It’s been years since I watched a Monday Night Football game from start to finish, and last night’s game, a 45-3 rout of the New York Jets by the New England Patriots, didn’t put that streak in any danger.
But I did tune in to the game on ESPN for a while, mostly to watch a halftime tribute to former Monday Night Football commentator – and before that star Dallas Cowboys quarterback — Don Meredith.
“Dandy Don,” who helped turn ABC’s Monday night NFL broadcasts into “must see” entertainment for nearly 15 years, died in New Mexico on Sunday evening at the age of 72.
I was talking with some colleagues at a Christmas luncheon here at work a little while ago about Meredith, and someone asked the question, “Was he really a great football announcer or was he just an entertainer?”
I think the answer was a little bit of both. There’s no question that Meredith, who was a two-time All-America quarterback at Southern Methodist University and then became the first player ever signed by the Dallas Cowboys before their 1960 entry into the NFL, knew football. (He was actually drafted by the Chicago Bears and traded to the expansion Cowboys for future draft picks.)
In a comparatively short career for an established NFL quarterback – he retired after his ninth season in 1968 – he led the Cowboys to two NFL championship games, but never to the title.
But he really made magic in the broadcast booth, where he joined Howard Cosell and Keith Jackson in the broadcast booth for ABC’s “Monday Night Football” in the fall of 1970. Frank Gifford replaced Jackson as play-by-play man after that first season.
His folksy irreverence made him the perfect foil for the brilliant but often bombastic Cosell.
One of my favorite MNF moments came in a one-sided 1972 game, with the Oakland Raiders routing the Houston Oilers late in the fourth quarter.
The camera panned the Astrodome crowd, where a disgusted Oilers fan raised a middle finger in an obscene gesture. Meredith, in his Texas drawl, observed, “Hahrd, I think he’s telling us they’re No. 1!”)
That’s what ABC Sports guru Roone Arledge had in mind when he created the show. It was a different kind of sports telecast – in weekday prime time, so it had to be entertainment, too. It was connected to current events and pop culture in a way few sports show were before.
One of the reasons to tune in to the show was to listen to the three – with Gifford playing straight man and traffic cop – banter with one another and to see what interesting guest popped up in the booth.
One Monday it might be Vice President Spiro Agnew. (Meredith greeted him with, “Love ya, but didn’t vote for ya,” Cosell related in one of his memoirs.)
And another week it might be John Lennon, talking about his battle against the Nixon Administration’s ongoing attempt to deport him on the basis of a 1968 misdemeanor conviction for marijuana possession in London.
ESPN’s “Between the Lines” show recently did a retrospective on MNF’s role in breaking the news of Lennon’s murder in New York 30 years ago tomorrow.
In those pre-Internet days, and with CNN still in its infancy, the networks still broke the big stories. And when the former Beatle was shot in front of his apartment by Mark David Chapman, the nation found out about it from Cosell and his colleagues.
But “Dandy Don’s” role was to provide the levity –you knew a game had been decided when Meredith broke into song with fellow Texan Willie Nelson’s words, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”
In the ESPN tribute last night, Gifford, who was on more MNF broadcasts than anybody before he retired in 1998, said that the antics overshadowed an incisive intelligence that added more than anybody saw on the surface to the telecast.
The interview also included a bit of a bizarre statement by the 80-year-old Gifford that MNF had knocked “I Love Lucy” off the air. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt that he meant Lucille Ball’s much later “Here’s Lucy” show that ran from 1968-1974, the redhead hung in there like a hard-to-shake defensive back, lasting for four seasons up against MNF before calling it quits.
Monday Night Football left ABC’s prime time lineup in 2005, moving over to ESPN, where it receives a more standard sports-fan oriented treatment – competent, but nothing there to attract the person who might not already know football.
Meredith left the show long before that, after the 1984 season, and shunned publicity during his retirement in New Mexico. A quiet coda for a colorful life.