December 7, 2010 in Sports

Fun-loving, charismatic NFL icon dies at 72

Randy Galloway Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram
 

Maybe he wasn’t the best quarterback who ever lived, or the toughest, or the coolest, or the funniest, or the most respected by the teammates who knew him best.

But where I came from in the ’60s, the Indian Hills section of Grand Prairie, this was one skinny white boy who thought Dandy Don was all of the above.

And still do, going on a half-century later.

“You sell winning, and you win with talent,” general manager Tex Schramm told me once, years after Don Meredith was gone from the Dallas Cowboys.

“When we had Meredith, he obviously had the talent, and with it, that helped build our franchise foundation of winning and our whole image of wide-open football.

“But Don had something else. He had charisma like I hadn’t seen before. It filled a locker room. Don was a character, but the right kind of character, one with a big heart and a lot of football courage.”

There were those who said Tom Landry didn’t exactly agree with Tex on the “character” part, that he wanted his quarterback to be a bit more serious.

“I’d say they both had plenty of respect for each other,” Walt Garrison, the old fullback, said Monday of his former teammate who died Sunday night at age 72, “but otherwise, Tom and Joe Don were from two different planets, personality-wise. It made for some interesting and hilarious scenes.”

(Born in East Texas, Meredith was christened “Joseph Don,” and Garrison dubbed him “Joe Don.”)

“Joe Don looked at the world so much different than most of us,” said Garrison. “One time he took five or six of us out to dinner the night before a road game, and then picked up a check of $250, which was massive in the ’60s.

“I protested and told him not to do that. His answer was that he’d just made a $250 profit off the evening. I went ‘huh?’

“He gave me that big grin, and answered, ‘I had five hundred dollars worth of fun.’ Joe Don loved fun.”

At some point, there in the Cotton Bowl, the football fun stopped.

Meredith, once the king of the Cotton Bowl, from his SMU days to the Cowboys, along the way became target of Boo Birds for some untimely interceptions.

He became the first local jock to be booed off a home field. We had gone big-league, New York style. To this day, he is the most booed local jock in history.

He up and quit football. At age 31. Retired. In his prime.

The details are blurry, with some former teammates still upset with Landry because they felt Tom could have talked Meredith out of it.

“But when he quit, I think he was just tired, and so was his body. Maybe it was some of the booing, maybe it was some of butting heads with Tom. But when Joe Don quit, he quit. That’s him,” Garrison said.

Meredith’s final season was 1968.

Two years later, something called “Monday Night Football” arrived in the NFL and on ABC. It changed the nation’s viewing habits. It changed football.

Don was back in the game, this time from the press box, wearing a yellow blazer.

Quickly, Meredith became a local hero again. And a national hero. Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and most of all “The Danderoo” were must-watch.

By the early ’70s you couldn’t find one local citizen who would admit they ever booed Meredith in the Cotton Bowl.

Dandy was a TV star, the face of Texas, the voice of Texas and much beloved because of his humor, his quick wit, and his priceless verbal jousting with the New Yorker “villain,” Mr. Cosell.

The charisma that Schramm, the ultimate football salesman, had admired so much in his old quarterback was a prime-time sensation.

In the end, the life and times of Don Meredith, image-wise, was nothing but good.

And that’s the way it still was Sunday night when Dandy died in his adopted home of Santa Fe, N.M.

But don’t turn out the lights. This party ain’t over. A whole new generation, is now suddenly discovering through obits what they didn’t know about the best, toughest, coolest, funniest, most respected quarterback EVER.

At least that’s the opinion of Walt and me, and we’re sticking to it.


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