Don Meredith

SMU ’60

Former Dallas Cowboy Quarterback – 50 years later, Brother Meredith still has a song in his heart.

50 Years Later, Don Meredith Still Has a Song in His Heart
By BRAD TOWNSEND / The Dallas Morning News

SANTA FE, N.M. – Smiling, he rises from his chair. His hair is gray and his legs are creaky, but there’s no mistaking it.

It’s Don Meredith.

“Hello, hello!” the supposedly reclusive ex-Cowboys quarterback bellows to his invited guest, a reporter no less.

So many questions beg, but Meredith, 71, just wants to be himself. Share witticisms. Croon country tunes. Raise his Snapple to offer a, well, colorful toast.

Football doesn’t enter the banter until Meredith is told of a nearing anniversary. On Nov. 28, 1959, he signed a personal services contract to play for a proposed NFL team that had no nickname, no coach and no other players.

From this seed sprouted the Dallas Cowboys.

“Son of a gun,” Meredith chuckles. “I didn’t know what 50 years felt like, but now I do.”

In that other lifetime he was Dandy Don, the captivating SMU All-American from nearby Mount Vernon. He led the Cowboys to the 1966 and 1967 NFL Championship games, then rather inexplicably retired in 1969, at age 31.

Next he was Monday Night Football’s “Irrepressible One,” as booth-mate Howard Cosell called him. Millions tuned in to hear Meredith needle Cosell, rhapsodize about parents Jeff and Hazel and Mount Vernon and belt “The Party’s Over.”

But after the 1984 season, he virtually vanished to Santa Fe and semi-retirement with his wife, Susan. He since has given few interviews, adding mystery and intrigue to an already compelling Texas folk tale.

But for Don and Susan, now married 37 years, the mystery is why anyone would begrudge them a normal life after Don’s high-profile careers.

“After he retired from Monday Night, we took up tennis and golf, maybe watched a few Super Bowls because we had parties,” Susan says. “Football kind of went away.”

Ex-teammates don’t seem surprised. Meredith was the guy who sang in huddles, read Hemingway, shot mid-70s in golf and strummed and sipped with Willie Nelson.

Over the decades, teammates grew used to his sporadic attendance at alumni functions, but his most recent absence was conspicuous. Meredith was the only living Ring of Honor member unable to attend the Sept. 20 christening of Cowboys Stadium.

He has emphysema. Oxygen therapy makes it difficult to leave home, so he sits in his den, conquering backgammon challengers. On this day he tests his visitor by playing a country song on his laptop.

“Know who that is?”


“That’s Jeff and Hazel’s baby boy.”

The tune is “Travelin’ Man,” one of two that Meredith recorded in 1965. Laughing, he taps his feet and sings duet with his 27-year-old self.

I’m a travelin’ man

Just a rollin’ stone

These wanderin’ feet

Have got to roam …

Joseph Donald Meredith’s adventurous path traces to April 10, 1938, the day he was born in Mount Vernon, 100 miles northeast of Dallas.

At 2,700, the town’s population has doubled since Joe Don and older brother Billy Jack starred for the Tigers in the ’50s. Hazel died in 1988, Jeff in 1991, but the family presence remains.

“Don Meredith Boyhood Home” reads a curbside sign at 616 S. Kaufman, where Hazel swung a tire from a pecan tree so her boys could hone their passing.

Town square fixture Meredith Dry Goods was where Jeff perched 6-year-old Don near the door and taught him to greet every customer by name.

Two billboards direct Interstate 30 motorists to the Don Meredith Exhibit, in the former fire station. The museum’s 2006 opening coincided with Don’s 50th high school reunion.

“He sat here on a tall stool for a good two hours, signing autographs,” Mayor J.D. Baumgardner says. “Had ’em three-deep clear out to the curb.”

Museum visitors learn that Meredith was salutatorian, acted in the school play and probably was most skilled in basketball.

As a 6-3 junior, he scorched Dallas’ 1954 Dr Pepper Tournament with records of 52 points against Adamson and 164 points in five games. Mount Vernon toppled big-city Crozier Tech and Woodrow Wilson en route to the title.

