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Don Meredith: The First Dallas Cowboy

As America's Team celebrates its 50th anniversary, we look back to the era before Troy and Roger.
Courtesy of Don Meredith
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.

Meredith (in kneepads) made basketball cool at Mount Vernon High.

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.

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.

• • •

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.

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.

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!”

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.”

• • •

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.

Meredith with Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford in 1971.

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.

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.

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

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.

• • •

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!”

Don Meredith and Roger Staubach.

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.”

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.

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

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 vituperation?

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).

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