Baby-faced and undersized, Hunter Renfrow is hardly recognized out of uniform, but Clemon's clutch wide receiver hasn't gone unnoticed by the NFL
By Chase Goodbread | Published Oct. 2, 2018
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- On one of his last free days of summer before reporting for Clemson's fall football camp, Hunter Renfrow drives through his old neighborhood and stops his Ford F-150 at the modest, one-story home he grew up in with three brothers and two sisters on Camellia Drive, just three blocks off the Atlantic Ocean. Two large oak trees that once served as goal posts stand 10 feet apart in the front yard. Neighbor Karen Mitchell spots him from next door.
"It's Hunter!" she exclaims, roaring down her front stoop.
Mitchell knew Renfrow long before there was demand for his cover-photo autograph on a few thousand Sports Illustrateds. But he's back home in Myrtle Beach, so he's on full alert for random recognition. It's one of two places, along with Clemson, where his popularity has ravaged any hope of walk-around anonymity. He'd just as soon go back to the days when only those closest to him knew who he was. But when you catch a pass to give Clemson fans their first national championship in more than a generation, local hero status isn't something you can decline.
There are still pockets of escapes where, still, nobody in the room has any idea who he is. He'll play right along, just for fun, identifying himself as a Clemson senior, an economics major, a nerd -- anything but a football player. Just from appearance, his unassuming demeanor -- together with an unimposing frame (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) and a hairline receding too far for any 22-year-old -- strikes no fear in opponents.
In many ways, it's a Superman-like existence. In one room, he's a red-caped superhero and the center of attention, signing autographs and shaking hands. In the next, if there isn't a Clemson die-hard around to spot him, he's Clark Kent. The difference is, Renfrow doesn't get to decide when to duck into a phone booth and make the switch.
When scouts write their final reports on Renfrow ahead of the 2019 NFL Draft, their challenge will be Rubik's Cube-hard. They'll be asked to explain to their front-office superiors how this smallish former walk-on can consistently beat NFL-bound college cornerbacks for receptions. How a guy whose physique gets him routinely mistaken for all manner of Clemson gridiron periphery -- a member of the video staff, or the equipment staff, or a graduate assistant, or the most common misidentification, its kicker -- and yet draw comparisons to a former No. 1 overall draft pick.
"He looks like a banker," said Hartsville (S.C.) High coach Jeff Calabrese, who coached against Renfrow's Socastee High team in two playoff games. "But over 20 years, he and Jadeveon Clowney might be the two best high school players I've ever seen in this state."
Six seconds remained in the 2017 national title game. Clemson, trailing Alabama 31-28, needed just 2 yards to make history. Coach Dabo Swinney was about to trust a player who dropped his first five practice passes as a freshman to be on the receiving end of the most crucial pass attempt in the football team's 120-year history. Lined up in the slot, where scouts expect him to eventually make his NFL impact, Renfrow flared behind the outside receiver, Artavis Scott, who created a rub play by engaging his man, Marlon Humphrey, and forcing Renfrow's defender, Tony Brown, to play behind the traffic.
Renfrow made an uncontested catch with one tick left on the clock for the title-winning score in Clemson's improbable 35-31 victory over the Crimson Tide, the defending national champs who had been tabbed a touchdown favorite. The wide receiver's life would never be the same.
The play was forever emblazoned across Clemson lore -- right down to a GIF loop that sits atop Renfrow's official Clemson player page. There was the SI cover thing. The day after the game, the marquee at his old high school in Socastee read "Hunter Renfrow High," and over in Surfside Beach, just south of Myrtle Beach, Hunter Renfrow Day was declared by mayor Bob Childs. When Clemson took its visit to the White House as national champions, President Donald Trump singled him out by inviting him to the South Lawn dais and saying, "Oh, Hunter, you're so lucky you caught that ball." Renfrow shared in the ensuing laughter, although it didn't take much luck to catch a ball Deshaun Watson put right between his numbers. Cars around Clemson's campus began honking their horns at the sight of him, and requests for selfies and autographs became an inundation.
