Gruden's great, but Dandy Don was best

I just turned on Monday Night Football and Jon Gruden was talking, and I really like him as an analyst. He knows his stuff. That said, the late, great Don Meredith remains my all-time favorite. What follows is was what I wrote when Dandy Don died in December, 2010.

This will begin with this caveat: Don Meredith was one of my favorites. I pulled for him as a Dallas Cowboys quarterback before I was captivated by him as a most irreverent commentator of Monday Night Football.

Meredith, who died Sunday at 72, made us laugh. Out loud. He told us what we needed to know about the games, but he also put the sport in proper perspective. That is, football games are entertainment; they are not life and death. Football games, for fans, are parties and Meredith let us know in song when they were over.

Think country: Turn out the lights, the party’s over, they say all good things must end. …

These days, the score can be 52-0 and the analysts will try to give you reason upon reason why you should still watch. Not Dandy Don. He’d break out into his best Willie Nelson impression, much to the consternation of Howard Cosell, who was MNF’s Tolstoy to Meredith’s Twain.

This is one of those columns when some background is a must for younger readers, since Meredith retired from broadcasting more than a quarter century ago and rarely made public appearances afterward. Before TV, he was a quarterback, first at SMU, which was known for a while as Southern Meredith University, and then for the Dallas Cowboys.

Meredith was the original Dallas Cowboy. The records will show Bob Lilly, the great defensive tackle, was the Cowboys’ first draft choice, but the Cowboys signed Meredith, out of SMU, to a personal services contract before they even participated in a draft.

In many ways, Meredith’s playing career simulated that of Chunkin’ Charlie Conerly’s with the Giants. Both spent the early years of their pro careers playing quarterback and taking beatings for lousy football teams. Only near the end did they play for decent teams. Presumably, for that reason, they are both under-appreciated where the Pro Football Hall of Fame is concerned.

Snap it on ‘rutabaga’

Know this: Meredith is not under-appreciated by those who played with him, including former Mississippi State linebacking great and Mississippi Sports and College Football Hall of Famer D.D. Lewis.

Lewis was smoking a cigar and drinking a cup of coffee when his daughter text-messaged the news of Meredith’s death Monday morning.

Lewis’ thoughts immediately went back to his rookie season with the Cowboys in 1968 when Meredith led the Cowboys to a 12-2 record.

“Don was already a legend when I got there, but he was so friendly to me,” Lewis said. “I adored him. He was a funny guy, but classy funny, really smart.”

We heard back then – and legend still has it – Meredith and his coach, the stoic and much-revered Tom Landry, were often at odds. Lewis says there’s much to that.

“Don was happy-go-lucky, carefree, always hanging out in the bars, having fun,” Lewis said. “Coach Landry was such a straight arrow. He was always trying to change Don, and you just weren’t going to change Don.”

There was one game at Pittsburgh in the early years of the Dallas franchise, when the Steelers were just mauling Meredith. Cowboy veterans later told Lewis the story.

“They somehow had gotten our cadence and knew when we were going to snap the ball,” Lewis said.

“So Meredith gets in the huddle and says, ‘Boys, we’re changing from numbers to vegetables. This one’s on rutabaga.’ So they go to the line and Don starts calling, ‘Tomato, lettuce, green beans. . .’ By the time he got to rutabaga, the Steelers were laughing too hard to even rush.”

‘It’s been a good ‘un’

That humor carried over big-time on TV.

Irreverent? He once referred to President Richard Nixon as “Tricky Dicky” and got called on the carpet for it. When Vice President Spiro Agnew visited the Monday Night booth, Meredith told him, “I didn’t vote for you but that’s sure a nice suit you got on.”

Of playing for Landry, Meredith said, “He was such a perfectionist, he could have been married to Dolly Parton and he’d expect her to cook.”

Monday, D.D. Lewis laughed out loud while telling his favorite Meredith story.

“We were flying out of New York after we had just beat up on the Giants pretty good,” Lewis said. “Everybody’s drinking, having a good time. Then, all the sudden, we hear this big boom and the plane starts lurching and shaking. The stewardesses were down on their hands and knees. I looked around the plane and some guys were praying and some were hollering and everybody was frightened.”

Everybody but Meredith.

“I looked across the aisle and there sat Don,” Lewis said, laughing. “He took a big swallow and a long drag off his cigarette, smiled and said, ‘Well, boys, it’s been a good ‘un.’ ”

Yes sir, it was.

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