One of my earliest sports heroes is gone.
“Dandy Don” Meredith died yesterday at the age of 72
My first memory of caring anything about professional football is from the day my Dad explained that the Green Bay Packers were scheduled to face a relatively new franchise called the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL Championship.
This was in 1966 and this particular season, there was something new that had been added. That year, the NFL championship was not the pinnacle of the season … no, that year, there would be another “bigger” game to follow in which the NFL champion would be pitted against the champion of the upstart American Football League (AFL) in a matchup called The Super Bowl!
Dad didn’t like the Green Bay Packers for the same reasons he disliked the New York Yankees. He didn’t care to see one franchise totally dominate things and he usually pulled for the underdog, so he was a Cowboys fan and by association, I became one too.
This is how I also became a fan of Don Meredith, the starting QB for the Cowboys in that first matchup against the Packers and in the subsequent and more storied 1967 rematch on “The frozen tundra of Lambeau Field” in what went down into legend as the fabled “Ice Bowl” …
Of course, the underdog Cowboys narrowly lost both games and the Packers went on to dominate the AFL opponents in each of the first two Super Bowls, to become the team of the 60s. Every NFL fan of the era knows all about Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr and the unstoppable Green Bay “Power Sweep” play. Fans were slower to become attached to Tom Landry and Don Meredith and the more cerebral, complicated Dallas Cowboys.
In those days, you were either a Green Bay fan or you were not … Like my Dad, I chose not to be and I stuck with the Cowboys as they gradually became America’s Team in the 70s and the 80s. Though Meredith retired in 1969, I continued to follow Tom Landry and his new star QB Roger Staubaugh because I thought they represented everything that was good and right about the sport and I was ecstatic when they finally played in and won the Super Bowl.
What made my affection for the Cowboys remain particularly strong, however, was the appearance of my hero Don Meredith as color commentator with the new Monday Night Football announcing team that included the obnoxious and overbearing Howard Cosell and the handsome, but somewhat dull Frank Gifford.
In those days, the NFL only played on Sundays and the idea of getting another dose of football on Monday night was both novel and exciting. You couldn’t miss Monday Night Football no matter who was playing … but when the Cowboys were part of the matchup the game took on an entirely new dimension. While “Dandy Don” Meredith was a fine color commentator, he proved completely unable to hide his allegiance for his former team. Much to the dismay of Cosell, he still loved his Cowboys and he rarely hid it during the games.
The continuous sparring between Cosell and Meredith, mediated by Gifford, was an amazingly entertaining mixture. It was a magical period for sports fans, but while Monday Night Football is still going, the magic ceased a long time ago. I stopped following the Cowboys when Jerry Jones took over and brought in a series of characters like Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, “Neon” Deion Sanders and Michael Irving. Then in the ultimate insult, he hired the despicable Barry Switzer to coach the team!
But really, for me, the magic ceased much earlier … partially because of what eventually became a simple over-abundance of opportunities to watch NFL games, but more specifically because of the breakup of the broadcast team that made Monday Night Football such a phenomenon … with an appeal that surpassed the mere game being played on the field.
So, now Meredith is gone along with Cosell who left us years ago. Only the aging Gifford remains of the trio and honestly, he was always the vanilla ice cream of what could be deemed “Sundae” Night Football … Cosell was the chocolate fudge topping and “Dandy Don” Meredith … well, he was the whipped cream and the cherry on top that made it all work.
Whenever the score of the game they were covering began to get out of hand, the comedic and homespun Meredith would begin to croon the old Willie Nelson song “Turn Out the Lights … the Party’s Over …”
It was a fitting way to end the games and it will probably be seen as a fitting epitaph for the career of Meredith himself.