On November 22, 1963, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy thrust Dallas into the national spotlight and gave the city a nickname that would take decades to shake. “It was the City of Hate during the summer of love,” says filmmaker Michael Meredith. Many recognize the efforts of civic leaders in repairing Dallas’s reputation, but with his upcoming documentary First Cowboys, Meredith wants to tell the story of another group the city turned to in the immediate aftermath—its three-year-old football team. “They basically said to the team, ‘You’re our ambassadors to bring us out of our dark chapter.’ Which is great, but a hell of a lot of pressure,” Meredith says.
Meredith would know it. His dad was “Dandy” Don Meredith.
Meredith outlined his vision for the documentary, which is expected to be released in the first half of 2018, at The Edge of Texas in Dallas on Saturday. Although football players are the central figures in First Cowboys, Meredith will focus on telling the story of Dallas in the sixties, which he feels was overshadowed. “It’s like Pompeii,” Meredith says. “A lot of the pillars got buried with the JFK assassination.” And there’s no better person to center that history around than Don Meredith, who became an inextricable part of Dallas’s fabric. “He was a part of everything in Dallas,” Meredith says. “If I look deep enough, my dad was there.”
Before there was a coach, before there was a name, the Cowboys had Don Meredith. A month before the 1960 NFL draft—which the Cowboys franchise was admitted too late to participate in—Cowboys founder Clint Murchison approached Don with a personal services contract with the Tecon Corporation, which Murchison owned. “He went to him and said, want a career in oil? Wink, wink,” Meredith says. Don was drafted by the Chicago Bears, but the former Southern Methodist University quarterback was promptly traded to Dallas. With a whopping $30,000 salary, he became the highest paid player in football.
And so the Cowboys were born. But as the ragtag team started to get its bearings, the United States was in an upheaval. Along with landmark events like the JFK assassination, First Cowboys will explore the struggle for civil rights as seen through the lens of players like defensive back Mel Renfro, who was a large part of the push for fair housing in Dallas, and tight end Pettis Norman.
The documentary will use Don as its primary lens into life in Dallas, not only because of his deep ties to the city, but also through his admittedly colorful off-field antics. Among the diverse interview subjects in First Cowboys is Willie Nelson, who was often a live-in house guest when Meredith was growing up. “He and my dad had a lot of hobbies in common,” Meredith explains. Saturday night, Meredith headed to Billy Bob’s Texas to record Nelson on his bus, singing “The Party’s Over,” which Don famously sang on Monday Night Football.
Meredith also hopes to create a TV series exploring life in Dallas in the sixties, also told through football. But, he explains, it would be “90 percent off the field,” a similar conceit as First Cowboys. If shows like Friday Night Lights have taught us anything, sports can be the perfect vehicle for cultural examination. And Meredith realizes that there is plenty to unpack—good and bad. Before his dad died in 2010, he told his father that he’d like to do some sort of documentary on the Cowboys. “Tell it like it was,” Meredith remembers Don telling him.
“I’m going to follow his advice and see how it turns out,” Meredith says.