Cowboys_5 THE GUNSLINGER: Meredith in the 1967 NFL title game against the Green Bay Packers, one of the three losses that cast a shadow over his career.

Pro football arrived in our town in 1952. Dallas yawned—or gave it the finger. The Dallas Texans failed so profoundly that they bailed mid-season, playing one of their last two “home” games in the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio. Despite the evidence that high school and college ball owned local hearts and minds, two more teams coalesced on the Cotton Bowl Bermuda grass eight years later. Version two of the Texans had some game and won its league championship in 1962—but even in its glory year, and even with an aggressive free ticket program (Barber’s Day, Teen Salute), two thirds of the seats were often empty. The other new pro team eschewed giveaways for the most part and drew even worse. One raw, windy day, the microscopic home “crowd” took cover by the concession stands. From his vantage point in the press box, Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Frank Luksa could see exactly zero fans in the ocean of empty seats.

Dallas couldn’t or wouldn’t support one pro team, much less two. “They flipped a coin—and the winner got to leave,” jokes Luksa, who began covering the Cowboys in 1962.

When Texans owner Lamar Hunt took his team to greener pastures in Kansas City for the 1963 season, he left a fan base that was small and angry. Angry because the Cowboys’ Cotton Bowl tenancy often interfered with high school or SMU games, which were more important, and because the Cowboys were not the Texans. The result was a crowd that came to boo, as if Dallas vs. Chicago was a pro wrestling card at the Sportatorium (pro rassler Fritz von Erich, coincidentally, played for the 1952 Texans). A woman I know who went to those games as a little girl remembers the sweet and sour smell of bourbon and tobacco smoke that rose in Section 24. And she remembers the profanity. “Please,” her father would say. “I’ve got a child here!” But it was no use. For the Cowboys’ first-ever home game, GM Tex Schramm hired movie cowboy Roy Rogers to sit in back of a convertible to smile and wave to the crowd. One lap around the Cotton Bowl was planned, but Roy came under such heavy fire from the audience—ice cubes, mostly—that team officials cut his trip short.

Meredith did not step into this cauldron all at once. He’d been an excellent running and throwing quarterback for SMU, a Phi Delta Theta, and the beau of Alma Lynne Shamburger, a cheerleader and possibly the prettiest girl on campus (they married shortly after Don signed his five-year, $150,000 contract with Cowboys owner Clint Murchison Jr.). After being the center of attention for eight years, now the 22-year-old rookie came out of the tunnel to a mostly empty stadium, faint cheers seasoned with boos, and took a seat on the bench.

“Tom Landry had a theory that it took five years for quarterbacks to learn the position,” Luksa says. “Don Meredith was not a student of defenses, to put it kindly. He was a finger-poppin’, singing-in-the-huddle, backyard-sandlot kind of guy, but there was nothing funny about football to Landry. He was even more rigid and stoic back then, and very unpopular with the team. But Meredith was beloved by his teammates, then and now.”

Denne Freeman, who covered the Cowboys for the Associated Press (and wrote a book called I Remember Tom Landry), agrees. “Don had that gunslinger mentality and wanted to throw the bomb. Tom wanted him to read defenses.”

Meredith’s high school football and basketball coach, Wayne Pierce, took a job at Hillcrest High after Meredith graduated from Mount Vernon, so he had a good look at Meredith’s transition to SMU (easy) and to pro ball (not easy at all). “In some of those Cowboys games, he took some mighty tough licks,” Pierce says. Pierce is a wonderfully upbeat man, but these memories cause him to slump a little. “And booing? In Mount Vernon, you don’t boo nobody. They’d get you right out of there if you did.”

Booing and big hits often arrived together. In a game against the Giants, with Meredith running for his life, the men hired to protect him fluttering about in hopeless disarray, the quarterback looked into the narrowed eyes and flared nostrils of the scariest player in the game, Sam Huff. The bandylegged man in charge of the football raised his arm to throw, exposing his torso to the enraged bull in a bottle-blue helmet. Pow. The linebacker exploded into his target.

“Now you’ve done it, Sam,” groaned Meredith, supine and covered in blood on the Cotton Bowl turf. “You’ve killed me.”

