TAMPA, Fla. — The genesis of "the undersized hero who could" began nearly two years ago, far away from the greatest moment of the college football season.
Deep in the monotonous grind that is scout team preparation, a tough, undersized wide receiver was driving the Clemson defense crazy. Frankly, the guys were pissed off.
"He kept making plays and making us look bad," Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware told Bleacher Report.
Hunter Renfrow is listed at 5'11" on the Tigers roster, but really he's closer to 5'9". He wouldn't hit his published weight of 180 pounds without a hefty breakfast or two in him. He doesn't streak past defenders or break tackles. He runs the 40, on a good day, in the 4.5-second range.
But he has become a college football star off the two biggest games of the last two seasons, where the undersized and overlooked Renfrow played like an All-American.
Now, after catching a national title-clinching touchdown in the final second of Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship against Alabama, Renfrow has become a social media sensation, an everyman celebrity and a too-good-to-be-true story of an overachiever who walked on at Clemson, won a scholarship and got on the field last year because the Tigers lost their star receiver to injury.
"Never in a million years did I think it would turn out like this," Renfrow said.
He's not the only one.
From an option quarterback who was playing for his father in high school and didn't have a Power Five scholarship offer to running around on the national championship stage amid a sea of elite recruits, Renfrow became the player Clemson couldn't win without in the game it had to have.
His teammates saw it three years ago when he enrolled at Clemson. He couldn't bench press his weight at first, but he worked his tail off to get stronger and allow his natural football instincts and abilities to take over. Alabama saw it in last year's national championship win over Clemson, when Renfrow made two spectacular touchdown catches—then saw it again earlier this week when two more Renfrow touchdowns helped the Tigers win the rematch.
Now the NFL is seeing it, too.
"Those guys who are out to prove themselves every day, every play are the guys you love," an NFC scout told B/R. "Playing like he did twice against Alabama, against a defense full of guys who will be playing at this level, and consistently getting open and making plays, you better believe he has grabbed our attention."
Maybe no one can identify with this feel-good story as much as Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, a former walk-on receiver who won a national championship in 1992 as a player at Alabama—and who saw in Renfrow what his coach at Alabama, Gene Stallings, saw in him all those years ago: a winner.
"Ol' Hunter Renfrow," Swinney, with a huge grin, told reporters after the game Monday. "He's just incredible."
That isn't exactly how his teammates at Clemson would have described him when they first came into contact with him. In front of a room of elite talents painstakingly recruited to Clemson to build something unique, Renfrow barely lifted 135 pounds.
"I remember thinking, You've got to be kidding me, man," said Clemson All-American wideout Mike Williams. "Then he got on the field. He's the real deal."
Earlier this week, in the postgame mosh pit that was the Clemson locker room, I asked Williams—his long, 6'4", 235-pound frame that NFL scouts drool over stretched out in front of a cramped locker—why didn't Clemson throw it his way on the final play? How in the world could the Tigers coaching staff not draw up a play for a receiver who could be a top-five pick in this year's NFL draft?
"Because we used our best play in that situation," Williams said.
Your best play isn't throwing it to the best wide receiver in the game?
"No," Williams said. "It's throwing to Hunter."
Four years ago, Renfrow was running the triple-option at Socastee High School in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, finishing his second straight unbeaten regular season with another third-round playoff loss. He threw three interceptions to end his high school career and then received FCS offers from Wofford, Citadel and Furman to get back on that quarterback horse and try again.
But he never wanted to play quarterback. Wide receiver was his position of choice, ever since he was little. "He played quarterback because we needed him to, and he was good at it," his father and high school coach, Tim Renfrow, said.
So why not do something that makes you happy?
Three years later, after redshirting and dominating on the Tigers scout team, Renfrow emerged as Clemson's best pass-receiving option with the entire season on the line—two yards and six seconds away from a program and its coach cashing in on the previous eight years of building and grinding toward a championship.
The play, fittingly, was called Orange Crush.
"People can relate to me as the underdog, and that makes you feel good—but it also makes you want to work that much harder," Renfrow said. "I came here and asked to walk on; what's the worst they can do, say no? I don't see size out there (on the field), I see opportunity."
It wasn't long into his redshirt season when the defense went to Swinney and asked that Renfrow be taken off the scout team. He was that good in that short of time—and yeah, he was making them look bad.
"He can ball, that was never a question," said Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. "He just had to get stronger. When he did, look out, here he comes."
Last year, in the middle of fall camp and during the team's retreat at Lake Keowee, South Carolina, Swinney called Renfrow to the front of the room to award him a scholarship. He hadn't played a down of football for Clemson at the time, and the idea of him eventually catching 17 passes for 180 yards and four touchdowns in two national championship games against Alabama was as pie-in-the-sky as a scrawny quarterback from Socastee High School walking on to Clemson and earning a scholarship.
"Hunter is a great example of 'Don't judge a book by its cover,'" Swinney told his team.
Because he'll just keep making you look bad.