Elephant, Pa. is the last resting place of Umstead Drube, who lies beneath the sod across from an old church with stained-glass windows. Driving past the church, Don Meredith glances at the tombstone and reflects on his own need to find serenity, though not so final as Umstead Drube's. A few miles from the church, up a dirt road through the woods, Meredith hides out with his wife Susan and son Michael in an old house on a hill, surrounded by 21 acres of trees, fields and ponds and guarded by a sign that says:
STOP NO TRESPASSING
VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED
And then, with the wry sort of afterthought that marks much of what Meredith does, the sign continues:
April 21, 1974
For the past four years Meredith has been one-third of the vocal group on what he calls The Monday Night Freak Show—the ABC pro football telecast that in terms of celebrity-making is the grandest thing Meredith, Howard Cosell or Frank Gifford ever did. Neither Meredith and Gifford on the football field nor Cosell in his notorious television encounters with the likes of Muhammad Ali had ever come close to being as widely noted as they have been as a result of Monday night football. (At the start of the show's second season Gifford replaced Keith Jackson, who moved on to NCAA football where his voice is often heard giving information but his face and personality remain a mystery to viewers.)
But not long ago, searching for something further to do with his life, Meredith decided he was fed up with Monday night football and he quit ABC. He was tired of being called Dandy Don and Danderoo. He decided professional football bored him to the point where he no longer had anything pleasant to say about it. In fact, Meredith had decided those things many times and had threatened to quit the show so frequently that Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports, says half the time last season they were unsure if Meredith would arrive at the broadcast booth on Monday night.
When Meredith finally decided to quit Monday night football for a grand final time, he did a possibly strange thing. He signed what amounts to a personal service contract (two years and an option) with NBC. Herbert S. Schlosser, new NBC president, and the entertainment division of the network won Meredith over with promises to help him develop a career as an actor. They offered to work him into leads in several TV movies and to consider him for series pilots to be developed. Carl Lindemann, head of sports at NBC, had scarcely met Meredith until after the contract was signed. So it looked as if a restless Meredith, at 36, was moving on in his quest for the thing that satisfies him.
But NBC has announced Meredith will appear on 10 pro football telecasts this coming season, including the Super Bowl, and will do two or three Monday night baseball specials. "Plus, I guess, any other sports that make sense," says Chet Simmons, a vice-president of sports operations for the network. The plan is for Meredith to team with Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis on Sunday afternoon AFC games where—by comparison with the old Monday Night Freak Show exposure—he could become practically invisible.
Meredith also will be on call as guest host on the Tonight Show and will work on the Today show. The rest of the time, he can be an actor. NBC has some people right now trying to think up a character for him to play in the movies; it won't do, evidently, for Dandy Don to race around shooting it out with thugs, as he did in his two appearances on the Police Story series.
"It's kind of like when I left high school in Mount Vernon, Texas, to go to SMU," Meredith said, walking across the yard toward his house in Elephant, a town named for the decrepit Elephant Hotel, which sort of looks like one. "It was a big, spooky world out there, and I didn't know what to expect, but I knew this was what I was supposed to do. I'm scared to death."
Meredith's contract at NBC is said to call for about $200,000 a year. The most he ever made in salary at ABC was $40,000 a year, although his earnings from other sources—partly attributable, of course, to the power of his Monday night celebrity—amounted to more than 10 times that in 1973. It is certainly not financial ruin that Meredith fears, but a profounder kind of failure.
"My deepest fear is that one day I'm going to find out this is all there is to life, and it won't be enough," he said.
An 8-year-old neighbor boy ran across the yard as Meredith opened the door to his screened-in porch.
"Mr. Meredith, can you come out and play?" the boy said. "I brought my own football."
"Maybe later," said Meredith.
In the kitchen a couple of neighbors sat at the table with Susan, telling her about their trip to Walt Disney World. One reason Meredith sought out a place like Elephant is because it is somewhere in the wilds outside Philadelphia and not easily reached by drop-ins. Meredith has very few close friends but a terrific number of acquaintances. He tried for a while to settle in Colorado, in Aspen or Steamboat Springs, but the social life drove him out. "Some people, like Frank Gifford, can take that kind of life in stride and not be damaged, but I let it destroy me," Meredith said.
A dark, pretty woman who used to be married to actor Keir Dullea, Susan smiled and listened to tales about Walt Disney World and kept looking down at Dink, the trained dog referred to on the sign. Dink, a hairy little creature who travels on airplanes in Susan's purse, was feeling fairly messed-around that afternoon. A few days earlier Amigo, a big Irish setter puppy, had playfully clamped his jaws on the back of Dink's head and made one of his eyeballs pop out.
Stretching it a bit, one could say that's roughly what Meredith did to Cosell on several occasions last season. The ABC Monday night format had called for Gifford to keep America advised of the score while Cosell made I-tell-it-like-it-is-better-than-anybody speeches and Meredith sang songs, commented on supposedly inside aspects of the game and now and then punctured Cosell's rhetoric with interjections of good old country boy cactus mouth. But last season there was a hard edge to Meredith's remarks that hadn't been there before, and Cosell expressed a kind of pained surprise, as though Meredith had inexplicably thrown a drink in his face.
"I was pretty snippy to Howard last year," Meredith said. "I started being that way at the beginning of the season, cooled it when I realized what I was doing, and then got worse than ever at the end. I don't know why I did that. I like Howard, I really do. I mean, he's very weird but I respect him. I think it was pure frustration on my part. I wasn't satisfied with myself, so I took it out on Howard."
Cosell noticed. "It was a difficult year for Don," he said. "I know he felt a great deal of frustration. I love him. Don is warm, generous and mixed-up. He doesn't know what he wants to do. Inconsistency is his stable point."
