Classic Articles Paint a Picture of Don Meredith

Sports Illustrated writer Tex Maule once described Dallas quarterback Don Meredith as “a young man whose insouciance has sometimes been mistaken for carelessness.” Meredith’s apparent lack of care or concern (insouciance) was indeed something that was misinterpreted. However, the Dallas press and many of the Cowboys’ fans were unforgiving of his mistakes. Gary Cartright famously introduced a story in 1965 by noting:

Outlined against a grey November sky, the Four Horsemen rode again Sunday.

You know them: Pestilence, death, famine and Meredith.

Meredith led the young Cowboys from an talentless expansion team to one of the league’s best teams, but the team’s failures in the 1966 and 1967 NFL championship games, along with a 1968 playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns, led to Meredith’s early retirement at the age of 31.

A bit of trivia: when SI announced Meredith’s retirement in 1969, the story mentioned that Meredith had already chosen a new career path. It wasn’t as a sports broadcaster.

RETIRED: DON MEREDITH, 31, quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys since the team’s inception in 1960, to become a stockbroker. Meredith twice led the Cowboys to the Eastern Conference championship, only to be defeated by Green Bay in spectacularly close NFL title games. Meredith said he had become “halfhearted” about football. “It’s like playing a round of golf and not taking all your clubs,” he said. “I don’t want to play with half a bag.”

The stockbroker career did not last long, as ABC hired Meredith in 1970 to become part of the first team on Monday Night Football. Meredith’s debut on September 21, 1970 was met with a lukewarm reception, though SI’s Frank Deford saw potential in Dandy Don:

The employment of ex-athletes as color commentators is a vote for incompetence that we have long tolerated. It is the product of a mentality that would hire a patient to advise at his next operation. But Meredith—as ABC well recognizes—is a potential exception. He is smooth and clever in the TV genre (“Anyway, I can beat you here,” he told Bart Starr once after they appeared together on the Johnny Carson show). In his rookie game, however, Meredith was tight. Cosell, trying nobly to help the new fellow along, unfortunately kept referring to him as “Dandy Don,” which conjured up an image of a round-faced ventriloquist’s dummy. There was also a general effort, which Meredith encouraged, to make him over into some sort of Joe Garagiola with shoulder pads. Meredith was too good an athlete to be thus cast, and may end up as too good an announcer as well.

During his first three years on MNF, Meredith earned widespread accolades, including an Emmy award. By 1973, he was looking to expand his opportunities. The first issue of Texas Monthly featured a cover story on Meredith. The article entitled “Tuning In Dandy Don,” published in February 1973, noted:

Don Meredith wants to pursue an acting career. But, again, he is wary. “I’ve been interested in acting for a long time,” he explains, “but I went into the stock brokerage business after I got out of pro football. I really didn’t like it at all. I was trying to wear another hat and—well, it was bad. After a year I knew that this was something I didn’t want to do anymore, so I decided to pursue something that I liked. I made a choice to be an actor, and I signed with Dick Clayton, a very fine motion picture agent whom I met through Burt Reynolds. But the tough thing about my getting into acting is that they still want me to do football coaches and football players, ex-football players. Those roles just don’t interest me at all. Occasionally, there’ll be a Western or a war movie—but still I’d just be an ex-football player.”

Meredith appeared in a number of television roles during the 1970s. He left ABC in 1974 and joined NBC, serving as a color analyst for Super Bowl IX. He returned to MNF in 1977 and remained through the 1984 season. His final broadcast was Super Bowl XIX.

From that point, Meredith did what few celebrities can: he left the public eye almost altogether. In 1996, New York Times reporter Richard Sandomir caught up with Meredith when the former quarterback was signing autographs at Kmart in New York in 1996. According to the article, “Dandy” Don was then long gone.

That was Don Meredith in the boyswear department of Kmart on lower Broadway yesterday morning, surrounded by tykes’ Knick and Ranger jackets, wasn’t it?

And didn’t he materialize again hours later at the Kmart in Penn Plaza? ”Dandy Don” of ”Monday Night Football” at Kmart? Without a clothing line to market or an autobiography to sell?

Indeed, Meredith dutifully sat behind a table, signing photos, cards, books, helmets, mini-helmets, newspapers and magazine covers — for nothing — because he was asked to by Floyd Hall, Kmart’s cheerful chairman.

SI caught up with Meredith in 2000 in another rare interview.

