CLEMSON, S.C. — In the beginning, there was the earth and the stars and Hunter Renfrow. Then, somewhere down the road, college football came to be.
Renfrow holds the unique honor of having redshirted on Clemson’s 1981 national championship team as well as catching the winning touchdown for the 2016 champs. He has caught passes from Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, and the only reason he didn’t lead John Heisman’s 1902 team in receiving is the forward pass had not yet been invented. His first jersey had Roman numerals.
So what if the record books show Renfrow actually spent only five years on campus at Clemson, or that his final moment in a Tigers uniform comes Monday in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T (8 ET, ESPN). The guy transcends time and space. During last week’s Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, Clemson’s official Twitter account sent out an edited version of ESPN’s broadcast and included the chyron beneath Renfrow’s name noting he “has been a senior for the past 17 years.”
This draws a laugh even from Renfrow, who has heard his share of these one-liners.
“Some people say they feel like their college experience has flown by,” Renfrow said. “Not me. I feel like I’ve been here forever.”
There’s a reason for that. Renfrow has bookended this era of Clemson football, a through line from Watson to Lawrence, upstart to juggernaut. But more than that, Renfrow is a legend, and legends are timeless.
They made a movie about “Rudy,” and he was only on the field for mop-up duty. Renfrow is a former walk-on who caught the winning touchdown in a national championship. Those old jokes about Chuck Norris? Yeah, Chuck Norris hangs posters of Hunter Renfrow in his bedroom. In advance of Monday’s national championship game against Alabama, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney lamented having only one more game to coach Renfrow, which raises the question: Is Swinney going somewhere? Because Hunter Renfrow is forever.
Sure, there’s some embellishment here. That’s how mythology works. But it’s not necessary, because the true life events are so mind-boggling, awe-inspiring and downright unbelievable that there’s no need to pad the details.
The legend of Hunter Renfrow is real, and everyone has their story.
Renfrow’s first summer on campus, the team hit the field for offseason drills. Players were dripping sweat under the oppressive Clemson heat, and Eric Mac Lain, then a veteran offensive lineman, made his way to the water station, where he found Renfrow waiting with a towel and a Gatorade.
To classify Renfrow as a former walk-on does a disservice to walk-ons. The kid arrived at Clemson a wisp of a thing, maybe 150 pounds with wide eyes and skinny arms and no hope whatsoever of getting on the field.
“I walk up to him, and I’m talking to somebody else, and I stick my hand out, and I’m waiting for him to hand me the water or the towel,” Mac Lain said, “and nothing happens.”
After a moment, Mac Lain realized he’d been snubbed and gave the scrawny kid an earful.
“Dude,” he yelled, “give me the towel.”
A chorus of laughter erupted from the other players, who knew what Mac Lain did not. Renfrow was a freshman receiver, not the water boy.
“I was shocked,” Mac Lain said. “He didn’t look like the wide receivers I’m used to.”
And, of course, Renfrow insisted Mac Lain take his towel anyway.
Renfrow was a Clemson fan since birth, and it’s the only place he ever wanted to play. He had a few scholarship offers to some smaller schools, but even if South Carolina or Tennessee had come calling, he said, his heart was set on Clemson.
So the folks in his hometown rallied support to make it happen.
Renfrow’s dad, Tim, was friends with David Bennett, the former coach at Coastal Carolina, and Bennett, in turn, was friends with Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott.
“So every Saturday,” Scott said, “I’d have a voicemail from Coach Bennett with a Hunter Renfrow update.”
It’s not that Scott didn’t see the talent. Renfrow was fast, and at camps, he always impressed. But Scott also saw what the rest of us see: Five-foot-nuthin, a-hundred-and-nuthin.
Five years later, Scott accompanied Renfrow to collect the Burlsworth Trophy, given annually to the best college player who began as a walk-on. One after another, folks lauded Renfrow’s skill and heart and talent and determination and success, and eventually it hit Scott.
“I was the only one in that room that had a chance to offer him a scholarship,” he said, “and I didn’t do it. So that’s on me.”
Swinney has gotten a lot of mileage out of his own underdog story. He was a walk-on receiver at Alabama, won a national championship, found success despite never being the biggest or fastest guy.
