Don Meredith: The First Dallas Cowboy
As America's Team celebrates its 50th anniversary, we look back to the era before Troy and Roger.
UPDATE: Don Meredith, the former Dallas Cowboys and SMU quarterback, died on Dec. 5, 2010, in Santa Fe after suffering a brain hemorrhage. Curt Sampson visited "Dandy Don" at his home earlier in the year, for what turned out to be the last interview for the "First Cowboy." We hope the article, in which Meredith reflects on his place in the 50-year history of the Cowboys, serves as a tribute to this sports legend.
On a pine-scented Santa Fe cul-de-sac, in a wide adobe house, an old man greets his guest as he steps into the foyer. “Tell him to leave his guns at the door!” Don Meredith shouts. “No weapons!” He is standing on his patio, wearing an olive green tennis warm-up and a white polo shirt, looking like a million bucks—thin and fit at 72, with a full head of gray hair, dancing eyes, and a big grin. But the clear plastic tube snaking up to his oft-broken nose reminds you of the passage of time and of the ravages of cigarettes. Emphysema keeps Meredith tethered to an oxygen tank, and he gasps if he moves around too much or talks too long. Protecting the love of her life—they’ve been inseparable since they met in April 1971—wife Susan allows very few interviews. Better keep the questions brief.
As the Dallas Cowboys Football Club Ltd. celebrates its 50th anniversary, it’s worth considering the life and times of its first player. Literally and figuratively, Meredith was the First Cowboy. Two months before the team opened for business in January 1960, the crew-cut kid was hired off the SMU campus, not drafted, a bit of NFL sleight of hand not seen since. Although a little feller named Eddie LeBaron took the first snaps in the first game, Meredith soon owned the most important position on what would become—arguably—the world’s most important team. The predecessor of Staubach and Aikman and Romo played the game as a game rather than as the Last Crusade. Thus the singing in the huddle: Meredith wanted to keep it loose, and he had an encyclopedia of country songs in his head. A favorite was “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Kitty Wells. 1952. On the radio freshman year at Mount Vernon High School.
He was a showman. The First Cowboy whistled and sang in part because the 10 men in the huddle amounted to a captive audience he could entertain. His teammates admired his guts and savvy, and adored him for never giving up or bailing out, and never blaming the crew for the pilot’s error. Although it’s hard to square with the affection with which he was later regarded, poor Don was also the most vilified athlete this town has ever seen while he was still playing for the home team. Chanting his backup’s name was de rigeur in times of trouble—“We want Morton! We want Morton!”—and even in the glory years, he got booed during introductions. He took it. “They boo me because they know me so well,” he said.
His other constant was physical pain. Meredith tore knee ligaments in an exhibition game in ’64, his fourth season with the Cowboys and the first in which he had the quarterback job pretty much to himself. He played anyway. His diminished mobility plus a line as porous as a loofah resulted in repeated severe whiplash and two official (but God knows how many actual) concussions. One of the wags in the press box invented a new statistic for the Cowboys’ quarterback: yards lost while trying to survive. But No. 17 took the helmet in the ribs and the forearm to the neck, rolled onto his feet as if it didn’t hurt. Tom Landry said that season was the bravest quarterback performance he ever saw.
At SMU, 1958 (left); Meredith (in kneepads) made basketball cool at Mount Vernon High (right)
His courage and nonchalance aside, the Cowboys didn’t win an NFL Championship or a Super Bowl during Meredith’s tenure, and he didn’t make the Hall of Fame. Ultimately, he must be considered only a major precursor, a pier below the bridge to greatness. His path toward unreachable glory resembled the classical mythical journey: assigned impossible tasks, subjected to merciless trials, he soldiered on, a hero who sacrificed himself so his successors might win.
Who was he? He had an alter ego named Harley Smydlapp and a nickname, Dandy. He played football like a cowboy—bravely, without complaint, with a gambler’s spirit. He went on to revolutionize TV sports announcing and enjoyed a movie career that may have entertained him more than it did us. (What? You liked Mayday at 40,000 Feet! and Terror on the 40th Floor?) As a pitchman, Meredith rivaled Arnold Palmer, and he sold instant tea by the ton. The quarterback emeritus matched quips so well with the king of late- night TV that Johnny Carson invited him to guest host (review: cue-carded monologue bad, ad-libbed banter with Burt Reynolds good). He understayed his welcome in football, broadcasting, and acting—just quit each one when their appeal and his enthusiasm began to wane. He delighted many and aggravated the hell out of Tom Landry. He sang but he suffered. Despite the cartoonish Dandy image he created, Meredith is not a simple man nor an easy one to figure out.
He had an alter ego named Harley Smydlapp and a nickname, Dandy. He played football like a cowboy—bravely, without complaint, with a gambler’s spirit.
At the Mount Vernon Rotary Club luncheon, 100 or so miles northeast of Dallas, two kinds of Campbell’s condensed soup give the chicken spaghetti real staying power. Served on the side are green beans and corn and a talk from the Tigers’ new football coach, a solid-looking young man in a purple polo shirt with a big MV logo. Coach Karl Whitehurst states that the team’s two themes this fall will be discipline and accountability.
