We hear all the time about people who are "one of a kind." We especially hear this when they die. I think that's right and proper. I'm sure you have been to a funeral or two in your life where you get no sense of the person who died, no memory to cling to, no idea about their favorite ice cream flavor or what phrase they repeated again and again or what music they might sing along with or what TV shows they loved to watch or what joke made them laugh unexpectedly hard or what is the one thing they loved doing most of all. These empty funerals always make me saddest of all, because I think we all really are one of a kind, at least in some way, and the hope is that people will notice and maybe even remember.
But there are some people who really are one of a kind, and Don Meredith was one of those guys. Dandy Don. He was like something out of a Dan Jenkins novel -- a quarterback, all-Texas, all-guts, all-heart. He played his high school football in Texas, and he played his college football in Texas, and he played his pro football in Texas, and all the while he believed in throwing the ball deep and running the ball with abandon. He played for Tom Landry, a serious man, which wasn't always health because Meredith was not a serious man. It didn't go so well in the early years. Then, in 1964, the Dallas Cowboys drafted the world's fastest man, Bullet Bob Hayes, and he joined the team in 1965, and Don Meredith was the guy who threw the ball deep to him. The Cowboys won a lot of games, and lost twice in the Green Bay Packers with the Super Bowl at stake. It was one beautiful party with a few hangovers, and if there was one thing Don Meredith realized it was that if you can't handle the hangovers you shouldn't go to the party.
"Why do they call you Dandy, anyway?" he was asked once.
"Because I am," he said.
But that's not what made him one of a kind. No, there have been other Texas quarterbacks who loved throwing the ball deep, day and night. What made Don Meredith one of a kind ... well, when he retired from football he was hired to become a broadcaster for this new thing called Monday Night Football. That was 1970. He had no broadcasting training. He was not exactly known for his detailed study or his intense work ethic. Nobody really knew how his Texas twang would play on a medium then known for the deep and crack-free voices of professional announcers
How did it go? Well, I'd say this and I doubt too many people would disagree: No color commentator -- not in the long history of professional football on television -- ever made professional football games as much fun as Dandy Don Meredith.
How did he do it? You don't think there are television executives wondering that very thing? They have tried everything. They hired a comedian to be in the booth. They hired a funny newspaper columnist to be in the booth. They hired stars to sing the football openers. They designed some animated robot to dance after commercials. They hired every funny player and coach they could find. They have brought in guests, they have brought in impersonators, they have worked up insane graphics, they have worked up a million angles. But they have never quite recaptured when Don Meredith had when he was in the booth with Howard Cosell.
Maybe Meredith was just an unusual combination -- a truly great football player who didn't take football all that seriously. He brought authority and irreverence. He'd sing in the booth, of course. Turn out the lights! The party's over! Well, he was always singing. He'd crack jokes that were always just a little bit rascally, jokes you had to be a certain age to understand ("Fair Hooker," he said, repeating the name of the Cleveland Browns receiver. "I haven't met one yet."). As one person who worked closely with Meredith said, he was just one of those people who had life beat. Howard Cosell, with his big words and big mind and hyper-sensitivity, never stood a chance.
"Oh come on, Howard," he'd say whenever Cosell got too puffed up and America would laugh and Cosell would shrink. Cosell would often say that he liked Meredith -- "DAYN-dy DON!" -- because he thought Meredith's rustic charm played well off his own lawyerly bombast. But it really was the other way around. Meredith was the Fonz. Cosell was Potsie. Sure, Cosell was one of a kind in his own way too, and his great strength was that he made the games matter. But Meredith made the games fun. And fun is what games were meant to be.
People do tend to romanticize things. Monday Night Football -- now Sunday Night Football -- is in some ways more popular now than it was in the 1970s. And it's better produced, and it's wonderfully broadcast -- I think Cris Collinsworth is the best color commentator in the game. He's funny and direct and incisive. Times have changed, and expectations for announcers have changed, and Collinsworth fits his time.
But there was an unmistakable magic to the time when Frank Gifford would make the call, and Howard Cosell would irritate the masses, and Don Meredith would sing. It was apparent, just from being around him on Monday nights, that Meredith loved life. And that love of life poured through the television set. I still don't think there has ever been anything quite like that.
In the 25 years that have gone by since he walked away from broadcasting, television scouts have tried desperately to find someone for the booth with some of Meredith's spirit, someone who could broadcast not only the passion of football, not only the intensity of football, not only the tactics of football ... but also the joy. Dandy Don Meredith died Sunday of a brain hemorrhage. He was 72 years old. And the television folks can stop looking. They won't ever find another one like him.