In football, Don wore No. 88 like Billy Jack, who went on to play at TCU. Don’s jersey, letter jacket, ABC blazer and 1971 sportscasting Emmy are among the exhibit’s many artifacts. For decades, Don had kept most of them in storage.

That love I’ve had

Has set me free

And a travelin’ man

It’s made out of me …

Contrary to perception, the Merediths don’t live in a steel fortress guarded by a moat and Dobermans.

They reside in a two-story adobe in southern Santa Fe. Toy poodle Moses and spaniel-poodle mix Beau briefly sniff newcomers’ shoes.

The home has little evidence of Don’s playing days. The only photo of him in his No. 17 Cowboys uniform hangs in the master bedroom, above one of Susan during her modeling days.

“We were both 23, though we didn’t know each other,” says Susan, adding with a laugh, “That’s better than we look now. Holy moly.”

Don shows no inclination to talk sports until his visitor pulls out a folder full of 1950s and ’60s newspaper stories. Thumbing through the pages, Meredith reads the headlines aloud.

“Brings back some old memories, boy I’m telling you,” he says. “It does, it does. I thank you, thank you.”

After noting Don’s thin necktie in a photo of him signing with SMU, Susan exclaims: “Look, that’s your real nose! You hadn’t had 14 nose breaks.” To which Don cracks: “I was almost too pretty to be a boy. That’s what my mother said.”

Dallas might have daunted some small-town kids, but for the thespian quarterback it was center stage.

The city had no major professional teams, sportswriters showered superlatives and “Southern Meredith University” regularly drew 50,000 fans to the Cotton Bowl.

And would you believe it? During Meredith’s senior season, word came that Dallas might get pro football. Not just one team, but two.

SMU alumnus Lamar Hunt was forming the American Football League and would own the Dallas Texans. Dallasites Clint Murchison Jr. and Bedford Wynne applied for an NFL expansion team.

Naturally, both organizations coveted Meredith as a cornerstone and box-office draw. On Nov. 22, 1959, six days before Meredith’s college finale at TCU, the Texans made him their No. 1 draft pick.

Meredith was engaged to Mustangs cheerleader Lynne Shamburger and had been accepted to SMU law school. Hunt invited Don and Billy Jack to his mansion for barbecued burgers.

Oops. Hunt forgot starter fluid, so he had the Meredith boys gather mimosa leaves. The backyard soiree failed to kindle Don’s interest in the Texans.

Shortly before midnight on Nov. 28, hours after losing to TCU, Meredith signed a five-year, $150,000 personal services deal with Murchison.

“The contract read, ‘If we get a National Football League franchise, we’d like for you to play quarterback,’ ” Meredith recalls. “I couldn’t understand pro football, the idea that they were going to pay you money to play.”

Indeed, times were simpler. The News’ story on the Dec. 20 Meredith-Shamburger wedding said the couple would honeymoon in Hawaii and live at 6617 Preston Road.

When Tom Landry was hired as the proposed team’s coach on Dec. 28, he quipped, “All we’ve got is a coach and a pitcher, but that’s a start.”

When the sun goes down

And the shadows fall

The night winds howl

A lonesome call …

On Jan. 28, 1960, NFL owners awarded Dallas its franchise. The $600,000 expansion fee was just four times what was owed the quarterback.

Heck, Meredith would even get to play home games in the familiar, friendly Cotton Bowl.

But on the first day of training camp, wide-eyed Meredith found the Cowboys’ roster mostly composed of fellow rookies and other teams’ scarred and tattooed castoffs. Cigarettes and alcohol were prevalent.

“I’d never tried either,” he says. “I was introduced and really happy with both.”

He remains grateful to veteran quarterback Eddie LeBaron, who tutored Meredith and took the brunt of punishment during the 0-11-1 first season: “Old Eddie. In some ways, he was more my coach than Coach Landry.”

Gradually, Meredith earned playing time, not all of it valuable. In a 1962 home game, Pittsburgh’s 6-6, 305-pound Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb mashed Meredith’s right ankle like an accordion.

