Meredith was dandy on, off field

DALLAS --- Don Meredith was the happiest, most fun-loving guy wherever he went, whether crooning country tunes in the huddle as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys or jawing with Howard Cosell in the broadcast booth as analyst on the groundbreaking Monday Night Football .

His irreverent personality made him one of the most beloved figures in sports and entertainment in the 1970s and 1980s, helping turn the Cowboys and Monday Night Football into national sensations.

"Dandy Don" died Sunday after suffering a brain hemorrhage and lapsing into a coma in Santa Fe, N.M., where he lived out of the limelight with his wife, Susan, for the past 25 years. He was 72.

A folksy foil to Cosell's tell-it-like-it-is pomposity, Meredith was at his best with unscripted one-liners -- often aimed at his broadcast partners. When one team had the game locked up. Meredith would warble, "Turn out the lights, the party's over" -- from a song by his pal Willie Nelson.

Meredith played for the Cowboys from 1960-68, taking them from winless expansion team to the brink of a championship. He was only 31 when he retired before training camp in 1969, and a year later he wound up alongside Cosell in the broadcast booth for the oddity of a prime-time, weeknight NFL game.

The friends took opposite stances to liven up broadcasts with their bickering. Meredith usually took the majority opinion, Cosell the minority. Cosell was playing a role, while Meredith was just being himself.

"Watching him on TV was like being in the huddle with Don again," ex-teammate Dan Reeves said. "He just made the game fun."

Blowouts were their playground. Folks kept watching because of them.

In a 1970 game from Dallas, the Cowboys were headed to a 38-0 loss to St. Louis when fans chanted, "We Want Meredith!" Said Meredith, "No way you're getting me down there."

The Houston Oilers were on their way to a 34-0 loss to the Oakland Raiders in 1972 when a camera zoomed in on a disgruntled fan. He made a one-finger salute and Meredith quipped, "He thinks they're No. 1."

Meredith was the life of the party in the Monday Night booth from 1970-84, except for a three-year stint playing a detective on NBC's Police Story . He spent 11 of those years teamed with another former star player, Frank Gifford, a friend before they became broadcast partners.

"To say that Don was an instant success would be a gross understatement," Gifford said in a statement.

Current Monday Night announcer Jon Gruden spoke for many who grew up during Meredith's time in the booth by recalling how he would "sneak downstairs and watch Don and Monday Night Football when I was supposed to be asleep."

Meredith appeared in more than a dozen made-for-TV movies, specials or dramas. He once filled in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show , and was a popular pitchman for Lipton tea.

During his playing days, Meredith recorded his own country music single. Former teammate Walt Garrison pulled it out Monday and proudly read the names of the songs: Travelin' Man on one side, Them That Ain't Got It Can't Lose on the other.

He was the inspiration for the carousing quarterback in the book and movie North Dallas Forty , written by Pete Gent, a former Cowboys teammate and good friend.

"He loved life, he loved people, God bless him," Garrison said. "When he walked into a room, he took it over."

Meredith's second career in entertainment obscures what a great quarterback he was, taking a team from 0-11-1 in 1960 to within minutes of reaching each of the first two Super Bowls.

"I've been around some outstanding quarterbacks: (Roger) Staubach, (Craig) Morton, (John) Elway, Phil Simms," said Reeves, an NFL head coach for 23 seasons. "All those guys had some of the same traits as Don, but you'd never get all the traits Don had in one package."

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