But the scarlet seeping into his white jersey wasn’t blood; the fluid-filled flak jacket protecting Meredith’s sore ribs had merely burst. While officials’ whistles blew, the quarterback giggled, delighted to have given Huff even a moment’s pause. Apologetic Dallas offensive linemen helped their leader to his feet. Sorry, Don. Tough hit.

After the game, Meredith had other problems beyond the bruises and the boos ringing in his head. He and Lynne divorced in ’63; then they married and divorced again. They had one kid. He would marry a second woman and have two more children before marrying Susan. Meredith turned to two new friends for succor: scotch and cigarettes. “I’d never tried either,” he says. “I was introduced and was really happy with both.” Writer Bob St. John recalls running up Mount Landry—the steep conditioning course at the team’s summer camp in Thousand Oaks, California—and there was Don, sitting down by a boulder, a hack in his lips and a don’t-tell-Tom smile on his face.   

Cowboys_2 With Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford in 1971.

The Cowboys clock ticked. Meredith was the second hand. There was Landry in the front of the meeting room, sprinkling what he called “appropriate Bible verses” into his football instruction, while, in the back, suppressed laughter caused shoulders to heave over something Meredith said. The team went from horrible (winless in year one) to mediocre and then back to terrible. “In ’66, it exploded,” Luksa says. The Cowboys in their seventh season finally had some defense—its most prominent faces belonged to Mel Renfro, Lee Roy Jordan, and Bob Lilly—an offensive line that could block, and the league MVP: Meredith. With time to throw, you could see the basketball magician in the quarterback, the ball handler with unusual touch and flair.

Your Cowboys won 33 games from ’66 through ’68—but all that mattered were two playoff losses, both to Green Bay. In front of 75,504 in the Cotton Bowl, Don Perkins fumbled a kickoff that was returned for a touchdown, and Dan Reeves dropped a probable touchdown pass in the waning moments. But all anyone remembered was Meredith throwing a desperation interception in the end zone with 28 seconds left. Packers, 34-27. On a very cold afternoon in Wisconsin a year later, former Giants running back Frank Gifford got off a good line in the CBS television broadcast booth: “I think I’ll take a bite of my coffee.” This was the infamous Ice Bowl. In the 40-below wind chill, the Packers won on the last play, 21-17.

The boys in metallic blue lost a third playoff game to Cleveland in ’68. After Meredith threw two interceptions in the third quarter, Landry took him out of the game. And that’s where it ended for the First Cowboy: on a metal bench in cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium, with the other team ahead by nine, and the winter wind blowing in off Lake Erie.

Before the next training camp began, Meredith quit. 

• • •

“Now you’ve done it, Sam,” groaned Meredith, supine and covered in blood on the Cotton Bowl turf. “You’ve killed me.”

A year and a half after his shocking retirement from a team that was soon to be the best in the business—Roger Staubach would get the glory—Meredith became more popular and famous than ever. Gifford recruited him to become part of an experiment: pro football on Monday nights. With the two ex-jocks in the broadcast booth would be Howard Cosell, a Brooklyn-born lawyer and sports gadabout with an unconvincing toupee. Cosell would say something ponderous and self-important, the nerd’s-eye view of the game delivered in as many syllables as possible. Dandy Don, armed with recent combat experience and bushels of East Texas charm, punctured each of Cosell’s hot air balloons as they floated by. It was hilarious. Monday Night Football was an instant huge hit.

Monday Night’s three greatest highlights all starred the ex-quarterback. One night in Philadelphia, Cosell vomited on Meredith’s cowboy boots. “Howard’s going to have to leave us now,” Meredith said. “Something’s come up.” In Houston, an obviously bored or angry fan noticed the ABC camera peering at him; he raised his right hand, then his middle finger. “That’s right!” Meredith said. “We’re No. 1!” And in that first year in the booth, as the Cowboys were getting drilled by St. Louis, the fans began to chant, “We want Meredith! We want Meredith!”

