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Sports Then and Now

Remembering Dandy Don Meredith

Posted on December 07, 2010 by Dean Hybl

Don Meredith was an original member of the Dallas Cowboys.

Imagine being part of the team that created Microsoft and then later helping launch Google. In a sense, “Dandy” Don Meredith had that kind of career in professional football as he was an important part of the development of two iconic franchises in the Dallas Cowboys and Monday Night Football.

Because Meredith, who passed away on Sunday following a brain hemorrhage, has been out of the spotlight for nearly as long as he was in it, it has taken his death for many to recount just how integral he was to the development of two sports brands that are now taken for granted.

A two-time All-American as a quarterback at Southern Methodist University, Meredith was originally chosen in the third round of the 1960 draft by George Halas and the Chicago Bears. However, he was soon traded back to his native state of Texas and the expansion Dallas Cowboys.

During his first two seasons, Meredith was primarily the backup to quarterback Eddie Lebaron. However, he did play an important role in the first victory in team history as he replaced Lebaron and tossed the game-tying touchdown pass as Dallas rallied to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 on September 17, 1961.

He finally took over the starting job for good in 1963 and soon the Cowboys began to move from the NFL cellar to the penthouse.

Known for his wit and humor, Meredith was a start contrast to the stoic coach of the Cowboys, Tom Landry. Meredith described Landry as a perfectionist who if he were married to actress and model Rachel Welch would also expect her to be a good cook.

However, though Meredith was known for his joking personality off the field, there was never any doubt that on the field he was all business and one of the toughest players around. Early in his career the Cowboys offensive line had more holes than Swiss cheese, but Meredith took every licking and kept on ticking.

Dallas started to display their future NFL dominance in 1965 when Meredith was 7-4 as the starting quarterback. However, he missed three mid-season games that were all defeats as the Cowboys finished 7-7.

The following season, Dallas went 10-3-1 and reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They nearly stole the NFL Championship from the Green Bay Packers, but trailing by seven points in the final seconds Meredith’s pass into the end zone was intercepted to seal the win and trip to the first Super Bowl for the Packers.

In 1967 Dallas again reached the playoffs and faced Green Bay in the NFL Championship Game. Playing on the frozen tundra in Green Bay, the game that would come to be known as the “Ice Bowl” was a true test of wills.

Meredith led Dallas to consecutive NFL Championship Games, but they were unable to get past the Green Bay Packers.

Meredith hung tough, but had a difficult time throwing the ball in the frozen conditions. He completed just 10 of 25 passes for 59 yards and an interception. However, he was able to orchestrate Dallas into position to win the game as they led 17-14 late in the contest.

But the date with destiny proved to be for the Packers as Bart Starr led them on a late drive to win the game 21-17 for their third straight NFL title.

Dallas posted their best record ever in 1968 as Meredith earned his third straight Pro Bowl appearance. However, following a disappointing opening playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns, Meredith decided he was done with the pressure and criticism of being the quarterback of the team eventually dubbed “next year’s champion.”

Though only 31 years old and seemingly at the peak of his career, Meredith hung up is helmet and spikes.

Dallas would go on to register 17 straight winning seasons, appear in nine NFL/NFC title games, five Super Bowls, win two titles and become recognized globally as “America’s Team” with quarterbacks Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman and Tony Romo all becoming household names, but it all started with Meredith.

Because he played in only 104 games over eight seasons Meredith has never received serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His statistics of 17,199 passing yards, 50.7 completion percentage, 135 touchdowns and 74.8 passer rating seem pedestrian by today’s standards, but were consistent with other star passers of his era.

With his personality and aspirations to be an actor, it didn’t take long for broadcast television to find Meredith.

In 1970 he was tabbed to be part of a new endeavor being launched by ABC Sports. Though the NFL had dabbled with night and weekday games, in 1970 it was seen as a risk for ABC to commit to having a weekly game on Monday night.

The trio of Howard Cosell, Meredith and Frank Gifford made Monday Night Football "must see" television.

Looking to make the game as much of an event as it was a football game, ABC Sports President Roone Arledge selected the folksy Meredith and former New York lawyer Howard Cosell to join veteran play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson in the booth.

Though Jackson was replaced the following year by another football icon in Frank Gifford, the concept was a hit and soon Monday Night Football was an NFL staple and ratings winner.

The back and forth between Cosell and Meredith became as entertaining as the games themselves. Regardless of which teams were playing the game, viewers would tune in just to watch and hear the antics of Cosell and Meredith.

The duo rarely disappointed as they became sports true odd couple.

Eventually Meredith needed a break from Cosell and left ABC for three years to serve as the color commentator for iconic broadcaster Curt Gowdy on NBC. However, he eventually returned and the trio of Gifford, Cosell and Meredith will forever be remembered as the team that turned Monday Night Football into a weekly American event.

Cosell left the booth in 1983 and Meredith followed a year later. His final game on ABC was Super Bowl XIX in January 1985.

As he had done 15 years earlier with his football career, Meredith chose to leave the booth while fans still wanted more as he retired at the age of 46.

Over the next 25 years Meredith would make occasional television appearances, but primarily spent his time away from the spotlight.

While others ultimately received much of the glory and credit for the development of the Cowboys and Monday Night Football dynasties, there is no question that neither franchise would have reached the same heights without Meredith and for that he will always have a special place in the lexicon of sports.

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