Football of Famers as Marion Motley, Dante Lavelli, and Mac Speedie in the backfield and at wide receiver, it was hard for Renfro to see much playing time in 1952.
Renfro played in 11 regular-season games in 1952, but he started none of them.
He rushed for 26 yards on 10 rushing attempts and caught one pass for eight yards in 1952.
The main contribution of Renfro to the Browns during the 1952 regular season was as a returner.
He returned eight kickoffs for 130 yards and 22 punts for 169 yards.
The Browns had an 8-4 record in 1952, won the NFL American Division title, and again advanced to the NFL championship game, playing the Detroit Lions on December 28, 1952.
While the Browns lost the championship game 17-7 to the Lions, Renfro had his best individual game of the 1952 season.
Because of injuries, Renfro started the championship game at left halfback.
He caught four passes for 26 yards, rushed for 13 yards on three rushing attempts, and returned one kickoff for 18 yards and four punts for 18 yards.
Renfro used his performance in the 1952 championship game as a springboard to have an excellent 1953 season.
In a 27-7 Cleveland victory over the Chicago Cardinals on October 4, 1953, Renfro caught three passes for 71 yards, including his first NFL regular-season touchdown on a 48-yard pass from Otto Graham.
On November 8, 1953, as the Browns defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-16, Renfro rushed for 67 yards on nine rushing attempts, including a touchdown on a 44-yard run, and caught three passes for 35 yards.
Renfro also scored a special team touchdown in the game on a 79-yard blocked field goal return.
The touchdowns against the Steelers started a streak in which Renfro scored a touchdown in each of the final six regular-season games for the Browns in 1953.
During this stretch, Renfro further showed his versatility, by throwing a 36-yard touchdown pass to Pete Brewster in the 62-14 trouncing of the New York Giants on December 6, 1953.
For the 1953 regular season, Renfro caught 39 passes for 722 yards and four touchdowns, rushed for 352 yards and four touchdowns on 60 rushing attempts (5.9 average yards per rushing attempt), and returned 17 punts for 53 yards.
Let's hear it for the stiff arm — especially in the days before facemasks. This is the #Browns' Ray Renfro laying one on the #Steelers' Art DiCarlo in 1953. pic.twitter.com/bf6J4aoWXU
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) July 23, 2020
In 1953, Renfro finished second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,074 aggregate receiving and rushing yards) and first in the NFL in average yards per touch (10.8 average yards per reception or rushing attempt).
Renfro recorded these statistics while still being a backup.
In 1953, he played in all 12 regular-season games, but started none of them.
Cleveland won the NFL East Division title with an 11-1 record in 1953 and again advanced to the NFL championship game.
Paul Brown, Ray Renfro, Chuck Noll and Billy Reynolds of the #Cleveland @Browns (1953). Source: @Cleveland_PL Sports Research Center. pic.twitter.com/b424lnpziy
— John Skrtic (@SkrticX) May 3, 2020
For the second consecutive year, after not starting a single regular-season game, Renfro started the NFL championship game at left halfback.
The Cleveland #Browns starting offense for the 1953 NFL Championship
LG Abe Gibron
RG Chuck Noll (future #Steelers coach)
LT Lou Groza #HOF
RT John Sandusky
LE Pete Brewster
RE Dante Lavelli #HOF
QB Otto Graham #HOF
HB Ray Renfro
HB Dub Jones
HB Chick Jagade pic.twitter.com/NCxSgkBIYn
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) April 5, 2020
However, the Browns lost the 1953 championship game 17-16 to the Detroit Lions on December 27, 1953.
Renfro rushed for 11 yards on four rushing attempts in the game.
For his play in 1953, Renfro was invited to his first Pro Bowl.
In 1954, Renfro became a starter at left halfback.
However, because of injuries, he only played in and started seven regular-season games.
In the 1954 regular season, Renfro caught 13 passes for 228 yards and one touchdown, rushed for 151 yards on 29 rushing attempts, and returned one kickoff for 24 yards.
The Browns had a 9-3 record and again won the NFL East Division title in 1954.
They advanced to the 1954 NFL championship game against the Detroit Lions on December 26, 1954.
Early in the game, Renfro, coming out of the backfield and isolated on Lions defensive back Bill Stits, sprinted past Stits and caught a 35-yard touchdown pass from Otto Graham.
The play set the tone for the game, as the Browns routed the Lions 56-10 to earn their second NFL championship.
Renfro also caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Graham in the championship game.
BOTD Ray Renfro
Ray catches a TD pass from Otto Graham in the 1954 #NFL Championship.#Browns pic.twitter.com/KJmppMTNY3
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) November 7, 2020
Although Renfro did not start the game, he was the Browns’ leading receiver in the game, catching five passes for 94 yards.
