There's nothing more satisfying than a life well-lived, unless,
of course, it happens to be somebody else's life. Then it's just
irritating. Take Don Meredith, who stockpiled a vast reserve of
fame in several high-profile careers and then turned his back on
the public (us!) to pursue personal (his!) interests. It's
maddening, perverse and un-American. It's also mysterious,
because it goes against everything we understand about
celebrity. What, he can't even do a card show?
Well, he won't. He won't do anything, actually. Think about it.
Since he left Monday Night Football (this was only a few years
after he stopped pitching iced tea, which was after he quit the
Dallas Cowboys), you haven't heard much from or about him, have
you? The publicity department at ABC-TV, the network that helped
create a diffident and national phenomenon named Dandy Don,
didn't even know how to reach him.
He has dropped out of sight, as far as anyone can tell. He must
not need the money (who doesn't need money?) or the recognition
(who tires of recognition?). He was in the public eye, remember,
for a good long while. Besides being a pretty fair quarterback,
he was a broadcasting sensation during the astonishing heyday of
MNF, pricking Howard Cosell's ridiculous verbosity with a
well-timed, down-home needle. Fifty million Americans waited for
him to sing "the party's over" before turning out their own
lights every Monday. Through the mid-'80s he was about as big as
they get. Then, just a little bit after the night he looked down
at the action and, in typical fashion, announced to the nation,
"You know, I think I've seen this game before," he was gone.
Of course, if Meredith seems unique in this regard, it helps to
remember that he was always unconventional, a man so at ease with
himself that his achievements seemed almost accidental. He was,
even at the peak of his career, without apparent ambition or
guile or even much professionalism, borne along the airwaves on
personality alone, a guy you didn't mind sitting with for three
hours. And given his seemingly casual approach to life, maybe
it's not surprising after all that hardly anybody knows what he's
doing today, and that not even ABC has his phone number. "To be
fair," says Frank Gifford, the straight man in the booth during
his MNF years and Meredith's best friend to this day, "they
didn't have his number when he worked there."
This may be why Meredith is stunned to learn that he's considered
a recluse. After agreeing to host a rare visitor (who had to
negotiate with him via fax)--he thinks he's done one other
interview in the last nine years--Meredith makes clear that what
others consider seclusion he understands to be a regular life.
No, he hasn't welcomed a lot of media to his little compound in
Santa Fe, but what of it? "A recluse?" he says. "I don't
understand that. I don't feel reclusive. I actually feel kinda
O.K., so here is what normal looks like: Picture Meredith on a
veranda, a little grayer than you might remember now that he's
62, overlooking a tennis court, soaking up the New Mexico light,
four dogs at his feet or in his lap, his wife of 29 years at his
side. His three children are all well accounted for, he's
recently enjoyed a trip to New York City, is expecting friends
for a weeklong visit, and he has a ritual golf game on
Thursdays--"Ten-oh-eight, the ball's in the air." Normal.
He's as comfortable to talk to as you'd have imagined from all
those years listening to him on TV. His stories are charming, his
wit sharp. When you wander off alone into another room of his
house, you hear his broadcast-ready voice drawling behind you:
"The good silverware's in the back." He is not, in other words,
particularly mysterious once you pin him down. He's good company.
It's just that being as secure as he is, he doesn't feel
obligated (either by financial need or by ego) to be everybody's
He is, in fact, amused that his life needs explaining. Simply
put, he's comfortable out of the national glare and doesn't feel
the need to define himself by past fame. He's been 20 years in
Santa Fe, having turned his back on Hollywood, where he had a
brief acting career in the '70s. "I don't want to get
psychological," he says, as if that would conflict with his
cowpoke image, "but, maybe because of the way I was raised, I
never needed people to tell me I was O.K. I always felt very
comfortable with myself."
This self-confidence is part of what made the Mount Vernon,
Texas, native so popular, first as an easygoing quarterback who
dared to croon country tunes in Tom Landry's huddle, and then as
an announcer who didn't seem to take either the games or his
colleagues seriously. Now that same self-confidence removes him
from the desperate company of former celebrities whose declining
self-esteem is measured by the ever fewer number of invitations
they receive to pro-am golf tournaments.
Carefree though he may be, Meredith does occasionally lift the
curtain on a somewhat different view of himself. One of his
favorite sayings is, "It ain't easy being easy," and, in fact,
that happy-go-lucky quarterback, the one who made three Pro Bowls
and led the Cowboys to two NFL title games, was no casual
creation. "Back home in Mount Vernon--population 1,423--I had a
tire swing with a quilt behind it," he says. "It wasn't enough I
had to throw the football through the tire and hope the quilt
would stop it, but my mother would give it a swing. I'd have to
lead the tire. There was a rut worn in the grass from me dropping
back to throw."