And Meredith still wanted the Cowboys. In 1971, two years into his announcing gig, he took a meeting with Schramm and asked if the Cowboys would be interested in having him back. The short answer: no. (“That would have been Tom talking,” says Denne Freeman, the AP beat man.) The Cowboys had a competent quarterback in Craig Morton and a killer competitor, Staubach, waiting in the wings. Meredith admits he was looking for a little ego stroking and didn’t get it, so his feelings were bruised again.

Football announcing left time for something else: acting. “I first met Don in 1978, on the set of Kate Bliss and The Ticker Tape Kid,” says David Huddleston, the well-known Broadway (Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman) and movie actor (Blazing Saddles, The Big Lebowski). The Huddlestons also live in Santa Fe, on a hilltop on the other side of town, and are good friends of the Merediths. “When you meet Don, it’s as if you’ve known him all your life. As an actor? Very, very professional. But he’s not a person who is always ‘on.’ He doesn’t have any problem sharing the limelight.”

Meredith was at least credible as a cop or a cowboy or a co-pilot. Susan says Banjo Hackett: Roamin’ Free was among her husband’s best performances, while his portrayal of the villain in Terror on the 40th Floor was his absolute worst. “Horrible,” she says. “It was the only time he played a bad guy. He just couldn’t do it.”

Cowboys_6 Meredith with Roger Staubach

Then came commercial work. Meredith’s Lipton tea ads were a big success—“It’s Dandy tastin’!”—and are particularly amusing in Japanese. He also pitched for Cessna airplanes, Nabisco products, and Kmart. He left the spotlight gradually, then forsook it altogether. In the mid-’80s, the Merediths found their big house under the clear sky in Northern New Mexico, and they didn’t leave a hell of a lot after that. He didn’t need or want the spotlight anymore—or the hotels or airports. “Travel is glamorous only to people who don’t have to travel,” Meredith says. He and Susan played tennis, he played golf, and both learned to paint. For the last third of his life, talking about or watching football has not been on his to-do list.

Mount Vernon remained on the short list of places he’d go. Dallas was not, for the most part, and we took it personally. As long ago as 1978, a TV reporter was asking why Meredith never returned to Big D. Not long after that, the word “recluse” attached to references to the old quarterback. But Meredith was a recluse who might have to sign a dozen or two autographs at Santacafe, a favorite restaurant, a hermit who made each person with a pen and a piece of paper feel as if he was the star, not Meredith.

Now it’s much later, and his brother, Billy Jack, is ill, and Jeff and Hazel have passed on. Meredith’s causes are close to home: Alzheimer’s research and the Jeff and Hazel Meredith Scholarship Fund. Cosell is dead, too, but you wish he could reanimate for a minute and ask his former boothmate one final question, with all his customary pauses and melodrama: Dandy Don. As you look back to those years in Dallas. Can you forget. The rejection. And the vi-tuper-ation?

The Cowboys had a competent quarterback in Craig Morton and a killer competitor, Staubach, waiting in the wings.

Petite, dark-haired Susan Meredith is recalling the day when a phone caller to the house identified himself as Willie and asked to speak with Don. “Willie who?” she asked. “Susan,” the caller replied, “it’s Willie.” And for the next 40 minutes, despite the oxygen tube and his shortness of breath, Don Meredith and Willie Nelson sang duets over the phone.

Cookies and glasses of tea arrive. The host proposes a toast: “Here’s to the girls that say they will and here’s to the girls that say they don’t.” Susan sighs and walks away. Meredith sings a snippet of a country song; reveals that he inadvertently killed one of Susan’s rose bushes by regularly peeing on it; and that his only acting instruction came from—was it Jack Lemmon?­—who told him to show up, know his lines, hit his mark, and be honest. He asks me a couple of questions—“What have you been up to?”—a bit of polite curiosity I receive about once out of 100 interviews. We talk about that live wire, Coach Wayne Pierce. Meredith asks for a hug as I leave and gets it.

“I’ve always known who I was,” the First Cowboy says, repeating his mantra, explaining everything. “I’m Billy Jack’s little brother, Jeff and Hazel’s baby boy, and I’m from Mount Vernon, Texas.”

Curt Sampson is the author of 13 books, including, most recently, Golf Dads: Fathers, Sons, and the Greatest Game (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).