Tuning in Dandy Don

By marrying television, football gained an audience but lost a game.

He has always been a hero. Right from the beginning back in Mt. Vernon, when he was a kid playing football on summer afternoons with the radiating Texas heat shimmering along the ground, Don Meredith was already Something Special.

“If I could just put heat on that film,” Meredith says, his extraordinary pale eyes narrowed against the intensity of his vision as he talks about the movie he plans to begin in July. A documentary movie about Texas high school football. A film written, directed, and narrated by Don Meredith. “That heat…somehow we’ve got to shoot it so they can know exactly what it’s like, so they’ll know what I’m talking about. And that dust blowing…”

It didn’t take long for Mt. Vernon to recognize that this boy—why, he was a natural! The entire town gloried in his football triumphs, from high school playing field to the winning of an Emmy for his sports broadcasting on ABC’s Monday Night Football.

After all, isn’t that the Chamber of Commerce dream of every small town—that it will be the nurturing ground for a genuine All-American hero? Someone to be the HOME OF on the billboards that greet those restless hoards of cars that rush by on the superhighway. Someone to laud at Rotary luncheons, whose hand you can shake, whose back you can slap. Someone to whom you get close enough to catch a whiff of glory, fame, success. Someone to prove that the American Dream is true and real and that life in places like Mt. Vernon is not futile, but means something or else it couldn’t have produced a boy like this, could it? An All-American, a handsome, strong, laughing hero with eyes as incredibly transfixing as the faded blue Texas sky. This boy who could always throw and run and think and lead other boys; this boy who—most important of all— wins. Yessir, Don Meredith is a winner, and he’s from our place. A good place. A hero’s hometown.

“I think there’s a reason why so many of the NFL players are from Texas. And I think there’s a good film there.” Meredith speaks quietly, his famous drawl soft and slow. He sits huddled in a chair, a big man with a patient, almost old-fashioned courtesy. “There are lots of stories from lots of different towns. I want to talk to the boys, the Moms and Dads and sweethearts, folks down at the feed store. I want to get their attitude about it.”

Meredith is a natural and effective actor. Suddenly, easily, he slips from his own collected, modulated personality into the role of a back-home, Texas-style father-figure. “Why you doing this, boy?” he asks, his voice and inflection perfect. He sounds like he could play the governor of Texas. Just as quickly, he returns to unassuming urbanity. “It is interesting,” he says. “because I have talked to the boys and the response I’ve gotten makes me want to pursue the idea for this film. People think it’s for different reasons, but a lot of it is very, very basic.”

Yes, I suppose that it is basic. As basic as my memories of fall nights when the sky arched high and remote and the air was so clear and cold that gulping it would cause your lungs to ache. Light poured down from tall poles. The grass on the field was even and glossy except in front of the players’ bench where the ground was bare, packed dense and hard by the impatient stamping and pacing of anxious feet. Twined in crepe paper color, the goal posts stood against the darkness. And the rickety wooden scoreboard bore two words: VISITORS and HOME.

In that brittle fall night I sat high on the bleachers, my nose pink and numb, my hands clumsy in woolen mittens. My legs were wrapped in a blanket to protect them from the wind that whistled through the open space under the wooden benches. Below, boys I knew became strange and mysterious champions, knights of a wordless allegiance—the home team. Those familiar boys who copied my math papers, passed me notes in history, and kissed me in the dark shadows of the churchyard, now leapt and twisted, ran and weaved, flinging the ball into the darkness only to pluck it safely back before the night could claim it. On that field the boys were our champions, carrying with them our colors, our songs, our honor. I shouted and cheered until my voice was gone.

Well, the world is older now, and so am I. My rituals have changed. Now I sit in my temperature-controlled house watching famous young giants perform intricate maneuvers on the small screen of my television set while Don Meredith, Howard Cosell, and Frank Gifford supply me with information and companionship. Football has become television.

Cameras roam the field, moving in on a face, capturing a lightening-quick move in slow-motion, showing the details of the game instantly replayed. Just how far is it from those high school playing fields to this business of television entertainment? As I searched for the answer to this question, Don Meredith proved a good guide. He understands both worlds. As football has undergone the metamorphosis from school game to an entertainment industry, Meredith has changed from high school hero to media personality. He understands that television has altered the way that we, the fans, perceive the game and its personalities.

“Because of my television ‘role,” Meredith says, “with Howard Cosell cast as the black-hatted guy and me, the white-hatted guy, a lot of people are sympathetic and feel that Howard really runs over me and picks on me. I’m like their little boy.

Meredith is candid about this, too. “It’s a hard thing to keep your head together,” he says, “because there are lots of people in the past that you’ve had respect for, and you thought you had a rapport with them; and then you realize, why, these people didn’t have the faintest idea what you were all about.” The expression in his voice

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