Still, though he worked at things, it's safe to say he didn't overwork them. His NFL career could have led him to the Hall of Fame had he played longer than nine years, but injuries and back-to-back disappointments in championship games against the Packers (including the December 1967 Ice Bowl loss in Green Bay) wore on him. "It just wasn't as much fun," he says, explaining his decision to retire after the '68 season, at age 31, as the Cowboys were in the process of becoming America's Team. His decision surprised some people, but not everybody. As Gifford, who met Meredith in 1960 when he asked the rookie to speak at his Giants Quarterback Luncheon Club, says, "Don can do anything he wants, but he only does what he wants."
Meredith tried the investment business in Houston ("Didn't like it," he says), but other opportunities soon presented themselves. Largely on the strength of an interview he'd given Gifford after that Ice Bowl, in which he came across as honest, open and funny, he was wooed by the networks. He never applied, never auditioned, never imagined. First CBS called, then ABC. Somehow he landed in a booth with Keith Jackson (whom Gifford replaced after the first season) and Cosell for the Sept. 21, 1970, debut of Monday Night Football, "without a clue," simply being himself, and the country loving him for it. If it ain't easy being easy, it might be easier being Don Meredith than anybody else.
Watching a tape of Monday Night Football today, it's hard to imagine what a cultural dreadnought it was in the '70s and '80s. "The show was bigger than the game," Gifford says. "By now, who knows how many times Monday Night has been to Denver. But the first visits, well, cities would turn on all the lights. I don't know how many keys to the city—cities—I have. It was Mother Love's Traveling Freak Show."
The show's main attraction was the strange chemistry of Meredith and Cosell, a comical tension between the Texas bumpkin and the New York intellectual. It was unplanned, unscripted and, according, to Meredith, all too simple. "I'd just wait for Howard to make a mistake," he says. "Didn't usually take too long."
It was, by all accounts, a glorious time, made more so when Meredith, twice divorced, met Susan in New York City. "April 17, 1971," he says, recalling the exact day. "I saw her walking the streets," he says. "That's right, a streetwalker," he jokes. Meredith called Gifford right away and said, "You've got to see this girl," and the three of them got kites and went outside in the windy spring weather and never really separated (especially Don and Susan, who, in the subsequent three decades, have spent all but a handful of nights together).
The three of them hung together on the road, forming a partnership that buffered them from the pressures of the job (and from Cosell, who usually went his own way). Susan would order room service for the two broadcasters after they returned from the game, and they'd laugh it up all night. "It was so much fun," says Gifford. "Sometimes, if the city was good, we'd get there early."
Then it wasn't so much fun. Meredith, who took a two-year hiatus from MNF from 1974 to '75 to pursue his acting career, found it difficult to stay interested in the game (he has to force himself to watch on TV these days), thought the travel was tiring, resented being a cartoon character called Danderoo and became claustrophobic in the crowds that MNF (or was it Cosell?) was attracting. "It was a great time, but it started to change when we needed security to get in and out of stadiums," Meredith says. "That was just stupid." So he didn't mind when, after the '84 season, ABC opted not to renew his contract. The party was over.
Or, you might say, about to begin. A life of companionship with Susan, travel ("Have you ever driven the coast of Amalfi?" he asks) and friendships ("You'd think we were running a bed-and-breakfast") are, at least in this case, pretty good substitutes for fame and fortune. Meredith says he never consciously chose this path, wasn't subscribing to any particular philosophy. He merely felt more comfortable living life on his terms than on ours.
As lucky as it all sounds, it's not as if Meredith's days have been without hardship. As a young father he had to adjust to the condition of a daughter, Heather, now 30, who was born mentally challenged. Now he speaks of the "wonderful opportunity" she has given him to know an unconditional love, an innocence you can't find anywhere else.
But Meredith is not a man to share much else of his history, not of a personal nature anyway, and when he does, it's often of a peculiar sort. No football artifacts are visible in his home, and he volunteers little about his broadcasting career. But then he'll remind you (remind? who knew this in the first place?) that in 1955 he and his 4-H friends in Mount Vernon won a statewide shrubbery-identification contest. It sounds a little like a yarn he might make up, such as when he tells visitors that Hero, his three-legged dog, had been General Schwarzkopf's pet in Desert Storm and lost its limb to a mine. (Actually, Hero came that way from the pound.) But Meredith insists that the 4-H achievement is verifiable and rattles off a list of shrubbery names to prove it, sort of. "Do you know," he says, "that when we got to the finals, we found out we were the only boys in the contest?" That is unbelievable.