Problem is, Renfrow’s life has taken some of the luster off that rags-to-riches narrative.
“I can tell he’s jealous of my career,” Renfrow joked. “He thinks he would’ve had a better career than me if [Alabama] threw it more. He thinks I was maybe a step faster, but he has way better hands than me.”
Dexter Lawrence is a massive human being. Last summer, he joyously announced he’d slimmed down to 350. He’s a wrecking ball of mass and muscle and momentum. He is, quite literally, twice Renfrow’s size.
So of course, on Lawrence’s first play of his first scrimmage at Clemson, the unstoppable force was destined to meet a very movable object.
It was the spring of 2016, and Watson was leading the offense. On the first snap, he tried a screen to Renfrow. Lawrence was ready. He intercepted the pass and began his rumble down the sideline.
The last hope to save a touchdown: Hunter Renfrow.
“He comes out of nowhere and jumps on Dexter’s back, trying to latch on to anything he could grab,” Christian Wilkins recalled. “He starts at the top of his back and works his way down to his leg, and Dexter still ran for like five more yards before he finally fell.”
It was like watching a chimp wrestle an elephant, and somehow the chimp won.
“I’ll never get that image out of my head,” Wilkins said. “Just another story in the legend of Hunter Renfrow.”
Jeff Scott tweeted out a picture of when receivers had a group outing at the lake last year. The whole group is in the water, waist-deep. There’s Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers and the rest of the lot, all rippling abs and bulging pecs. And then there’s Renfrow, standing on the far end, pale and thin, like a middle-aged tourist posing for a photo next to some Grecian statues.
Throughout most of his high school career, Renfrow played for his father, Tim. But if you’re curious about those details and happen to type “Hunter Renfrow dad” into Google, the search engine will attempt to finish your thought with a more popular search term: “Hunter Renfrow dad bod.”
Two days before the 2016 national championship game, C.J. Spiller, the former Clemson star, dropped by Swinney’s hotel room with his girlfriend. They chatted for a bit, noticing the coach’s son, Will, playing video games with another kid. It was only after the kid left that Spiller’s girlfriend learned who it was.
“That was Hunter Renfrow?” she asked, astonished.
Yup. That’s the guy who had 10 catches and two touchdowns in the national title game the year before and who, two days later, would make history by catching the winner to beat Alabama.
Swinney never gets tired of those reactions. Everywhere they go, no matter how prepared people think they are, they’re still shocked. How can this pipsqueak be the same guy on the cover of Sports Illustrated?
“He’s the most unassuming guy you’ll ever meet until he puts that helmet on,” Swinney said. “He’s literally like Superman going into a phone booth.”
Earlier this season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers turned their home stadium into a makeshift nine-hole golf course, played by receiver Adam Humphries, who also happens to be a former Clemson star and the most frequent comparison point for Renfrow — undersized, but quick with great hands. Not surprisingly, the two remain close friends despite sharing a locker room for just a year.
Raymond James Stadium was also where Renfrow’s championship-winning touchdown occurred in 2016, and one of the holes on Humphries’ course was right at the spot where Renfrow hauled in the pass. So, standing at the tee, Humphries looked out at the target and announced he was “channeling my inner Hunter Renfrow.”
“It ended up an inch from a hole-in-one,” Humphries said. “Literally just Hunter’s essence made that shot.”
Renfrow was explaining why he doesn’t let all the adulation around Clemson get to him because, he said, at his next stop, wherever that is, he won’t be a superstar.
This is perplexing for two reasons. First, it’s hard to imagine Renfrow as anything but a fan favorite. Second, Renfrow’s professional future has appeared certain for quite some time now, with his destiny being the one team that has made a half-dozen undersized slot receivers into household names.
“Well,” Renfrow said, “when we played at BC, I did think — the Patriots are right down the road.”
For Christmas in 2016, Renfrow wanted to buy his girlfriend, Camilla Martin, a puppy. She desperately wanted a golden retriever, and he was woefully behind on shopping. Still, Renfrow was raised with good manners, so he tracked down each of her roommates, asking if they were OK with adding a dog to the living arrangements. They all said yes.
Then he called to check with Martin’s father. After all, the dog would be staying there from time to time, too.
