The Dallas Cowboys' organization has had some sad days over the years, but Monday has to rank near the top. Probably the most beloved player in the history of the franchise, quarterback Don Meredith died Sunday at the age of 72.
I never had the opportunity to meet Meredith, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. He lived his life in the spotlight as a star quarterback at SMU and then as the quarterback of the Cowboys under coach Tom Landry in the early days of the organization. He then became one of the more celebrated TV analysts in the country with his work on ABC's "Monday Night Football." He was actually more of an entertainer than an analyst, and he was the perfect complement to Howard Cosell's acerbic approach in the booth.
When Meredith left "Monday Night Football" in 1984, he pretty much disappeared from the public eye. He split time between his ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., and a home in Palm Springs, Calif., and by all accounts, he simply wanted to live out his life in private. My great friend Michael Granberry from the Dallas Morning News grew up watching Meredith at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas and he interviewed him in 1982. I've listened to the tapes of that interview before and it was fascinating to hear Meredith talking about playing the Cleveland Browns two days after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
Meredith told Granberry that players heard a haunting sound as they made their way through the visiting dugout at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium onto the field Nov. 24, 1963. They soon realized it was the pounding footsteps of 400 servicemen paying tribute to President Kennedy.
"Here we come out, the Dallas Cowboys, with our stars on our hats,” Meredith told Granberry, then a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “And it was like going to the lions with the Christians.”
Even though he spent the past 25 years away from the spotlight, Meredith's former teammates never stopped trying to get him to show up for reunions. And on the few occasions that he'd give in, it was like a rock star coming to town. The fact that Meredith had an unbelievable sense of humor and immense talent didn't prevent him from taking a beating from the media during his years with the Cowboys. Gary Cartwright and the late Bud Shrake, who both had remarkable careers with newspapers and magazines, covered those Cowboys teams in the 1960s. It was a time when writers and players could be friends, in part, because there wasn't such a huge divide in salaries. But Cartwright told me once that his friendship with Meredith was compromised when he led his column in the Dallas Times Herald the day after a Cowboys loss with the following sentences:
"The Four Horsemen rode again Sunday in the Cotton Bowl. You remember their names: Death, Famine, Pestilence and Meredith."
Despite his success in television, some folks suggest that Meredith never recovered from all the criticism he took as the face of the Cowboys during those years. I've heard it told that he was devastated that Landry didn't try harder to talk him out of retiring in 1968. But no matter how Meredith felt about his career, there's no doubt that he touched thousands of lives as a player and broadcaster.
Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman are certainly the best quarterbacks in the history of the franchise. But I don't think either one of those guys will argue with the statement that Meredith will always be the most beloved. There are a lot of Cowboys fans of a certain age today who will have trouble fighting back the tears.
This is a profound loss to the organization. And even those of us who never had the pleasure of knowing Don Meredith will miss him.