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Hidden Star

For Don Meredith, the Party Ended in Santa Fe A Long Time Ago. And That’s a Good Thing

December 10, 2010, 1:00 am

As a child of the ’70s, I never had a chance to see Don Meredith play. I knew him when he'd reached a different sort of fame as a pitch man for Lipton Iced Tea, as an occasional actor and, most importantly, as the color man for the greatest team of sports announcers ever put together the 1970-1984 years of Monday Night Football.

This was back when MNF wasn't just another game, but an event, a big kickoff for the week. Its ratings proved its popularity, but it was the humorous, tag-team chemistry between good ol' boy Meredith and the urbane, cynical Howard Cosell that transformed the announcers booth into a bona fide pop culture touchstone.

Sometimes that pop culture touchstone veered away from football. On the night of Monday, December8, 1980, for instance, most Americans didn't find out from the news that John Lennon had died; they found out from Howard Cosell, as the Patriots were trying to kick a field goal. It was one of those bizarre moments in American cultural history, when gut-kicking news comes from an unexpected source. But then, those kinds of things happened on Monday Night Football.

On the lighter side, game after game, the comedy chemistry between Meredith and Cosell grew more and more honed, and it was a main reason the MNF had become an event. It was Meredith who supplied such zingy one-liners, it was obvious his mind was much sharper than his country bumpkin persona indicated. It was Meredith who threw out irreverent classics as “Welcome to Mile-High stadium and I really am.” It was Meredith who casually called then-President Nixon “Tricky Dick” during a broadcast.

As the game went on, he and Cosell would get looser (you could practically hear the ice tinkling in their highball glasses over the microphone), and sometimes their back-and-forth evoked the timing and chemistry of great comedy teams like Abbot and Costello, or the Smothers Brothers. Even as a young kid, hearing Meredith's Texas baritone as he dismissed the losing team with a boozy a cappela “Turn out the lights/the party's over,” I knew this dude was special. All this before I even knew about his days as a Cowboy god.

But, like any good young Texan, I learned soon enough.

Considering the hideous shitpile that has been the Dallas Cowboys' 2010 season (or, hell, past 10 seasons), it's hard to imagine a time when the America’s Team mystique enjoyed an actual cachet. For Cowboys lovers, the ’60s and ’70s mystique meant, in the dopey parlance of North Texas, that “the Star meant something” (yes, ’round here, we actually capitalize “Star”). The Star leant a rarified air to the Dallas area, scrubbing its reputation clean after several seasons of expansion team crappiness and, worse, the Kennedy assassination (even though some conspiracy theorists have connected then-Cowboys owner Clint Murchison to the plot to kill the president).

By the time Meredith took the helm, in 1963, that mystique settled like mustard gas around inferior teams, filling them with revulsion and dread. The Cowboys had already begun its brand, but it had the swagger to back it up. In the years that have passed, since the Star don't mean so much anymore, the haters have piled on.

But even the haters can’t deny the beauty of the Don Meredith myth. Meredith was, literally, the first Cowboy (signed using a legal slight-of-hand that foreshadowed the team’s future mercenary tendencies), and he was definitely the first Cowboy to make the Star mean something.

Meredith never won a Super Bowl (although he's such a hero in Dallas, you'd think he won all of them), an achievement that these days is the only acceptable arbiter of greatness around North Texas, but he did something even more important: He created the archetype of one of the most recognized and lionized positions in all of American sportsand thus all of American culture: The quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.

He created the archetype with a combination of exaggerated persona and sincerely good ol’ boy personality. Born and raised in Mount Vernon, Texas, Meredith was a true Texas boyhe never played a home game out of the state, up until the day he retiredprematurely, at his peak, at age 31, with two NFC championships to his name.

He did it with just the kind of rebellious kick you want to see in a hero: He constantly battled with head coach Tom Landry, an emotionless, stoic, genius of the game, who placed more faith in statistics then he did human beings (Landry predated every coach of every sport, not just football, with his reliance on computer-generated stats. He basically coached with computer printouts in one hand and a Bible in the other.) Landry wanted a tight, controlled offense. Meredith wanted to chunk bombs downfield to Bob Hayes. Landry wanted his team to run sprints up the stadium steps; Meredith would sneak off and smoke cigarettes. Landry wanted robotic play-calling; Meredith would sing old country tunes in the huddle.