Renfro stated about the 1954 championship game:
“I remember that as my biggest thrill in pro football, not just because I had such a good day catching the ball, but because we beat the Lions, the team that had beaten us in two previous championship games.”
In 1955, for the first time, Renfro started all 12 regular-season games, playing at flanker.
Renfro displayed his “big chunk play” ability in 1955, as in five of the last six regular-season games, he caught a pass for at least 30 yards.
For the 1955 regular season, Renfro caught 29 passes for 603 yards and eight touchdowns (ranked tied for third in the NFL), rushed for 90 yards on 29 rushing attempts, and returned one punt for three yards.
In 1955, he led the NFL in average yards per reception (20.8).
Scoring eight touchdowns on only 29 receptions in the 1955 regular season was typical for Renfro.
For his NFL regular-season career, Renfro averaged scoring a touchdown on approximately every 5.6 receptions.
Renfro’s exceptional speed was a key factor in him being able to make “big chunk plays” for the Browns.
At a height of six feet and one inch, and a weight of 185 pounds, Renfro earned the nickname, “Rabbit”, for his ability to sprint by defensive pass coverage.
Cleveland had a 9-2-1 record and again won the NFL East Division title in 1955.
The Browns advanced to their sixth consecutive NFL championship game against the Los Angeles Rams on December 26, 1955.
Renfro (who started the game at left halfback) caught two passes for 49 yards in the championship game.
One of his receptions was a 35-yard touchdown pass from Graham, giving Renfro three touchdowns over two consecutive NFL championship games.
The great Otto Graham throws the last TD of his career, 25 yards to Ray Renfro. pic.twitter.com/Jm9ayjNf6q
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) May 16, 2020
The Browns won their third NFL championship, defeating the Rams 38-14.
For his play in 1955, Renfro was voted second-team All-Pro by the Newspaper Enterprise Association.
1956 was a transition year for the Browns following Otto Graham’s retirement after the 1955 season.
Graham’s retirement definitely adversely affected Renfro’s performance in 1956 relative to 1955.
Starting all 12 regular-season games at flanker in 1956, Renfro caught 17 passes for 325 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 24 yards on four rushing attempts.
The Browns had a 5-7 season in 1956 and missed the playoffs for the first time while in the NFL.
In 1957, both Renfro and the Browns rebounded with improved seasons relative to 1956.
Renfro again started all 12 regular-season games at flanker in 1957.
He caught 21 passes for 589 yards (28.0 average yards per reception) and six touchdowns and rushed for 22 yards on two rushing attempts.
Cleveland won the NFL East Division title in 1957 with a 9-2-1 record.
However, the Browns lost to the Detroit Lions 59-14 on December 29, 1957 in the NFL championship game.
Renfro (starting the game at left halfback) caught one pass for nine yards and had a 21-yard run in the game.
For his play in 1957, Renfro was invited to his second Pro Bowl.
For the fourth straight season, Renfro started all 12 regular-season games for the Browns in 1958.
One of Renfro’s characteristics was his durability and ability to play despite injuries.
Browns head coach Paul Brown described Renfro as “a great competitor and an inspiration to his teammates”.
Renfro had another “big chunk play” stretch in the last four games of the 1958 regular season.
He caught a 34-yard touchdown pass (in a 28-14 Browns win over the Philadelphia Eagles on November 23, 1958), a 29-yard touchdown pass and another 45-yard pass (as Cleveland defeated the Washington Redskins 21-14 on November 30, 1958), a 48-yard touchdown pass (for the winning score, as the Browns defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 21-14 on December 7, 1958), and a 51-yard pass (as Cleveland lost to the New York Giants 13-10 on December 14, 1958), each from Milt Plum.
In the 1958 regular season (principally playing at right halfback), Renfro caught 24 passes for 573 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for 17 yards on three rushing attempts.
His 23.9 average yards per reception ranked second in the NFL in 1958.
In 1958, the Browns had a 9-3 record and finished the season tied for the NFL East Division title with the New York Giants.
However, in a divisional-round playoff game between the Browns and the Giants on December 21, 1958, the Giants shutout the Browns 10-0.
Renfro (who started the game at left halfback) caught one pass for 17 yards.
In 1959, although Renfro turned 30 years old, he had another excellent season.
On November 22, 1959, Renfro probably had the best statistical game in his NFL career.
He caught five passes for 161 yards, including 30-yard, 27-yard, and 70-yard (which tied for his longest regular-season pass reception) touchdown passes from Milt Plum, in a 21-20 Browns loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For the 1959 regular season, playing in 12, and starting 11, regular-season games at flanker, Renfro caught 30 passes for 528 yards and six touchdowns.
Renfro was voted second-team All-Pro by the New York Daily News in 1959.
