He was called “Dandy Don” by millions of sports fans across the country. Aside from a brilliant career in football, Don Meredith was known for his easy humor and love of life and easily one of the most colorful NFL players and broadcasters in memory.
Joseph Donald Meredith was born in Mount Vernon in East Texas in 1938. He was a successful athlete in high school and heavily sought by college recruiters before becoming quarterback for Southern Methodist University. He was named All-American by sports writers in 1958 and 1959.
His success at SMU caught the attention of NFL teams across the country. The Chicago Bears tried to acquire him in a draft, but he ended up with Texas’s first NFL team. He recalled in an interview years later that in 1959, before the Cowboys even had a name or stadium or a team, he was approached by team owners and signed to a contract. In some ways, Don Meredith was the original Dallas Cowboy.
After Meredith became starting quarterback in 1963, the Cowboys matured and soon reached the playoffs for the first time. In 1966, he was named Most Valuable Player by the NFL. He was selected to the Pro Bowl three times. Meredith, however, was frustrated by the many clashes with Landry and eventually decided to leave professional football. By the time he retired from playing in 1969, he had thrown for more than 17,000 yards and thrown 135 touchdown passes over nine seasons.
In 1970, he became part of the original broadcast team on ABC’s Monday Night Football with Keith Jackson calling the play-by-play reports and with Meredith offering commentary with Howard Cosell. Viewers came to love the constant back-and-forth between Meredith and the controversial and outspoken Cosell, which the two had carefully planned. He joked in an interview years later, “I’d just wait for Howard to make a mistake. Didn’t usually take too long.”
Meredith became known for his wisecracks during the broadcasts, often making off-color jokes that prompted angry phone calls to the network from sensitive viewers. At the end of many games, he often belted out the line from the Willie Nelson song, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over!” It became so famous that decades later, Hank Williams, Jr., recorded a version of the song as the closing theme to Monday Night Football. Meredith left the program in 1973 to pursue a few acting roles and a broadcasting contract with rival NBC. He would return to the program in 1977 before leaving for good in 1984. His last football broadcast was for Super Bowl XIX in 1985.
He appeared in a several television shows and made-for-TV movies in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of his roles were limited detectives in police dramas, such as his appearances in Police Story between 1973 and 1976 and the 1980 movie The Night the City Screamed. He also played the real-life undercover FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr., in the 1979 movie My Undercover Years with the KKK. His most famous appearances otherwise were for commercials as a spokesman for Lipton Tea in the 1980s Meredith’s last film appearance was in the 2002 film Three Days of Rain, a film written and directed by his son, Michael.
He and his third wife settled into a quiet retirement in New Mexico. Meredith was inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor in 1976 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1982. He was honored by the NFL for his Monday Night Football telecasts in 2007. He died suddenly in 2010 of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 72, mourned by fans across the nation.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.