Outside the metal VFW building, bright light and August heat cling to the exiting Rotarians like glaze on cobbler. They climb aboard their F-150s and head back to work in a place that time forgot. The town square resembles a movie set: red brick bank here, the little library there, and on the north side stands a monument to the Confederate soldiers of Franklin County. “That Memories Shall Not Perish” the inscription reads.
Memories of Meredith are not dying, that’s for sure, what with Tom Ramsay, Ken Greer, Frankie Cooper, and other old friends ready to drop everything to tell you a flattering anecdote. That’s the Don Meredith Stadium on your right as you drive into town and, a block off the square, in a stone WPA building, the probably permanent, professionally presented Meredith exhibit at the Old Fire Station Museum. It’s all charming, of course, but Mount Vernon in August looks like it’s been out in the sun too long. The town won’t regain its snap until the first Friday night in September, when a referee blows a whistle and a kid kicks a football and everyone holds his breath.
Tiger Football reached its high-water mark in the ’50s, when Joe Donald Meredith played quarterback, left-footed punter, and middle linebacker. “He was tough on defense,” recalls teammate George Turner. “Really stuck his nose in.” He was a great-looking kid and a phenomenal athlete, but few knew that the second child of Jeff and Hazel had had the same horrifying disease that the wheelchair-bound president of the United States suffered from. Polio paralyzed muscles in the infant Don Meredith’s legs. Hazel responded by keeping him in his crib for the first seven months of his life, from April 1938 almost to Christmas. Little Don recovered—obviously—but with thin calves, hammertoes, and a tendency to injury.
“They lived next door to us on Kaufman Street,” says Charles Lowry in the post-Rotary lunch glow. “Billy Jack [Meredith] and I and five or six others were always together. Playing football in a front yard, and here comes little Don. We called him Tagalong.”
Don’s only sibling provided crucial inspiration. Billy Jack played quarterback and wore No. 88. Don did, too. Billy Jack treated people well, including his younger (by five years) brother and succeeded admirably on the football field; he and Lowry made all-state and went on to play at TCU for Coach Catfish Smith.
Big brother was good, but Don was transcendent, and the hub of a special universe. Can you picture the coolest midcentury high school guy ever? Meredith was the best athlete in the MVHS Class of ’56, the most handsome, the most fun, and had the loudest whistle. Even the teachers liked him. “Nicest child I ever taught,” testifies Gladys Lawrence, who had him in third grade. Don wore the period costume: jeans rolled up an inch or two to reveal white or argyle socks, a geometric haircut, and a leather trimmed letter jacket. “And if he came out with a new pair of shoes, that kind of set a fad,” said John Stinson, a classmate and teammate. Don dated the prettiest girl, Barbara Copeland, and took her to the Jersey Queen for burgers and to the Joy Theatre to see James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause, a tale of teenage disaffection completely foreign to their own experience.
Edson Reynolds recalls parking his car on the square one day in 1955 as Don approached on the sidewalk. In the back seat, Reynolds’ 5-year-old daughter primped frantically. “Oh, my goodness!” the little girl said. “And my hair is a mess!”
A September 1968 cover of Sports Illustrated
Football dwarfs every other game in Texas, but as fall turned to winter, Meredith took off his shoulder pads and put on short satin shorts, and basketball became a cool thing to do or to watch. No—that understates. Mount Vernon hoops with Meredith in the middle was a sensation, drawing fans from miles around to its tiny gym. For a few years of winter nights, this dot of rural Texas became rural Indiana, with basketball games as unifying and emotional as revival meetings. Congregants packed the stands, the stage at the end, and, believe it or not, the roof. The view through the long window up there wasn’t bad, but, of course, you couldn’t sit.
And you didn’t want to. As the crowd screamed and the pep band played the fight song (and then “Sugar Blues”), the Tigers ran out of the locker room and formed two lines near half court, with Meredith grinning, standing by himself at the free-throw line. Someone threw him the ball, and he took it between his legs and down his arms and around his waist in hypnotic circles and figure eights, then threw improbable no-look passes to Turner, Stinson, Jerry Jumper, or Gerald Bryant as they streaked past. Amen! Oh that sugar.
But Meredith the hoopster was the real deal, not merely a show. From hours of backyard practice and a genetic gift for ball games, Don had perfected basketball’s most elegant shot: the hook. He could chunk it in with either hand from anywhere within 15 feet of the goal with his over-the-shoulder rainbows, and he could fake defenders red-faced. With kneepads worn around his shins, obscuring his birdy legs, Don scored 52 points in a 1954 Dr Pepper Tournament game against Adamson. Fifty-two! Then the purple and white Tigers from little Mount Vernon beat Dallas behemoths Crozier Tech and Woodrow Wilson and won the tournament, with Our Hero averaging 32 per game.
The football and basketball and popularity anecdotes from Mount Vernon friends go on and on, but they obscure another gift: his unusual emotional intelligence. Take the girl in school whose unfashionable dress and lunch fare always consisting of a biscuit and an onion got her labeled as poor and made her an object of ridicule. “Don got up and went over there and sat down and ate part of his lunch with her,” Stinson recalled. “The kids didn’t make fun of her anymore.”