I am not the first to report on BTB about the passing of Don Meredith, but let me offer a tribute as one who watched him lead the Cowboys from ineptitude to the brink of the Promised Land.
I can't claim the name Fan since '65 because I didn't actually become a fan until 1966. However, I did attend my first Cowboys game in 1964 - watched the Cowboys lose to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Cotton Bowl.
Don Meredith was the heart and soul of the 1960s Dallas Cowboys. With a break or two, he would have been the Hall of Fame quarterback who was famous for winning the inaugural Super Bowls and being instrumental in the trophy being named the Landry Trophy, instead of the Lombardi Trophy.Don Meredith was the balancing agent - his playful personality contrasted with his tight-lipped emotionless coach. However, both Meredith and Landry were incredible competitors who never liked to lose.
Meredith was the first of the great Cowboys quarterbacks, leading them from the futility of their expansion days to respectability (7-7 in '65 and second in the conference), to the brink (epic NFL championship games, and narrow losses, to the mighty Green Bay Packers).
I remember well both of those championship games ('66 and '67). Back in the day, there were no divisions, just the Eastern and Western Conferences. There were no wild cards; only each conference champion played each year for the NFL championship.
In 1966, the Cowboys hosted the Packers, and trailed 14-0 before running a play from scrimmage. Green Bay took the opening kickoff, drove down the field and scored, recovered a fumble on the kickoff, and scored again. Meredith led a furious comeback that fell just short. Down 34-27 in the closing seconds, he led the Cowboys to the Green Bay one. A penalty pushed them back five yards, and his desperation pass was picked off in the end zone.
1967 was the more famous Ice Bowl, and gave rise to the nickname "Frozen Tundra". Again, the Cowboys lost a heart-breaker. They led 17-14 in the closing seconds. Green Bay had the ball on the Cowboys one, and had to make a decision - kick a field goal and take their chances in overtime, or win or lose on one play (they were out of timeouts). If they scored, they won; if they failed, they lost. Bart Staff inched across the goal line on a quarterback sneak.
Something new those two years - following the NFL Championship games were new, anticlimactic games games that were called NFL-AFL World Championship games. Little more than glorified exhibitions in the minds of the Packers (they had just won the NFL championship each year), they still defeated handily the Chiefs and Raiders. Those games weren't called Super Bowls until the third one (Colts-Jets).
The NFL expanded and reorganized the next year - 1968 was the first year of sixteen teams divided into four divisions (Coastal, Capitol, Century, and Central, if memory serves correctly). The Cowboys won their division the next two years but were soundly defeated by the rebuilt powerhouse Cleveland Browns in the new divisional round of playoffs.
You current Cowboys fans document well and often the years of frustration since the Cowboys last tasted success (defined as a Super Bowl championship) - fifteen years and counting. However, this team that Meredith led was just finishing its tenth year of existence. It had advanced from a winless (0-11-1) debut season as an expansion team to playing for the NFL championship.
A new moniker had been given these Cowboys - Next Year's Champions. Each of those four years (66-69) had begun with all the potential and excitement of being the year to finally win it all. Sound familiar? What team was supposed to play the upcoming Super Bowl this season in its home stadium?
Frustrated by the devastating playoff losses - the two close ones to the Packers, followed by the blowout losses to the Browns - Coach Landry was looking at some new young quarterbacks - Craig Morton, Jerry Rhome, and a reserve that had been drafted earlier as a "future". Roger Staubach had finished his US Navy commitment and was available full-time for the first time.
Meredith was an incredibly serious competitor, but he had fun playing football. After the playoff losses, and embittered by the criticism and blame he was receiving for the Cowboys' failure to win, he abruptly retired. Fans didn't understand at the time. He was still in his prime. The Cowboys were so close. Why would he leave, and what would he do?
In the 1960s, not every game was televised every week. Rarely could you watch more than one, maybe two, on a given Sunday. However, in 1970, something new sprung from the NFL-AFL merger - a third network, ABC, given a new slot to televise football in prime time - Monday Night Football. ABC's lead college football announcer, Keith Jackson was named the lead announcer. In a radical maneuver, both Don Meredith and Howard Cosell were added to booth - Meredith for his football experience, and Cosell for his fame as an ABC commentator and knowledge of sports.
That original marriage only lasted a year before Keith Jackson returned to exclusively college football. He was replaced as lead announcer by Frank Gifford. But, the experiment was an incredible success. Meredith and Cosell were so different in background and personality; the country tuned in just to see what they would say. Oh, yeah, ball games were played, but people watched to see Dandy Don (nickname given him by Cosell) and Howard go at each other.
Over the years, especially when a blowout would happen, the repartee in the booth became even more entertaining. Meredith, a country music aficionado, would often sing lines from country songs in his twangy voice. What became his signature line was "Turn out the lights, the party's over" when he considered a game to be over - one team having an insurmountable lead.
Don Meredith, first great Cowboys quarterback, rest in peace. You will be missed.
Turn out the lights...