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Don Meredith: Dandy Don

Getty Images / ABC / Steve Fenn

Don Meredith: Dandy Don

Don Meredith was one of the original Dallas Cowboys, signing as the team's quarterback in 1959 before the city had even secured a National Football League franchise. He was also one of the team’s first stars, leading it to three division titles and two NFL championship games and playing in three Pro Bowls during his nine-year career. He was named NFL Player of the Year in 1966.

Yet Meredith, who would have celebrated his 76th birthday April 10, may be best remembered for his years as a broadcaster on ABC's Monday Night Football, where his personality earned him the nicknames "Dandy Don" and "The Irrepressible One."

Meredith was quick with a joke –– "He thinks they're No. 1 in the nation," he said during a 1972 game when a fan of the losing team showed his displeasure on national TV with an obscene gesture featuring his middle finger. He engaged in what the New York Times called "down-home ribbing" of his frequent partner in the booth, the serious and abrasive Howard Cosell. When it was clear one team had the game wrapped up, Meredith would burst into a Willie Nelson song: "Turn out the lights," he'd sing. "The party's over."

"Don Meredith was one of the most colorful characters in NFL history," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement after Meredith's death in December 2010 at 72. "He was a star on the field that became an even bigger star on television. He brought joy to football fans."

Meredith's life "was a veritable folk tale," according to his obituary in the Dallas Morning News. He liked to remind people that he was "Jeff and Hazel's baby boy and Billy Jack's little brother" from Mount Vernon, Texas, a town of about 1,300 people 100 miles east of Dallas. He was so popular while playing football as an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University that many people jokingly referred to the school as "Southern Meredith University."

In November 1959, Meredith signed a personal services contract with Dallas that read, “If we get a National Football League franchise, we'd like for you to play quarterback," Meredith said in a 2009 Dallas Morning News article on the 50th anniversary of his signing.

Dallas joined the NFL, but Meredith shared the quarterback job with Eddie LeBaron for years. He finally got the starting job in 1965 and, a year later, Dallas celebrated its first winning season.

On the field, Meredith was known to whistle and sing during huddles, much to the unhappiness of Coach Tom Landry. But Meredith was also "the toughest player I ever coached," Landry often said. He once played with a punctured lung, barely able to breathe or call signals, yet he still threw for 406 yards, according to NFL.com.

He played well. In nine seasons, "he threw for 17,199 yards and 135 touchdowns with a team that at the beginning was a bottom-of-the-barrel expansion side," according to the sports blog “FanHouse.” "In three of his last four seasons, he had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of close to 2-1, had 22, 24 and 21 touchdown passes in 14-game seasons, and his passer rating of 88.4 in his final year was the best of his career."

But Dallas fans were tough on Meredith, blaming him for the team's poor play in the 1960s. He was "the original unappreciated great quarterback," NFL.com noted after his death, and “might have been the most criticized player –– not just quarterback –– in Cowboys history, enough to make the game no fun anymore."

Meredith retired unexpectedly before the 1969 season. He was 31. About a year later, he joined the broadcast booth of Monday Night Football, doing two stints on the show, from 1970 to 1973 and 1977 to 1984.

"The show debuted in 1970 with a daring premise: Sports might actually work in prime time if it was wrapped in showbiz," Michael Hiestand wrote in USA Today after Meredith's death. "Teamed with Howard Cosell and Keith Jackson, Meredith didn't sound like the often-solemn NFL announcers of the era."

Cosell played the bad guy while Meredith donned the white hat. It was a routine they planned and perfected. They were a huge ratings success. "The weekly clash between an opinionated intellectual and a freewheeling spirit drew women to watch football games and caused restaurants and movie theaters to report lower traffic during broadcasts," according to The New York Times.

"Don played that perfect foil to Cosell," Monday Night Football producer Fred Gaudelli told the Los Angeles Times after Meredith’s death. "He was the first guy to bring irreverence to the booth. He didn't demean the broadcast, but he didn't make it church, he didn't take the game as gospel. He brought a fun aspect to the thing."

Besides sports commentary, Meredith tried his hand at acting, appearing on various TV series and even guest hosting The Tonight Show. He was also the longtime pitchman for Lipton Tea.

 Meredith retired from Monday Night Football in 1984. But his one-liners live on. In a 2010 appreciation, USA Today listed a few, including "If 'ifs' and 'buts' were candy and nuts, wouldn't it be a merry Christmas?" and –– to visiting Vice President Spiro Agnew –– "I didn't vote for you, but you do have a nice suit on."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."