An Ol’ Cowboy Rides off into the Sunset — On His Own Terms

by M.C. Antil on December 10, 2010

"Dandy Don" Meredith

When Don Meredith died this week, it took me a moment to recalibrate. 

Don Meredith? 

My God, was he even still alive?  I hadn’t thought about him since…well, since I can’t tell you when. 

Where’d he been all these years? And what the hell had he been doing?

And that’s when it hit me. That’s when I began to realize how incredibly cool Don Meredith was.  How in control of his life, his career and his options he had always been — and as it turns out, always would be.

A Dallas kid, Meredith had starred at Mount Vernon High School (near Dallas) and became a two-time All American at SMU (in Dallas), before earning a spot in 1960 on the roster of an NFL expansion franchise, his hometown Cowboys.

After riding the bench for two seasons, Dallas Coach Tom Landry finally named Meredith his starter midway through the ’62 season, and by ’66 the local kid with the million dollar arm and the easy-going, aw-shucks manner had led the Cowboys to the NFL Championship game, winning for himself the NFL’s Player of the Year Award in the process.

Hometown Hero

But just three years later, he was gone.  Retired from the game at 29, an age at which a lot of pro quarterbacks are just starting to get it.

And yet, when Meredith moved the next season into broadcasting, specifically a new-fangled prime-time concept ABC was calling Monday Night Football, he somehow made quarterbacking the Cowboys look like a mere stepping stone to the job he had been put on this earth to do.

Within weeks of the premiere of Monday Night Football in 1970, the incredible dynamic that developed between the pompous New York Jewish lawyer-turned-journalist, Howard Cosell, and the whip-smart, wise-cracking WASP of a good ol’ boy, “Dandy Don” Meredith, became not only must-see TV and a ratings juggernaut, it developed into, quite literally, a game-changing, even seismic, cultural phenomenon.

The chemistry between the ego-maniacal, erudite Cosell and his funny and folksy sidekick, “Danderoo,” was downright kinetic and lent a circus-like quality — not to mention a crackling sense of anticipation — to even the dullest of games.  Among Meredith’s memorable moments in those salad days of MNF were his always delightful, albeit off-key, rendition of “Turn Out the Lights,” whenever a game’s outcome became painfully evident, his off-the-cuff analysis of the oxymoronic nature of the name of a certain Browns receiver, Fair Hooker (‘I’ve never met one yet.”) and, of course, his classic one-liner delivered moments after a disgruntled Houston Oiler fan all alone in end zone flipped the bird directly into an ABC camera (“He thinks they’re #1 in the nation”).

Monday Night Football:  Changing the rules forever

Monday Night Football: A seismic shift in sports broadcasting

And yet, even while sitting at the pinnacle of sports broadcasting, Meredith started forging a new career in an even more competitive, more demanding and more dog-eat-dog world; Hollywood.  And in time, Meredith would not only become recognized as a good actor, he would eventually earn for himself a recurring role on one of the grittiest, most highly acclaimed cop dramas of the 1970’s, Police Story.

But then he was gone.  Poof!  Just like that. 

Retired from football, retired from the broadcast booth, and retired from acting. 

Gone.  Never to be seen again.

At just 46 years of age, Don Meredith did something very few people in the limelight have ever been able to do — at least not forever.  He simply walked away from it all; away from the fame, away from the glory and away from the money, to live out his life in relative obscurity with the woman he loved amid the mesas, the sunsets and the wind-swept bohemian tranquility of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Jeff and Hazel's Baby Boy

So when I heard Don Meredith died of a cerebral hemorrhage this week, I began reflecting on the many threads he had helped weave into the rich fabric of my younger days (including his brief run as a pitchman for Lipton Tea, during which he used to introduce himself not as an actor, or a quarterback, or even a football announcer, but as “Jeff and Hazel’s baby boy”).  And the more I reflected, the more I realized that there might not be a celebrity, much less a sports figure, I’ve ever seen with any more in control over his own destiny than Meredith.

In fact, when it came to being his own man, doing things his own way, and leaving on his own terms, no one in my lifetime could hold a candle to Dandy Don.

Not Frank Sinatra.  Not Elvis.  Not Tiger Woods.  Not Michael Jordan. 

Nobody.

Because, unlike so many superstars — sports or otherwise — who spend their prime years trying to convince us they don’t really want or need the limelight and who seem almost bored by their fame, then end up clinging to their careers with white knuckles, kicking and screaming every step of the way as they’re shown the door, Meredith never let it get to that.  He simply left on his own terms; and did so before we ever had a chance to ask him to.

And though I never met the man personally, nor even read all that much about him, I think it’s pretty clear that Don Meredith had an incredible zest for life and was very, very good at whatever he chose to do. 

A Foursome for the Ages: Otto Graham, Dandy Don, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson

After all, you could make a pretty strong case that Jeff and Hazel’s baby boy was one of the seminal figures in the development of the two most valuable and storied franchises in the entire NFL: the Dallas Cowboys and Monday Night Football.

But my sense is, his success was only partly attributable to the kind of variables we normally like to associate with power and achievement — things like ambition, drive and talent. 

The real secret to Dandy Don’s success was something much more special, far rarer and infinitely more remarkable than simple desire. 

Because unless I miss my guess, the real reason Don Meredith achieved what he did as a young man, and then was able to ride off into the sunset and not look back, was because while he may have wanted every one of those incredibly cool jobs he somehow got, he never needed a single one of them.

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