The papers of Don Meredith—SMU alum, Dallas Cowboys Quarterback, sports commentator, and actor are now available to researchers at the SMU Archives.
Joseph “Dandy” Don Meredith (1938-2010) was born and raised in east Texas, where he acted in school plays, excelled in basketball and football, and graduated second in his class. Meredith was a starting quarterback at SMU for three seasons, reset all of SMU’s passing records, and was selected as an all-American in 1958 and 1959. He joked that he chose SMU over other programs because it was close to home, and easy to spell.
Meredith stated that his plan after college was to attend SMU Law, and later joked that if he’d done so, he would have ended up Governor of Texas.
But Clint Murchinson, future Cowboys owner, signed Meredith to a contract with one of his family’s corporations, to ensure that Meredith would play for the Cowboys when the franchise was eligible to join the NFL as an expansion team in 1960. Meredith played for the Cowboys during the team’s first decade, first as a backup to Eddie LeBaron, before being named starting quarterback in 1963, a position he held until his unexpected retirement in 1969. Meredith was famous for his free-spirited sense of humor–a stark contrast to the famously unflappable, buttoned-up persona of head coach Tom Landry. The two were often in conflict with each other. America’s Team got off to a slow start in its first decade, but in 1966 Meredith led the Cowboys to their first winning season and conference championships. He did so each following season, until his retirement. Meredith was never able to win an NFL championship, but it was the Cowboy’s heartbreaking loss at the 1967 NFL Championship Game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, nicknamed “The Ice Bowl” which set the stage for the next phase of his life.
The legendary game was played in brutal conditions—negative 13 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill of minus 48 degrees, making it the coldest game in NFL history. The teams had an intense rivalry, the game was close, and the Packers made the winning touchdown in the last 13 seconds of the game, bringing the score to 21-17. Following the game, players on both teams were physically and emotionally exhausted. Frank Gifford, who had been covering the game for CBS, received special permission to go to the Cowboys locker room, something not done at the time. Gifford was friends with Meredith, and Meredith, visibly drained and bloodied, gave an introspective and soulful interview that elicited a flood of letters from viewers to CBS. At the time, ABC had been looking for a pro player to bring onto their prime-time football coverage, and beginning in 1970, the network paired Meredith with sportscaster Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford, to form the Monday Night Football broadcasting team.
The combination of Meredith’s easy Texas charm and wit, Gifford’s straightforward play-by-play delivery, and Howard Cosell’s famously verbose and aggressive color commentary made Monday Night Football a massive ratings success.
The adversarial nature of Meredith and Cosell’s relationship (something the two scripted and cultivated, knowing it was TV gold) came to define Monday Night Football, as did Meredith’s famous, and somewhat risqué, sense of humor. Jokes about being high while broadcasting from Denver and referring to Richard Nixon as “Tricky Dick” became part of his broadcasting brand. Famously, he would begin singing Willie Nelson’s “The Party’s Over” whenever the fate of a game was clear before the end of the fourth quarter.
Meredith retired from broadcasting following the 1984 season. By then, he was already well established in his third professional career—actor. From the mid-70s until his death, he performed in more than a dozen films and television shows, from Police Story to King of the Hill.
The Don Meredith papers contain 11 linear feet of material, including legal documents, photographs, scrapbooks, and his personal copy of “The Party’s Over” on vinyl.