On this day, back in Myrtle Beach, Renfrow grabs lunch at a local burger joint and the only one who recognizes him is an employee. They share a quick exchange, but the place isn't particularly crowded, and Renfrow is otherwise able to eat in peace. It could have gone another direction. It could have been a circus tent.
"The only thing about it that can get a little annoying is that the national championship from two years ago is all some people want to talk about," Renfrow said. "And I grew up a Clemson fan, so I understand. They just want to hold onto that, and I get it. But I more want to talk about things to come. Sometimes you want to tell people, 'Hey, I'm not done yet.' But you also don't want to be rude."
As signature moments go, this one didn't do Renfrow's abilities much justice. While it certainly was soaked in drama, the play was designed and executed cleanly enough that a 2-yard catch requiring nothing especially athletic of Renfrow became, to some, all he was known for. Heck, a sensible argument can be made that it wasn't even the most critical play he made in the game. Earlier in the second half, he had prevented a game-changing touchdown by making a tackle on a fumble return by Tide linebacker Ryan Anderson.
Truth is, a historic catch doesn't nearly encapsulate Renfrow's resume; he'd caught 76 career passes at Clemson before that one and 109 after. Nor was it his first touchdown catch in a College Football Playoff game; it was his fifth, the highest total of any receiver in the playoff's four-year history. Consider this for clutch play: of Renfrow's 55 career games, only seven were CFP contests. Yet his CFP production represents a fifth of his career receptions (37 of 186) and a third of his career touchdowns (5 of 15).
But it was the title-winning score that made for storybook stuff. And while Renfrow might prefer the quieter life he used to have, he's also not been afraid to ride the wave. He often signs autographs with an appropriate scripture -- Philippians 4:13 ("I can do all things in Him who strengthens me") -- a sign of his Christian upbringing that also symbolizes the play (Watson, who threw the title-game winner, wore No. 4; Renfrow No. 13). He'll even marry Clemson's Homecoming Queen, longtime girlfriend Camilla Martin, on April 13 next year.
In the summer of 2014, Renfrow arrived at Clemson at 153 pounds, a few lighter than he should have been, thanks to a tonsillectomy that had him on a liquid diet prior to his enrollment. His locker was situated between two current NFL receivers -- the New York Jets' Charone Peake and Tampa Bay's Adam Humphries -- and before he could even step on the field for his first practice, panic set in. Renfrow couldn't open his locker to get his cleats.
"Incoming freshmen, their minds are going 100 miles an hour. For him to come in that first day and not even be able to get into his locker and get his cleats, that had to be a pretty terrible feeling," said Humphries, who eventually became something of a mentor for Renfrow. "So, I just lent him a pair. Most freshmen come in and don't have any gear, and they can be scared or embarrassed to ask the training staff for more equipment because they haven't done anything on the field to ask for more. So, he came to me."
Things didn't go any better that afternoon. Watson and Cole Stoudt fired passes to a star-studded receiving corps, and when it was Renfrow's turn, he dropped the first five throws that came his way. The last one didn't even require him to run a route -- a hitch behind the line of scrimmage that hit him squarely in the hands. Asked who was in coverage, Renfrow revealed the full embarrassment.
"No coverage. It was RVA," he said. "Routes Versus Air."
His development in the weight room had a ground-zero start, as well. Although he had decent lower-body strength, he couldn't bench more than 135 pounds -- the bar, plus a 45-pound plate on each side. Meanwhile, his new teammates were racking two plates per side -- 225 pounds -- as a warmup.
"It was a little discouraging being around all these guys who can bench 225 pounds 20 times like it's nothing," Renfrow said. "But I didn't see how all that bench pressing translated to the field, and I still don't to an extent. I think it helps, but I've seen guys bench press a ton of weight who aren't very good at the game."
Renfrow had been an undersized but highly effective triple-option quarterback for his father at Socastee High. Appalachian State had shown some interest, but he had his heart set on Clemson, and accepted a preferred walk-on opportunity that was driven more by emphatic recommendations from high school coaches around the state than by Renfrow's tape or his performance at Clemson's summer camp.
"He was very, very small. He was explosive, but then you'd meet him and he wasn't impressive just on the eye test," Swinney said. "And as a triple-option quarterback, he wasn't easy to evaluate on film."