Turns out it was the annual AWARE (Alzheimers Women’s Association for Resources and Education) luncheon and it was held at the Fairmont in Dallas. So I put on a suit, drive to Norm’s house and ride over with him.
We get there and the place is packed. I mean sardine-tight packed with Dallas society and a who’s who of former Cowboys. We walk in, and our table is right in front, and right next to the table where Don’s wife Susan is sitting with Frank Gifford and Phyllis George. Don’s ailing health kept him from attending.
You need to know up front that I’m a lifelong NFL fan. Yes, growing up as I did in the frozen north and actually being in Met Stadium on the day Roger through his infamous ‘Hail Mary’ made me a Vikings fan for life, and conversely, not much of a fan of the Cowboys. Coming down here however and having friends at Valley Ranch have softened me a bit, but still, I’m the guy who’s waiting for the Vikings to win a Super Bowl – and I’m afraid that’s gonna be a while – but I digress…
Forever too I’ve been a fan of sportscasting. I grew up on watching (and by watching I mean dissecting…) the NFL on television and listening on radio. Sportscasting then was really a serious and stoic endeavor. By that I mean – there wasn’t a lot of messing around – or entertaining coming from the booth. Most play-by-play guys in the 70’s were career radio broadcasters and that carried over, most analysts popped in and described the replay, and that was about it.
And then came Monday Night Football. I was a just a kid, but recognized immediately that things were different here. Keith Jackson was the first play-by-play man, but shortly thereafter was replaced by Frank Gifford. With Gifford was Howard Cosell and Don Meredith. A three-man booth had really never been tried. Listen – two in a booth is tough – tough to have/find chemistry and rhythm. Three is almost impossible. No – it is impossible. It’s worked once – and they keep getting out a sledgehammer attempting to make it work again – but it’s never worked like that.
Gifford the straight man and bus driver, Howard spewing fifty-cent words and inflammatory observations, and the laid back Meredith oozing charm and firing spirited come-backs at Cosell. And they were at their best when the game was out of reach. And Meredith was genuine – he didn’t pretend to be anything but himself on the air, he wasn’t trying to be someone else’s view of what an analyst should be, he was perfectly himself. To listen to the three of them in the 4th quarter of a 30-point game between two teams who few cared about was like listening to a well-rehearsed comedy routine, or an old-fashioned radio play.
I usually got to stay up through Howard’s half-time highlights (really the only place to see video of other games) and then had to beg and plead to watch the rest of the game – which most nights I somehow was able to finagle.
So here’s what the big deal was. Those guys, and especially Dandy Don gave kids like me a new way to look at this business. You could have … FUN! In the booth! Nobody ever really did that before – gave us permission to try things a new way. It changed the way I looked at the profession; and look at the impact that booth has had on the way games are presented. Known for singing “turn out the lights…” Meredith actually flicked the switch to the on position in my head.
Sitting there on April 28 and seeing Phyllis George (who was still very much on her quite competitive game that day) and Frank Gifford interviewing former Cowboys players and hearing the stories about Meredith was one of those days I’ll always remember. What a tremendous guy – I wish I could have met him, thanked him and the others. I did get a chance to speak with Frank Gifford (he and Norm are friends) but he wanted to talk about – no kidding – hockey. So we talked hockey – it’s Frank Gifford – c’mon…
Lots of Meredith’s former teammates had wonderful stories and great things to say, but the one that stays with me was the simple line from Roger Staubach, who said; “if you didn’t like Don Meredith, you didn’t like anybody…”
I wonder if he knows how great was his reach, how many lives he touched, and how an entire industry will never be the same just because he brought Jeff and Hazel’s baby boy into that booth every Monday night.