Cosell seemed exhausted. He had just come back from working the Foreman-Norton fight in Venezuela for ABC's Wide World of Sports, only one of several TV jobs he had done in the past week, not to mention 24 radio shows. The first plane out of Caracas had failed to lift itself off the runway and had braked a few yards short of the ocean. On board, in addition to Cosell, his wife Emmy and a number of other souls, were Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis. "I was thinking what terrible luck it would be for me to get killed in a plane crash with two guys who'd grab all the headlines," he said wearily.
At 54, Cosell also is looking for some way to expand his life beyond sports announcing. He is thinking very seriously of running for the U.S. Senate from New York (what voter could resist sending Cosell to heckle the Senate?). "I might have beaten Dandy Don to quitting except I have one more year on my contract," Cosell said. "Sports don't excite me any more than they do him. I can understand that he's tired of being Dandy Don. I've heard him say he wants to write poetry or a book or do oil painting. Now his dream is drama. Deep inside Don feels he can be a latter-day Will Rogers. Maybe he can. I'm going to miss him, and so will our package. There can be no doubt our chemistry worked with the American people."
"There's nothing wrong with someone wanting to change his life, but I'll miss Don, especially the fun we had traveling together," said Gifford, 44, who is negotiating a new contract with ABC-TV. As the mellow member of the threesome, Gifford sometimes had to act like something of a traffic cop directing gibberish and insults around the problem at hand, which was the football game. "Coming in, nobody can do the same thing for us that Don did. I think hell be sensational as an actor. He'll be a superstar if he works at it.
"But we'll be all right without him," Gifford said. "We've got the product. We've brightened up Monday nights for a tremendous lot of people. The players play differently on Monday night in prime time than they do on Sundays. The players are sophisticated enough to realize the extra twist they're getting on our show, and they really screw it down tight. I find it very interesting. Too bad Don doesn't. You know, Don started off in life to be a preacher, and maybe I could think of odder things than if he wound up as one."
Some people in the TV business say that Roone Arledge is so far ahead of his competition in televising sports events that the others have fallen into reacting to what ABC does. Roone would not claw his way to a microphone to deny it. Whether that estimate is true or not, Monday night football has the highest rating of any regular show on ABC, and its commercials sell for $100,000 a minute, as opposed to $46,500 for NBC pro football. Losing Meredith to NBC was certainly not an easy bite for Arledge to swallow.
"We finally offered Don very nearly the same deal as NBC, with movies and pilots and so forth, and he told me four different times he'd take our deal, but then he went with NBC," said Arledge. "When I heard about it, I called him up and played him a Kris Kristofferson song that says the game is over and nobody won. I suppose I should be annoyed with Meredith, but I'm not. Don's a guy you can't help but love. Changing his mind a lot is just the way he does things.
"It bothers me that the thing Don really liked about NBC was that they said they wanted him as an actor instead of as a sports announcer—but everything they've done lately leads me to believe it could turn out otherwise. Don is scarred by his experience playing quarterback in Dallas. He's got a negative attitude toward his past. I wish he could have stayed at Dallas a while longer and played in a Super Bowl. Maybe that would have driven out his demons. He's got an absolute fetish about not wanting to be Dandy Don, but the truth is the Dandy Don character is pretty close to being the real Meredith."
Arledge flew to Los Angeles and even to Elephant trying to persuade Meredith to stay with ABC. "But he was adamant about not doing Monday night football anymore," Roone said. "One thing that bothers him is the Cosell-Meredith tandem. The first year of our show, Meredith won an Emmy, he was the star. Then Howard started coming on strong, wrote a best-selling book. So Don begins acting in Police Story. If you analyze that show, it's Howard and Don all over again—one partner tense and ambitious, the other loose and screwed-up. I don't understand, anyway, why Don thinks it's better to play a cop on TV than to talk about football on TV."
It is possible that Meredith got out at the right time, that Monday night football might have run its course, but Arledge doesn't believe that. "Monday night is a happening," he said. 'The league is committed to giving us good games, and we'll have a show that people will enjoy. I don't know yet who our third man will be, but he'll be someone with a strongly definable personality. It's not out of the question that it could be Joe Namath.
"I'm sorry Don quit us when he did. I have a gut feeling the day of the anti-hero is passing. People are looking for heroes. Don wore the white hat for us, and Howard was the man in the black hat. Don won't be able to do that with DeRogatis. I hate to lose Don. He's a good friend and a hell of a guy and has been very important to us. I hope he made the right decision."
One afternoon, sitting in the basement of the house on the hill in Elephant, watching the fire start to catch and listening to a Jerry Jeff Walker album, Meredith looked up to see the 8-year-old neighbor boy in the doorway again. "Michael's crying," the boy said.
Meredith went outside. On a slope above a field of winter wheat lay Michael, 6, holding his leg in pain. Don knelt down and comforted his son. "Daddy, I don't want to play football," Michael said.
"That's all right," said Meredith. "You don't have to play football."
"Next year I'm going to be a running back," the neighbor boy said.
"Why do you want to play football?" asked Meredith.
"To win trophies," the boy said.
"Any other reason?"
"Well, I like to play," the boy said.
"That's a good reason," said Meredith.
"Now will you throw the ball with me?" the neighbor boy said.
"When an 8-year-old comes over to play with a 6-year-old's father, something has gone wrong someplace," said Meredith.
Meredith lobbed the ball to the neighbor boy a few times, hugged Michael again and went back inside, where the one-eyed Dink had gone to sleep in his chair. As Umstead Drube might have said, "Be careful of looking for peace; it's liable to find you."