Still, though he worked at things, it's safe to say he didn't
overwork them. His NFL career could have led him to the Hall of
Fame had he played longer than nine years, but injuries and
back-to-back disappointments in championship games against the
Packers (including the December 1967 Ice Bowl loss in Green Bay)
wore on him. "It just wasn't as much fun," he says, explaining
his decision to retire after the '68 season, at age 31, as the
Cowboys were in the process of becoming America's Team. His
decision surprised some people, but not everybody. As Gifford,
who met Meredith in 1960 when he asked the rookie to speak at
his Giants Quarterback Luncheon Club, says, "Don can do anything
he wants, but he only does what he wants."
Meredith tried the investment business in Houston ("Didn't like
it," he says), but other opportunities soon presented themselves.
Largely on the strength of an interview he'd given Gifford after
that Ice Bowl, in which he came across as honest, open and funny,
he was wooed by the networks. He never applied, never auditioned,
never imagined. First CBS called, then ABC. Somehow he landed in
a booth with Keith Jackson (whom Gifford replaced after the first
season) and Cosell for the Sept. 21, 1970, debut of Monday Night
Football, "without a clue," simply being himself, and the country
loving him for it. If it ain't easy being easy, it might be
easier being Don Meredith than anybody else.
Watching a tape of Monday Night Football today, it's hard to
imagine what a cultural dreadnought it was in the '70s and '80s.
"The show was bigger than the game," Gifford says. "By now, who
knows how many times Monday Night has been to Denver. But the
first visits, well, cities would turn on all the lights. I don't
know how many keys to the city--cities--I have. It was Mother
Love's Traveling Freak Show."
The show's main attraction was the strange chemistry of Meredith
and Cosell, a comical tension between the Texas bumpkin and the
New York intellectual. It was unplanned, unscripted and,
according, to Meredith, all too simple. "I'd just wait for Howard
to make a mistake," he says. "Didn't usually take too long."
It was, by all accounts, a glorious time, made more so when
Meredith, twice divorced, met Susan in New York City. "April 17,
1971," he says, recalling the exact day. "I saw her walking the
streets," he says. "That's right, a streetwalker," he jokes.
Meredith called Gifford right away and said, "You've got to see
this girl," and the three of them got kites and went outside in
the windy spring weather and never really separated (especially
Don and Susan, who, in the subsequent three decades, have spent
all but a handful of nights together).
The three of them hung together on the road, forming a
partnership that buffered them from the pressures of the job (and
from Cosell, who usually went his own way). Susan would order
room service for the two broadcasters after they returned from
the game, and they'd laugh it up all night. "It was so much fun,"
says Gifford. "Sometimes, if the city was good, we'd get there
Then it wasn't so much fun. Meredith, who took a two-year hiatus
from MNF from 1974 to '75 to pursue his acting career, found it
difficult to stay interested in the game (he has to force himself
to watch on TV these days), thought the travel was tiring,
resented being a cartoon character called Danderoo and became
claustrophobic in the crowds that MNF (or was it Cosell?) was
attracting. "It was a great time, but it started to change when
we needed security to get in and out of stadiums," Meredith says.
"That was just stupid." So he didn't mind when, after the '84
season, ABC opted not to renew his contract. The party was over.
Or, you might say, about to begin. A life of companionship with
Susan, travel ("Have you ever driven the coast of Amalfi?" he
asks) and friendships ("You'd think we were running a
bed-and-breakfast") are, at least in this case, pretty good
substitutes for fame and fortune. Meredith says he never
consciously chose this path, wasn't subscribing to any particular
philosophy. He merely felt more comfortable living life on his
terms than on ours.
As lucky as it all sounds, it's not as if Meredith's days have
been without hardship. As a young father he had to adjust to the
condition of a daughter, Heather, now 30, who was born mentally
challenged. Now he speaks of the "wonderful opportunity" she has
given him to know an unconditional love, an innocence you can't
find anywhere else.
But Meredith is not a man to share much else of his history, not
of a personal nature anyway, and when he does, it's often of a
peculiar sort. No football artifacts are visible in his home, and
he volunteers little about his broadcasting career. But then
he'll remind you (remind? who knew this in the first place?) that
in 1955 he and his 4-H friends in Mount Vernon won a statewide
shrubbery-identification contest. It sounds a little like a yarn
he might make up, such as when he tells visitors that Hero, his
three-legged dog, had been General Schwarzkopf's pet in Desert
Storm and lost its limb to a mine. (Actually, Hero came that way
from the pound.) But Meredith insists that the 4-H achievement is
verifiable and rattles off a list of shrubbery names to prove it,
sort of. "Do you know," he says, "that when we got to the finals,
we found out we were the only boys in the contest?" That is
"Also," he says, "I won best actor for a one-act play we did." He
lowers his head and recites, "Alone. Sixteen days...." He pauses.
"Those were great days in Mount Vernon. You thought the whole
world was human."
In his little sanctuary, it still is. You sort of understand why
he wants to protect it, why the world is kept at bay, outside his
gate, beyond his beeping fax line. It's not entirely that he's
indifferent to the supposed demands of celebrity, although there
is that. In his privacy Meredith can preserve himself, undiluted
by card shows and pro-am appearances. He's happy here, all on his
own, and if that is difficult for anybody to accept, well, he's
very sorry. As far as you know.
"but he only does what he wants."