. . . Meredith is stunned to learn that he’s considered a recluse. After agreeing to host a rare visitor (who had to negotiate with him via fax)—he thinks he’s done one other interview in the last nine years—Meredith makes clear that what others consider seclusion he understands to be a regular life. No, he hasn’t welcomed a lot of media to his little compound in Santa Fe, but what of it? “A recluse?” he says. “I don’t understand that. I don’t feel reclusive. I actually feel kinda normal.”

Cowboys’ fans almost always rank Meredith among the greatest Cowboys, and any disappointment with the team’s performance in the 1960s has long since vanished. He did not attend the ceremony after the final game at Texas Stadium, one of the few surviving members of the Ring of Honor who did not show up. But that is precisely what has become the norm for Meredith, for he doesn’t need the applause.

  • Meredith always was his own man.

    I just wish he knew how much we fans still appreciate him. I know we are in large part responsible for hastening his retirement because of the way we booed him mercilessly and blamed him for losing the two Packer games and the Browns playoff. When I saw Bob Lilly recently, I asked him to ask Meredith to write his bio.

    I hope Lilly remembers the next time he sees Don.

  • Tim

    Thanks Fred for the good comments. I wonder how things might have been if Meredith had not retired after 1968. In some ways I think Landry was hoping for Morton to eventually take the job, given Morton’s demeanor. But as even meredith would say, “If ‘if’s’ and but’s were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Xmas.

    I find the article about Meredith interesting because later comments about the shuttle system by Meredith and LeBaron were more critical (perhaps because they were no longer playing). I remember LeBaron as a color analyst who was often critical of Landry’s complicated offense.

    Finally, Tony Romo’s recent comments about wanting to win the SB but being ok as a person if he doesn’t sort of harks back to Meredith’s “easy going” demeanor (a column by Brad Sham said as much). I am more than fine with this. As long as his teammates do to. I am sure I will be castigated for this, but so what?

  • Tim:

    I forget where I read the article (maybe it was this blog?) but there’s a theory that had Meredith stuck around, Roger may have moved on to another team.

    As old as Roger was as a “rookie”, he was in no mood to sit on the bench as an apprentice, as Landry was wont to do with his new QBs. After a couple of years, Roger forced his way into the starter’s role and the rest is history.

    Indeed, things might’ve been quite different had Meredith stuck around . . .

  • In Next Year’s Champions (1969), there is a picture of Meredith and Morton watching Staubach play during a rookie practice. One of the Staubach quotes in that book indicates that he thinks he could play until the age of 38, which was pretty ironic. I will have to double-check, but I don’t think there was any mention of a trade possibility in that book. At that point, though, folks were still very impressed with Morton’s arm.

  • Tim

    I used to have a copy of that book but don’t anymore so I can’t check. However, I do think that Fred’s assessment of Meredith vs. Staubach is right on. Staubach felt he was going to be ready sooner. Meredith, Morton, Staubach all competing for a job–what would that have been like. It would be entirely speculation on what Schramm/Landry would have done in terms of trade. I could see where the QB poor Oilers may have made a big bid for one of those guys–maybe Meredith as a know commodity–to boost the teams prospects.

    Asa matter of trivia, in which game was Meredith known for the rallying speech he gave in the huddle “We’re going to run the ball, pass the ball and score a touchdown”–made famous on an NFL Action documentary. It was either the 1966 championship or the 1968 Playoff Bowl against Minnesota. Perhaps I’m too sentimental!

  • Tim, I know I’ve heard that quote, but I cannot find anything that indicates when he said it. I don’t think it was during the 1966 title game, but I could easily be wrong.

  • Tim

    Thanks Matt for answering the question. I have seen it on video two times–both years ago. One was featuring the retirement of Meredith and it talked about his last game (the playoff bowl vs Minnesota). But I saw a brief replay of the 1966 championship game and it showed Meredith making this speech following Dallas being behind 14-0. Naturally, Dallas scored on a Meredith touchdown pass.

  • Tim

    Correction on the previous post–Meredith only threw one TD pass in the game and that was the long one to Franke Clark in the 4th quarter. All other TD’s were rushing scores.

    By the way, I found a link that may let me download the 1966 championship game. I will forward the link–I hope it doesn’t wreck my computer! Tim

  • Greg Ford

    There are some former Cowboys, as well as old-time writers, who say Meredith was a better quarterback than Staubach. It’s just that Staubach had better personnel. Also, when Dallas won Super Bowl VI, Landry had decided to emphasize the running game, which took a lot of pressure off the quarterbacks.
    I agree with the post that compared Tony Romo to Meredith. I think both understand there are more important things than winning Super Bowls, and, in Meredith’s case, he wasn’t going to let that define his career. If I’m right, I think he may be in the HOF’s wing for broadcasters.