Asked about the injury today, Meredith lifts his pants leg. His ankle bone is golf ball-sized. Susan says he has had multiple ankle and toe surgeries.

“It really wasn’t that bad; it just didn’t get any better,” Don says. “It isn’t in pain now, so I’m happy about that.”

He became starter in 1963, a year that also brought his first divorce, cascades of boos and a 4-10 finish.

Edgy Dallas no longer was just a college sports town. Perhaps some fans found entitlement in the flasks they snuck in. Some construed Meredith’s easy nature as apathy.

“I can take boos for a bad game,” Meredith told The News in 1964. “But I hate to think they’re booing me because they think I’m dogging it.”

Meredith quelled critics by earning NFL Player of the Year honors in 1966 and taking the Cowboys to the ’66 and ’67 title games. But losing to Green Bay by seven and four points, respectively, tormented the Dallas organization.

Then Cleveland upset the Cowboys in the first round of the 1968 playoffs, with Landry benching Meredith after two costly third-quarter interceptions.

Still, Meredith’s July 5, 1969, retirement shocked many in Dallas, the city that once unconditionally adored him.

That day he said he no longer was fully committed and didn’t want to shortchange anyone. But for 40 years, many have wondered whether the Meredith-Landry relationship soured, or whether Meredith simply tired of public criticism.

Neither was the decisive factor, Meredith says now. He says his second marriage was failing and he had three young children.

“All sorts of things were going around on my personal life. It just wasn’t working, so I decided, ‘Hell, I might as well try something else.’ ”

He tried working as a stockbroker until the Monday Night opportunity came in 1970, but it is little known that Meredith approached Cowboys president Tex Schramm about a comeback. He says he was surprised and hurt by Schramm’s unenthusiastic response.

I’m up at dawn

Be on my way

Mister travelin’ man

Where you gonna be today? …

Meredith says he harbors no what-ifs about his Cowboys career. But it remains a painful subject for some of his teammates.

“He took too much of the blame, and I think the press blamed him way too much,” says Lee Roy Jordan, a Cowboys Ring of Honor linebacker from 1963 to 1976.

“I’m disappointed that we – the coaching staff and all of us other players – didn’t take a more responsible role in taking on some of that negative press.”

Jordan contends that if Meredith had played longer, the transition would have been smoother for quarterbacks Craig Morton and Roger Staubach.

Jordan says he means no disrespect to Morton, but he believes that with Meredith, Dallas would have won the 1970 season’s Super Bowl.

Instead, Baltimore prevailed in that infamous “Stupor Bowl” V, 16-13, despite committing seven turnovers to the Cowboys’ four.

“Oh, yeah,” concurs Staubach. “Meredith would have won Super Bowls eventually, if he had stayed.”

Staubach was finishing his Navy service when he learned of Meredith’s retirement. Weeks earlier, Meredith had invited Staubach to his house during a Cowboys quarterback camp. Staubach played behind Morton in 1969 and most of 1970 before leading Dallas to the ’71 Super Bowl title. Even then, he felt he had inherited Meredith’s era.

“Literally, I almost felt guilty being the quarterback,” Staubach says. “That’s how much the team admired him. Those guys, to a man, loved Don Meredith.”

Yes, he was free-spirited, nocturnal and favored J&B Scotch, much like his NFL hero Bobby Layne. But former Cowboys running back Walt Garrison calls Meredith a shrewd play-caller and uncanny leader.

“People are so stupid,” Garrison says. “Meredith took us to the big game twice, with not the best talent. We had great players, but we didn’t have the nucleus Staubach had when he came in.”

Jordan says Landry appointed him as Meredith’s road roommate, bodyguard and chaperon from 1965 through ’68. He is proud that Meredith still calls him “Roomie.”

The only drawback, Jordan says, is the all-too-vivid memory of Meredith enduring broken ribs, a collapsed lung, at least two concussions – and jeers.

“He got beat up bad, man. He was the toughest son of a gun I’ve ever seen, and I think I’ve seen a lot of them.”