“Absolutely not,” was the immediate answer. The Martins had two dogs of their own, and they weren’t looking to add a third.
Renfrow said he understood, then, just before hanging up, added: “I’ll probably just get one for myself.”
A week later, Renfrow caught a touchdown to win a national championship. He flew back to Clemson with the team, got in the car, drove to Asheville, North Carolina, and bought a dog.
“My dad was like, ‘I can’t even be mad at him,'” Martin said. “And of course, the dog became my dog within a week.”
They named the dog “Deuce,” a nod to Clemson’s second national championship. They’ve since added a second dog, a black lab named Camper.
“That’s just Hunter,” Martin said. “He’s so persistent, and he’s so stubborn, that once he puts his mind to something, he’s going to do it no matter what. My dad and him still joke about it.”
Renfrow is human, it turns out. He got engaged last spring, took Martin out for a nice dinner then down to the rowing docks on the lake, where he planned to propose. Only he was so nervous, he took a wrong turn, then stumbled over all his words trying to say just the right thing.
“I was way more nervous than I’d ever been on a football field,” he said.
Renfrow took a hit against Duke this year that landed him in the concussion protocol. Doctors told him to relax, stay low-key. By the next morning, however, he had cabin fever.
“We’re sitting on the couch, and I look over and he’s putting his camo on to go hunting,” said Will Swinney, Renfrow’s roommate. “He’s like, ‘No, see, if I’m hunting, I’ll be at peace.'”
Swinney had visions of Renfrow’s career ending because he fell out of a tree stand, and he begged his roommate to stay put.
“Hunter legitimately thought it would help with his concussion to go hunting,” receiver Amari Rodgers said. “So one of Coach’s friends took all his hunting gear so he wouldn’t go.”
In late September, Clemson was down to one scholarship quarterback and in desperate need for an emergency Plan B. Of course, the answer was Renfrow.
Renfrow took practice reps at QB throughout the week, and he sat in all the quarterback meetings. That Saturday, Clemson annihilated Wake Forest, and by the time the score got out of hand, it seemed clear he’d get his chance to helm the offense.
Just before trotting out onto the field, however, he subtly joked with Dabo Swinney: “Wouldn’t it be cool for me to throw a little touch pass to Will?”
Sure enough, first play of the drive, that’s just what happened.
“My first and only completion,” Renfrow said.
Funny thing is, he also laid the key block on a 52-yard touchdown run, caught two passes and punted once. All in a day’s work.
Perhaps the thing that makes Renfrow so extraordinary is that, if you didn’t know any better, he seems so ordinary. He’s like us. He’s small and unassuming, sure. But he’s also funny and humble and friendly, and all of that makes it so easy to see part of ourselves in him. And if he can do all of this, if Renfrow can conquer Alabama through nothing but the sheer force of will, then what can we do?
Jeff Davis, the former Clemson All-American who now serves as an assistant athletic director, put it this way: “Hunter’s life is better witnessed than told.” In other words, the mythology takes away from the man. This is all miraculous, but to know Renfrow, to see him at work, it makes sense.
“Grit, heart, toughness, perseverance, belief, character and class in everything you do — that’s exactly what Hunter Renfrow is,” Dabo Swinney said. “I mean, he’s what makes college football so special.”
There’s this moment that Renfrow likes to reflect upon. He was fresh off his first national championship game when his Instagram follower count rocketed from a few hundred to 10,000 overnight, but he still thought of himself as the same kid who helped his dad paint lines on the field before every game because he just loved being out there.
Then came the 2016 opener against Auburn, a close game into the fourth quarter, and Watson was facing a third-and-goal at the 19. Under pressure, he lofted a throw to the back corner of the end zone. Renfrow leapt, falling backward with a defender draped across his legs, and hauled it in, hitting the ground hard. He was on the turf for maybe a second and a half, but it felt like forever, this moment when it all sunk in.
He heard the crowd. He felt the lights. He looked up and saw his teammate, Artavis Scott, standing over him, a hand outstretched. How had he possibly gotten here?
“And I just thought, this is a dream,” Renfrow said. “That’s the first thing that popped into my head. This can’t really be happening. But that’s what it’s been for me. It’s been a dream.”