But Texas quarterbacks have always had a rebellious streak. It was the other part of Meredith's game that really established him as the precursor to future greats. The Dallas Cowboys quarterback has to have a touch of magic in him. The Dallas Cowboys QB, you see, has to be handsome, gritty and, above all a gridiron miracle worker. He has to possess a touch of magic on the field, manifesting in a stockpile of legendary games and miraculous comebacks--or, at least memorably dramatic attempts at such; if the comeback still ended in a loss, it had to be a manly one, full of blood and broken teeth. It had to be heartbreaking. Meredith in fact manned the team in its perhaps most legendary manly loss: the 1966 Ice Bowl against the Green Bay Packers.

There is much conjecture over why Meredith retired in his prime (incidentally, at the same age as the Cowboys quarterback who most resembles both his gunslinging ways and his aw-shucks charm: current Cowboys QB Tony Romo). It's possible two weirdly cruddy post-season performances in a row killed his desire. Or possibly (and this is a popular theory), he just couldn't handle Landry's robotic strictures.

Post-retirement, Meredith didn't give many interviews, and they grew even fewer as he withdrew from the public eye, and in none of the ones I've read has the interviewer really pushed him as to why he left. It's almost like his bad-assery intimidated them alland these are good, seasoned writers like Gary Cartwright and Pete Golenbock. Seems like the ol’ gunslinger fended them off with outer charm and inner steeliness.

But, he indeed he moved on, first for a few years as a stockbroker, which he hated, then as a B-movie and TV actor, before finally making yet another stamp on popular culture in the MNF booth. Then he retired from television...and then he kind of disappeared.

When I first moved to Santa Fe from Dallas in 1998, I had no idea that Meredith even lived here. My first clue was the cluster of pictures of him and Rosalea Murphy on the wall of the entryway to the Pink Adobe. When I inquired about it, the hostess casually informed me that, yeah, he lives here, and comes in from time to time.

My Cowboy-loving heart dropped through my boots. Don Meredith. Dandy Don. The man who sired the quarterbacks I'd fallen in love with over the years Staubach, Aikman, Romo. Lives here.

When I was a kid, it was a Sunday ritual to wrap large sheets of aluminum foil around our TV antennae and let the sheets extend like a metallic flag; all to pick up better reception in order to watch our beloved 'Boys. On Thanksgiving, my family eschewed turkey and stuffing for nachos and beer at the annual holiday game at Texas Stadium It felt like Don Meredith had bequeathed this team to me. And now I hear, oh so casually, that he likes a Steak Dunigan now and then, right here at the Pink Adobe?

But, really, Santa Fe it makes sense. Meredith actually hated Texas Stadiumthe place where my family saw so many other legendary gamessaw it as a behemoth, a manifestation of the overblown myth the Cowboys had become. Maybe that's the real reason he quit the game so young. He played for fun, not profit. And he played for a team, not for a franchise. And the Cowboys had long-since ballooned into something beyond football.

And so, like so many Texans like myself--Meredith moved here, 30 years before his death, and never went back. He settled into a Santa Fe life with his wife Susan of 37 years. He rarely made public appearances, except for a few charity events. He turned down invitations to appear at Cowboys’ reunions and MNF anniversaries. Instead, he played tennis with his wife, golf with buddies, and hosted friends at his adobe home.

I feel like I can picture him there, puttering around the house, humming old Willie Nelson tunes, and not thinking about the past. Thinking only of dry acequias, of the smell of pinon, of how maybe he'll have the Steak Dunigan tonight. He lived, I liked to think, accepting the paradox of his own myth and what it helped lead to. I can tell you from experience, Santa Fe is a great place to forget about Texas. It's also a great place for old cowboys to retire, to rest, and to renew.

 

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