Their careers didn’t cross, but Staubach says Meredith often encouraged him. As the man who glamorized the Cowboys quarterback position, Meredith knew its burdens, perhaps more so than any of his successors. In August, Staubach offered to fly Don and Susan to late-Cowboys receiver Bob Hayes’ Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony. They regretfully declined.

“I was going to have him on stage,” Staubach says. “I was going to point to him and say, ‘This is the guy who really should be up here for Bob.’ ”

In hindsight, Jordan says Meredith’s retirement “probably ended up being the right step for him at that time of his life.”

It allowed Meredith to join Monday Night Football and meet Susan a year later.

“The brightest ray of sunshine that you could have in a guy’s life, she has been it for him,” Jordan says. “She has stabilized Don’s life, guided and helped him.”

Last month, Jordan and his wife, Biddie, traveled to Santa Fe to visit and ask a favor.

Would Don consent to being honored next April 28 in Dallas, at a luncheon benefiting the Greater Dallas Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association? Meredith, who has had family and friends afflicted with the disease, agreed.

Jordan says “A Tribute to Don Meredith: An American Champion” has had an outpouring of commitments from Cowboys spanning the franchise’s half-century.

“It’s going to be a tribute like you’ve never seen,” says Jordan, voice cracking. “I love that guy so much.

He has been such an important part of my life.”

I walk alone

Under windswept skies

For a travelin’ man

Alone till he dies

The song’s last verse evokes an “aw” from Susan. Don laughs.

His recall is patchy these days, but he can describe the moment and date, April 17, 1971, of first seeing Susan, walking along New York’s Third Avenue.

“I thought I was seeing a miracle. Then, after we met, I wondered where she’d been when I really needed her.” They since have spent only 24 nights apart.

Of the 914 men who have worn a Cowboys uniform, there have been more acclaimed players than The Original. But none have been more well-known, eclectic or enigmatic.

Troy Aikman is having a solid broadcasting career, but Meredith attained cult status during 170 Monday Night episodes, plus the ’75, ’77 and ’85 Super Bowls.

Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin have danced with the stars, but Meredith is the only known Dallas Cowboy to guest-host The Tonight Show, on July 30, 1975.

Don and Susan joke that he tanked the monologue because reading cue cards wasn’t his nature.

He saved face by trading barbs with guest and pal Burt Reynolds.

In those days, the Merediths spent more time in their second home, in Palm Springs, Calif. Next-door neighbor Dinah Shore had him co-host her show for a year.

He endorsed Lipton tea, had a recurring role in TV’s Police Story and starred in the ’76 movie Banjo Hackett: Roamin’ Free.

Of course, Garrison likes to tease that the flick wasn’t actually released. It escaped.

Meredith hasn’t conversed with many sportswriters in the last quarter-century, but he did perform Neil Simon’s Odd Couple on stage with Monday Night partner Frank Gifford. Along the way, Don and Susan took up painting and traveled the world.

It’s been quite a journey for Jeff and Hazel’s baby boy. Meredith, wearing his Mount Vernon class ring, retrieves a photo of his parents from a bookcase.

“Isn’t that a great picture? I’m very thankful. I’m very thankful about where I’m from and who I am.”

Though he has been somewhat homebound since his minor stroke five years ago, he channels his competitiveness into FreeCell, a computer-based card game similar to solitaire.

The statistics show that Meredith has won 18,339 of 21,959 attempts, or 83 percent. Not to brag, mind you, but his top winning streak is 40 games.

The visitor asks if the Merediths would mind posing for a photo.

“Only if she’ll sit on my lap,” Don says.

At interview’s end, Meredith asks for the reporter’s notebook.

He draws a flower, sings “Yellow Rose of Texas” and signs his handiwork.

One last thing. Susan asks Don to play the song from the other side of his 45 rpm record. It is more cheery, she notes. More like him.

Meredith melody, past and present, again fills the room.

Them that ain’t got it can’t loo-oose

I’m servin’ notice on the bloo-ues

I ain’t gonna try to build my fortunes high

For them that ain’t got it can’t lose

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