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"Everybody's got to live someplace, and I've wanted this place since 1956, when I was 18 years old," he said. "At the time I was dating a girl who lived down the road. I was getting $10 a month from SMU on an athletic scholarship, and I'd look at this place and tell myself, 'No, Dandy, what would an East Texas boy do with something like that?' Then, on my 30th birthday [last April 10] I got very depressed. When some people are depressed they go out and drink a lot or eat a lot. When I'm depressed I buy something. So I bought the house, because your 30th birthday can get you down. I might have overdone it. But if I ever get rich, I'll be good rich. I'm too gregarious not to share it. I certainly wouldn't want to sit alone and count it."
It is difficult to imagine Meredith ever being by himself, although being alone is quite another matter. In the past three years—with a Playoff Bowl, two NFL championship games, two Pro Bowls and, in 1966, the Bert Bell Memorial Award as pro player of the year—he has become a celebrity rather than merely a well-known football player. He is instantly recognized on the streets in New York or Los Angeles. In Dallas he is followed by autograph hunters; his doorbell and telephone (the number of which Cheryl changes several times a year) constantly ring. Playing golf in a proam the day before the Byron Nelson Classic, Meredith drew as big a gallery as Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer. Steve Perkins, pro football writer for the Dallas Times Herald, suggested the PGA should put Meredith on the tour to increase its crowds. Ralph Neely, the Cowboys' All-NFL offensive tackle, says, "He has leadership qualities you may find once in 10 million men. People get a kick out of being around him."
Cheryl is less than delighted with the demands made on her husband's time. She has one baby, another expected in January, the vast house and gardens to look after, as well as three schnauzers and a coyote, and she has had an untamable raccoon and an ocelot named Pepe that ran wild in the neighborhood—Marr calls Cheryl "Mrs. Do-little"—-but she would like to see Meredith a bit more.
"We've been married six years," she says. "Really, it's only three, but every year seems like two years. The off season is a different year than the season. Both years are fast and hectic. I'm not really looking forward to Dandy quitting football. I used to think I was. But it won't be much different when he does. He'll get into something just as challenging. He'll still be gone all the time. He's got ants in his pants. In the off season, he's gone physically. During the season, he's gone mentally. He'll be sitting right beside me, but he's somewhere else. Sometimes he tells me he hates football, but I know he loves it. He says he doesn't like being a leader, accepting responsibilities, but I know he likes that, too, or he wouldn't do it."
From Mount Vernon—where he performed in one-act plays and served on the Future Farmers of America state championship shrub-judging team, as well as being an outstanding athlete—Meredith found his way to Dallas and Southern Methodist University, and eventually to the Cowboys and a splendid manse, only after wavering between three other schools that might have sent him in very different, but perhaps equally successful, directions. Although his parents owned a farm, he was anxious to get the boy out of the country. Still, he was almost lured to Texas A&M, in barren College Station, by what he calls the "magnetic charm" of Bear Bryant. "I told him I wanted to throw the ball," says Meredith, "and he said, 'Son, if you can throw well enough to win games for us, we'll throw the ball all you please.' If he had been coaching anywhere but Texas A&M, I'd have gone with him." At the time Meredith thought he wanted to become either a preacher or a lawyer. The University of Texas law school had a powerful appeal. He also visited Texas Christian University, where his older brother, B.J., had been a quarterback. At TCU, Meredith was assured he could keep wearing his boots and Levi's and be as country as he wished. "But that wasn't my dream of college," he says. "I don't know exactly what I thought college would be. I had some vague picture of boy-girl relationships, stuff like that, and SMU seemed to be it. I didn't know what fraternities and sororities were. But I went through rush because I wanted to go to college so much that I would do anything to get there a week early."
As a freshman, he was an outside linebacker in a 5-4 defense. SMU had seven quarterbacks, and Meredith was far down the line. But one quarterback signed a baseball contract, another was hurt, and Meredith kept moving up. He started against Texas as a sophomore, threw two passes for touchdowns and ran for another, as SMU won 19-12. From then on he was the SMU quarterback. He led the nation in passing that year, operating a rather freelance offense that depended on Meredith's uncanny knack of avoiding tacklers—he is a very good runner for a quarterback—and his quick arm. "I sort of ran all over the place and then usually threw the ball. I hated regimentation," he says. It was during that period that Meredith began to divide the Dallas audience, some of them cheering madly for him, others claiming he was the worst thing that had happened to SMU athletics since the bleachers collapsed at old Ownby Stadium. "They all wanted another Doak Walker," he says. "To my mind, Doak Walker was at one place and the rest of us were at another. They were expecting me to be something I could never be."
Feeling as he did about regimentation, it was a pure cold shock when he went to his first Dallas Cowboys camp in 1960 and began to work for Tom Landry. Clint Murchison Jr. had signed Meredith to a personal-service contract, and the Chicago Bears had drafted him to be traded to the Cowboys, who were just setting up in business. Meredith had also been drafted by the Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs) of the AFL but says he did not ever receive a firm offer from Lamar Hunt.
"I was happy with that personal-service contract, anyhow," he says. "I never thought I could be a Unitas or Starr or Jurgensen, I mean as good as they are now, and I still don't, even with people telling me the last couple of years that I'm in their class. But then I never considered it. I knew with that personal-service contract I'd have a good job in the Murchison organization. So I went to camp. Landry is a hard person to get to know. Now I love him to death, but that first month I wasn't sure if I could take him.
"But I did feel I ought to be the Cowboy quarterback right away, and it kind of hurt when they traded for Eddie LeBaron. Now I know that the guy who must have been upset the most was Don Heinrich, since he was a veteran and was counting on being the regular. But I thought I was supposed to step in immediately. Don and Eddie helped me a lot. LeBaron is a man I thoroughly respect. He got the most from his ability, and very few ever do that in any field."
The early years with the Cowboys were torturous. The players had come from the NFL's first expansion draft and from a few trades. The club did not participate in the college draft its first season, a tremendous handicap considering the bonus-pick treatment given the Minnesota Vikings the following year. LeBaron, Heinrich and Meredith were buried by pass rushers. Crowds at the Cotton Bowl—where Meredith is now playing for his 12th season counting the three at SMU, making him far more familiar to Dallas fans than any other man who has ever played there—became professional enough to start booing, and their target frequently was Meredith. For a while Landry used LeBaron and Meredith in a shuttle, alternating them every other play. Neither quarterback liked it. Meredith was resisting Landry's system of playing football and organizing people.