July 5, 2010

1969: Don Meredith Retires From Cowboys

It was a surprise to pro football fans on July 5, 1969 when Don Meredith, after nine seasons as quarterback with the Dallas Cowboys, announced his retirement. Stating that he no longer felt committed to playing football, there was plenty of speculation as to why he was walking away at age 31. Years later he indicated that, with a divorce pending and three young children to raise, he simply felt it was time to move into something else.

Meredith’s entire football career was based in the Dallas area. He had starred at Mount Vernon High School, 60 miles from Dallas, and went on to an impressive college career at Southern Methodist. Originally chosen in the third round of the 1960 NFL draft by the Chicago Bears, his rights were obtained by the expansion Cowboys in order to keep him away from the American Football League’s Dallas Texans (in fact, he signed a personal services contract with Clint Murchison, eventual owner of the Cowboys, before the franchise had officially been awarded).

For his first two pro seasons, Meredith backed up veteran QB Eddie LeBaron. The two quarterbacks split time for much of the ’62 season, and Meredith supplanted LeBaron as the full-time starting quarterback in 1963. There were criticisms regarding Meredith’s laid-back nature (he was known to trot into the huddle singing a country music tune) and a lack of commitment to learning his craft, but he demonstrated a great deal of toughness and football savvy and was popular with teammates – if not always with Head Coach Tom Landry and his staff.

The critical period for Meredith came in 1964 and ’65. A mobile quarterback, his scrambling exposed him to multiple injuries throughout his career, but especially during the ’64 season when he suffered torn knee cartilage, a shoulder separation, sprained ankle, and ruptured stomach muscle. A bad shoulder caused him to get off to a poor start in 1965 and young backups Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome were used in his place. But after a vote of confidence from Coach Landry (with whom the quarterback had a decidedly up-and-down relationship) Meredith and the Cowboys offense caught fire in the second half of the ’65 season, winning five of the last seven games.

Dallas made it to the NFL Championship game following the 1966 and ’67 seasons, losing close contests to the Green Bay Packers in each instance. Meredith was selected to the Pro Bowl after each of those years (he also received the Bert Bell Trophy from the Maxwell Club as NFL Player of the Year in ’66). He was named to the Pro Bowl again in 1968 after a solid statistical season in which the club went 12-2, the best record with Meredith as quarterback. However, the Cowboys were upset 31-20 in the Eastern Conference Championship contest by the Cleveland Browns. The team had gained a reputation for not being able to win big games, and Meredith took a great deal of heat from the Dallas fans and media.

In all, the 6’3”, 210-pound quarterback completed 50.7 % of his 2308 passes (his 55.3 completion percentage in ’68 was his career high) for 17,199 yards with 135 touchdowns and 111 interceptions. The team’s record in his regular season starts was 48-33-4, but 1-3 in the postseason. The effect of the numerous injuries he sustained was reflected in his only twice appearing in all 14 games in a season.

Meredith became a stockbroker immediately after retiring, but didn’t stay with it for long, returning to public view as a color commentator for the original Monday Night Football broadcasting crew in 1970. Typically referred to by his nickname “Dandy Don”, his wry wit was often used to needle the pompous Howard Cosell, to the delight of audiences, and he would sing “turn out the lights, the party’s over” when a game’s outcome was certain. He left following the 1973 season but returned in ‘77, leaving the Monday Night Football booth for good in 1984. Meredith also had an acting career and even recorded a couple of country music songs while still a player for the Cowboys.

Had Dallas been able to win at least one of the tight title matches with the Packers, Meredith’s reputation likely would have been enhanced. As it was, “Dandy Don” was eventually honored by selection to the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. Dallas moved on with Craig Morton and Roger Staubach, the former Heisman-winning signal caller at Navy who joined the team following the end of his military commitment in 1969, right as Meredith was leaving.