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There's nothing more satisfying than a life well-lived, unless, of course, it happens to be somebody else's life. Then it's just irritating. Take Don Meredith, who stockpiled a vast reserve of fame in several high-profile careers and then turned his back on the public (us!) to pursue personal (his!) interests. It's maddening, perverse and un-American. It's also mysterious, because it goes against everything we understand about celebrity. What, he can't even do a card show?
Well, he won't. He won't do anything, actually. Think about it. Since he left Monday Night Football (this was only a few years after he stopped pitching iced tea, which was after he quit the Dallas Cowboys), you haven't heard much from or about him, have you? The publicity department at ABC-TV, the network that helped create a diffident and national phenomenon named Dandy Don, didn't even know how to reach him.
He has dropped out of sight, as far as anyone can tell. He must not need the money (who doesn't need money?) or the recognition (who tires of recognition?). He was in the public eye, remember, for a good long while. Besides being a pretty fair quarterback, he was a broadcasting sensation during the astonishing heyday of MNF, pricking Howard Cosell's ridiculous verbosity with a well-timed, down-home needle. Fifty million Americans waited for him to sing "the party's over" before turning out their own lights every Monday. Through the mid-'80s he was about as big as they get. Then, just a little bit after the night he looked down at the action and, in typical fashion, announced to the nation, "You know, I think I've seen this game before," he was gone.
Of course, if Meredith seems unique in this regard, it helps to remember that he was always unconventional, a man so at ease with himself that his achievements seemed almost accidental. He was, even at the peak of his career, without apparent ambition or guile or even much professionalism, borne along the airwaves on personality alone, a guy you didn't mind sitting with for three hours. And given his seemingly casual approach to life, maybe it's not surprising after all that hardly anybody knows what he's doing today, and that not even ABC has his phone number. "To be fair," says Frank Gifford, the straight man in the booth during his MNF years and Meredith's best friend to this day, "they didn't have his number when he worked there."
This may be why Meredith is stunned to learn that he's considered a recluse. After agreeing to host a rare visitor (who had to negotiate with him via fax)—he thinks he's done one other interview in the last nine years—Meredith makes clear that what others consider seclusion he understands to be a regular life. No, he hasn't welcomed a lot of media to his little compound in Santa Fe, but what of it? "A recluse?" he says. "I don't understand that. I don't feel reclusive. I actually feel kinda normal."
O.K., so here is what normal looks like: Picture Meredith on a veranda, a little grayer than you might remember now that he's 62, overlooking a tennis court, soaking up the New Mexico light, four dogs at his feet or in his lap, his wife of 29 years at his side. His three children are all well accounted for, he's recently enjoyed a trip to New York City, is expecting friends for a weeklong visit, and he has a ritual golf game on Thursdays—"Ten-oh-eight, the ball's in the air." Normal.
He's as comfortable to talk to as you'd have imagined from all those years listening to him on TV. His stories are charming, his wit sharp. When you wander off alone into another room of his house, you hear his broadcast-ready voice drawling behind you: "The good silverware's in the back." He is not, in other words, particularly mysterious once you pin him down. He's good company. It's just that being as secure as he is, he doesn't feel obligated (either by financial need or by ego) to be everybody's good company.
He is, in fact, amused that his life needs explaining. Simply put, he's comfortable out of the national glare and doesn't feel the need to define himself by past fame. He's been 20 years in Santa Fe, having turned his back on Hollywood, where he had a brief acting career in the '70s. "I don't want to get psychological," he says, as if that would conflict with his cowpoke image, "but, maybe because of the way I was raised, I never needed people to tell me I was O.K. I always felt very comfortable with myself."
This self-confidence is part of what made the Mount Vernon, Texas, native so popular, first as an easygoing quarterback who dared to croon country tunes in Tom Landry's huddle, and then as an announcer who didn't seem to take either the games or his colleagues seriously. Now that same self-confidence removes him from the desperate company of former celebrities whose declining self-esteem is measured by the ever fewer number of invitations they receive to pro-am golf tournaments.
Carefree though he may be, Meredith does occasionally lift the curtain on a somewhat different view of himself. One of his favorite sayings is, "It ain't easy being easy," and, in fact, that happy-go-lucky quarterback, the one who made three Pro Bowls and led the Cowboys to two NFL title games, was no casual creation. "Back home in Mount Vernon—population 1,423—I had a tire swing with a quilt behind it," he says. "It wasn't enough I had to throw the football through the tire and hope the quilt would stop it, but my mother would give it a swing. I'd have to lead the tire. There was a rut worn in the grass from me dropping back to throw."