Don Meredith left us wanting more

As Walt Garrison told the story on Dale Hansen's Sports Special on WFAA on Sunday night, the Cowboys' charter flight after a game sometime back in the late '60s had just dropped 300 feet in a violent storm, like an elevator in free fall, and big, tough NFL football players were screaming and crying left and right.

Someone looked over at quarterback Don Meredith, who sat calmly reading a magazine, a cigarette in one hand and a scotch in the other.

"Aren't you scared?" asked the player (some say it was linebacker D.D. Lewis).

Replied Meredith, sipping his scotch, "It's been a good 'un, ain't it?"

The story just about perfectly sums up the man who liked to tell his teammates to always remember their ABCs -- Always Be Cool.

The irony is that while Hansen and Garrison were chuckling about Meredith's ability to always seem to come up with the perfect one-liner, Mr. Cool had already died in a Santa Fe, N.M., hospital earlier Sunday evening.

One more zinger for Dandy Don.

For the record, I didn't know Don Meredith -- he retired in 1968, the year before I signed on with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram -- but, like a lot of others, I worshipped him from afar. He was to the NFL what James Dean had been to Hollywood: too cool for school.

He was the anti-Landry, which is not to cast a negative light on either man. Meredith's sense of humor was irrepressible, even in the presence of stone-faced Mount Landry, who approached football the same way an undertaker steps into a funeral parlor.

"In practice, we heard him singing as he came out of the huddle, 'I Didn't Know God Made Honky-Tonk Angels,'" Cowboys Hall of Famer Bob Lilly wrote in his book "Bob Lilly: Reflections." "And sometimes he called his play by fruit.

"He'd get under center and yell, 'Apples! … Oranges! … Peaches!' … and finally, 'Bananas!' They'd snap the ball and we'd all crack up. Well, everybody but Coach Landry."

Meredith, in fact, seemed to make it his mission in life to goad Tom Landry into a smile, though there is no documented evidence that he ever accomplished that goal.

"Tom Landry is a perfectionist," Meredith once said. "If he was married to Raquel Welch, he'd expect her to cook."

Meredith, or "Jeff and Hazel's baby boy," as he liked to call himself, was a free spirit even coming out of Mount Vernon High School in East Texas. Bear Bryant tried to recruit him to Texas A&M, still an all-male school in those days.

"Coach Bryant," Meredith reportedly told the legendary coach, "there's not a coach in the world I'd rather play for. I'd go anywhere in the world to play for you, except, of course, at some school where girls aren't allowed."

So Meredith accepted SMU's offer instead, enrolled as a divinity student (believe it or not), married the homecoming queen and was destined to never play a single home game of his entire football career outside of North Texas.

But Meredith was far more like legendary Pittsburgh Steeler nightlifer Bobby Layne than like Meredith's one-day QB heir and All-American boy Roger Staubach.

In fact, Meredith once said, "When I die, I want to come back as Bobby Layne's chauffeur."

Dallas was Meredith's playground, on and off the field. According to former Fort Worth newspaperman Mike Shropshire in his book, "Ice Bowl," one of Meredith's favorite postgame hangouts was Dewey Groom's Longhorn Ranch on the outskirts of the downtown area. He was often accompanied there by a young songwriter who had yet to launch his own singing career, but Meredith liked the words that Willie Nelson put together in songs like "Hello, Walls" and "The Party's Over." Of course, "turn out the lights, the party's over," would become Meredith's signature line on MNF.

"Those early Willie Nelson songs had a quality of sadness, or loneliness, to them, and there was a side of Meredith, maybe his true side, that strongly identified with that stuff," Cowboys linebacker Lee Roy Jordan told Shropshire.

Jordan still believes that Meredith never received enough credit for his talent and leadership in those early Cowboys years.

"Meredith was the most entertaining guy I ever met in my life," Jordan said, "and he never received credit for the talent that he had. Of course, he never really did adhere to Tom Landry's outlook, which was a total focus on football and that not having fun was something that goes with the job."

That Meredith even survived the early '60s as the Cowboys quarterback was something of a miracle. He played with injuries that would have put others in the hospital, and sometimes that's where he wound up, too.

Asked after a game once whether he noticed that his quarterback appeared groggy, Landry only shrugged.

"No," Landry said. "I'm so used to seeing him that way, I can't tell the difference anymore."

Who said Landry had no sense of humor?

No one questioned Meredith's toughness. A Dallas sports writer, in fact, came up with a new stat during Dandy Don's first few years behind the Cowboys' porous offensive line: "Yardage Lost Attempting to Live."

Early in 1967, Meredith rallied the Cowboys to a victory in Washington by throwing a fourth-down, 36-yard touchdown pass to Dan Reeves despite suffering broken ribs just a few plays earlier.

Back in Dallas later that night, receiver Pete Gent visited Meredith in the intensive care unit in the hospital, where he'd been taken with a collapsed lung.

"They had him hooked up to a breathing machine and Don was in absolute agony," Gent told Shropshire. "I had seen him in incredible pain before, but nothing like this. He had a big hole in his side and blood dripping from his mouth."

As the quarterback, Meredith took most of the blame for the Cowboys' ineptness through the '60s. Two fourth-quarter interceptions, the second from Cleveland's 1-yard line, in a 24-17 loss in 1965 prompted Dallas Morning News sportswriter Gary Cartwright to pen these famous words: "Outlined against a grey November sky, the Four Horsemen rode again Sunday. You know them: Pestilence, death, famine and Meredith."

The injuries and the constant criticism were all part of what prompted Meredith to drive to Landry's home after the '68 season to tell the coach that, at 31, he had decided to retire. Maybe he wanted Landry to talk him out of it, and Landry would later say he tried. Teammates, though, said it didn't happen, and Meredith walked away to star on "Monday Night Football" and as an actor in movies and on television.

When he left the spotlight for Santa Fe in the early '80s, he left it for good.

Like any good performer, he knew how to make an entrance and how to make an exit. He left us wishing for more.

He was right that night on the plane ride in the storm.

It's been a good 'un, ain't it?

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.