Don Meredith: The Original Dallas Cowboy Could Play

Gene StrotherCorrespondent IIIDecember 7, 2010

"Outlined against a gray November sky, The Four Horsemen rode again Sunday in the Cotton Bowl. You remember their names: Death, Famine, Pestilence and Meredith."

That opening line—penned by Gary Cartwright of The Dallas Times Herald some time in the 1960s after the Dallas Cowboys and their irrepressible quarterback Don Meredith had failed to acquit themselves well on the football field—may be the greatest ever penned by a Dallas sports writer.

It is also representative of how patently unfair media and fans alike were to the quarterback who led the team from expansion woes to the threshold of greatness.

Most people my age remember Don Meredith primarily as the funny man in the booth, the one who gave Howard Cosell hell. We loved him for it. More seasoned Cowboys fans like my father-in-law, Tommy Weir, remember Meredith as one of the franchise's first great offensive players.

They remember the way he and "Bullet" Bob Hayes stretched defenses. They remember the high-flying offenses of 1966-68. They remember the heartbreak of the "Ice Bowl." They remember "Next Year's Champions."

Don Meredith was the first Dallas Cowboy. He was, in fact, signed by the team to a personal services contract before they were even officially a team, before they had even settled on calling themselves the Cowboys.

This is how The Dallas Morning News reported it yesterday:

"The contract read, 'If we get a National Football League franchise, we'd like for you to play quarterback,' " Meredith chuckled in October 2009, when a News reporter visited Santa Fe for a profile commemorating the 50th anniversary of Meredith's signing.

The expansion Cowboys did not have so much as the benefit of a draft in their inaugural season of 1960. So, in 1961, with their first pick, they chose Bob Lilly, the man who would leave his mark as one of the greatest defensive ends to ever play the game. Lilly is known as "Mr. Cowboy."

What Lilly was to the defense, Meredith would become to the offense: the unquestioned leader, the catalyst, the transcendent player.

Don Meredith did not become the Cowboys starter until 1963. By 1966, he had them in the NFL Championship game, a classic shootout, which they lost to the Green Bay Packers. In '67, Meredith led the Cowboys to the championship game again. Again it was the Green Bay Packers.

The '67 championship game would become one of the most famous games ever played. It was called the "Ice Bowl" because it was played in the coldest temperature ever recorded for an NFL game. The official game temperature was -13 degrees, with a wind chill of -36.

Meredith's Cowboys lost to Bart Starr's Packers on the final play of the game. Final score: Green Bay 21, Dallas 17.

In 1968, the Cowboys would have one of their best years ever. They posted a 12-2 record and scored 438 points, just over 31 points per game. Meredith threw for 2,500 yards and 21 touchdowns, both gaudy numbers in that era. He would be named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl.

The '68 Cowboys, however, would fall short again, losing in the playoffs to Jim Brown's Cleveland Browns, 31-20. They would remain what they had come to be called: The Bridesmaids of the NFL.

After the heartbreak of the 1968 season, at age 31 and still at his athletic peak, Don Meredith walked away from the football field forever. Men like Dan Reeves, Lee Roy Jordan and Bob Lilly would play in Super Bowls and ultimately become world champions. Meredith never would.

In just six years as a starter, Meredith threw for over 17,000 yards and 135 touchdowns. He won NFL Player of the Year in 1966 and was named to the Pro Bowl in '66, '67 and '68.

He posted a record of 47–35. Fans and critics alike felt he left plenty of wins and touchdowns on the field when he quit. But he was done, and there was no changing that.

Before becoming the face of the 1960s Dallas Cowboys, Meredith was already a local hero, having been a two-time All-American quarterback for Southern Methodist University. He played his home games with those Mustangs at the Cotton Bowl, the same place his Cowboys played.

Don Meredith grew up in Mount Vernon, Texas, which is just 30 miles down the road from where my mother lives in Mount Pleasant. If you eat lunch in Mount Vernon, as I have on several occasions, and find an old-timer to ask about Don Meredith, you will see eyes light up and hear stories start flying.

People in Mount Vernon and Dallas—though not as many these days, since it was more than 50 years ago—still talk about Meredith as a 16-year-old schoolboy, playing in the Dr. Pepper Classic basketball tournament in Dallas in 1954.

Just a junior, Meredith scored 52 points in one game and totaled 164 points in five games, leading the tiny Mount Vernon school to a huge upset championship over much larger schools.

Former teammate and NFL coach Dan Reeves in an interview with Mike Ryner and Corby Davidson, known as The Hardline, on KTCK today, remembered Meredith as a fierce competitor who loved to have fun.

He said that people misunderstood and underestimated his competitive spirit because he was such a fun-loving guy. Reeves said Meredith refused to continue playing if he couldn't have fun doing it. So, he retired.

(In that regard, Meredith reminds me of Tony Romo, who is often heard saying, "Football is fun." I guess folks just don't want their quarterbacks having too much fun.)

Don Meredith will forever be remembered as the man who sang "The Party's Over." He will always be beloved for his work as a broadcaster on Monday Night Football.

He may also forever be underestimated as an athlete. But not by men like Dan Reeves, Lee Roy Jordan, Bob Lilly and the others who wore the star with him.

Those men know what we all ought to appreciate: Don Meredith was a tremendous athlete, a fierce competitor and a great football player.