The Browns had a 7-5 record and missed the playoffs in 1959.
After playing in playoff games in six of his first seven NFL seasons, Renfro failed to play in the playoffs in any of his final five NFL seasons.
Cleveland also posted records of 8-3-1 in 1960, 8-5-1 in 1961, 7-6-1 in 1962, and 10-4 in 1963.
In 1960, Renfro played in 12 games, and started nine regular-season games at flanker.
In the 1960 regular season, Renfro caught 24 passes for 378 yards and four touchdowns.
Renfro was invited to his third Pro Bowl in 1960.
Although Renfro turned 32 during the 1961 season, he had his best NFL regular season in both receptions and receiving yards in 1961.
For the 1961 regular season, starting all 14 regular-season games at flanker, Renfro caught 48 passes for 834 yards and six touchdowns.
In 1962, Renfro again started all 14 regular-season games at flanker.
He again showed his “big chunk play” talent in 1962, as three of Renfro’s four touchdowns were on pass receptions over 30 yards – on a 38-yard pass from Jim Ninowski in a 34-7 Cleveland victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on October 21, 1962, on a 65-yard pass from Frank Ryan in a 17-9 Browns loss to the Washington Redskins on November 11, 1962, and on a 31-yard pass from Ryan in a 35-14 Cleveland defeat of the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 25, 1962.
In the 1962 regular season, Renfro caught 31 passes for 638 yards and four touchdowns.
At age 33, his 20.6 average yards per reception ranked third in the NFL in 1962.
In 1963, Renfro scored his final NFL touchdown on a 39-yard touchdown pass from Frank Ryan in a 20-6 Browns victory over the Los Angeles Rams on September 29, 1963.
Renfro saw limited action in 1963, catching four passes for 82 yards and one touchdown.
He played in 12, and did not start any, regular-season games in 1963.
After the 1963 season, Renfro retired from playing in the NFL.
The Years After the NFL
Renfro was married to Sandra Renfro.
His three sons, Mark, Mike, and Mitch, all played high school and college football.
Mike Renfro also played NFL football, following in his father’s footsteps as a wide receiver for the Houston Oilers and the Dallas Cowboys.
In 1984, with his son then in the middle of his NFL career, Renfro reflected on the differences in the NFL from when he played:
“Society and pro football have both changed from when I played pro football. . . . We had small squads – only 33 players on the team – when I played so we were closer, almost like a family. But we didn’t make the big money they do now. We had to find off-season jobs, and it was hard to get anything other than being a common laborer. . . . The game is more complicated and the teams don’t have that closeness to support each other.”
Renfro apparently was able to easily transition his life after his retirement from the NFL.
“I was well prepared to retire because I had wanted to get out a couple of years earlier, so I really didn’t miss playing. I did miss the fellowship of my teammates, but it was just like someone in your family gets married. It’s a change you learn to live with.”
After retirement, Renfro first operated a dry cleaning business in Cleburne, Texas.
Renfro then became a coach.
He had first informally coached after his retirement when he helped teach rookie Paul Warfield the wide receiver position at Browns training camp in 1964.
Warfield, who became a future Pro Football Hall of Famer, stated:
“The fundamentals of what he taught me about pass-pattern execution were (as) relevant then as they are today.”
In 1965, Renfro was the running backs coach for the Detroit Lions.
He then was the wide receivers coach for the Washington Redskins in 1966 and 1967 (with Otto Graham as head coach of the Redskins).
Renfro next was the wide receivers coach for the Dallas Cowboys from 1968 through 1972.
While he coached at Dallas, the Cowboys made the playoffs each year, won the NFC championship twice, and were Super Bowl champion in 1971.
After coaching, Renfro worked in the ready-mix concrete business.
Renfro was inducted in the North Texas Athletics Hall of Fame in 1981.
In 1995, he was inducted in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
Renfro’s number, “33”, was retired by North Texas in 2000.
In 2001, he was inducted in the Cleveland Browns Legends Program as part of its inaugural class.
Renfro died of cancer on August 4, 1997 at the age of 67 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer Roger Staubach delivered the eulogy at Renfro’s funeral.
In any consideration of the greatest receivers who played for the Browns, Renfro should be included in the discussion.
He currently ranks fourth in Browns career regular-season receiving yards (5,508), fourth in Browns career regular-season receiving touchdowns (50), and eleventh in Browns career regular season receptions (281).
Yet the statistic that most defines Renfro’s NFL career is that he ranks first in Cleveland history (among receivers with at least 35 receptions) with 19.6 average yards per reception in Browns career regular-season games.
It is also important to note that Renfro compiled his numbers at a time when passing was less a part of NFL offenses.
Browns fans should remember “Rabbit” Renfro as the ultimate “big chunk play” receiver.
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