Finally Meredith became the starter in 1964 and endured a season that could have broken him. He had a list of injuries that would fill a page on a prescription pad. Playing with a weak team, he received erratic protection. He was splitting up with his first wife, Lynn, whom he had married at SMU, and was anguishing over losing custody of his daughter, Mary Donna. Although he is 6'3", Meredith had always been frail, with very skinny legs, and the beatings he took on Sundays were painful even to watch. Grudgingly, some of the booers began to applaud. And gradually Meredith's teammates began to appreciate him.
A friend was telling him, then, about some experiences riding in country rodeos as a teen-ager. "One night I was thrown off a bareback bronc, and I lay in the dirt, not scared and not especially hurting but knowing there was no reason in the world why I should ever ride a wild horse again," the friend said.
"I know how you felt," Meredith said. "I know exactly. Sometimes when I'm lying on the ground at Yankee Stadium or someplace, and some guy like Sam Huff is pounding my poor thin body, I tell myself, 'Dandy, why did you ever take this up as a career? Why don't you get a decent job? You're too nice a person for this to be happening to, Dandy. Why don't you go back to East Texas where you belong? Let the other fellows play football. You don't need it.' "
Now, looking back at that 1964 season, Meredith says, "It did hurt. It hurt a lot. People kept saying, 'How can the kid do it?' They talked about me having great courage. I'll admit I liked getting that sympathy. But it wasn't really a matter of courage as much as of determination. Nobody is going to beat me. I knew if I didn't get up they would have beaten me. I couldn't stand the thought of that."
By 1965 Meredith was emerging as a team leader at last. But he slipped in a puddle of water in the hall of the training-camp dormitory that summer, fell and hurt his right shoulder and elbow. "I was missing my passes by six inches to a foot," he says. "That doesn't sound like much, but it's too much." The Cowboys won their first two games that season. "I didn't throw well, but I was playing well. At least, we won," says Meredith. St. Louis beat the Cowboys in the third game. "A guy dropped a pass that would have won it for us, but I missed five receivers who were open for touchdowns. You're not an NFL quarterback if you do that. So I was benched." Rookies Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome took over at quarterback. Dallas lost three more games. In the seventh game Meredith started again, and the Cowboys lost their fifth in a row. "That was against Pittsburgh," he says. "The worst game I ever played in my life. I wasn't throwing bad, but everything else was bad. I was trying so hard. After the game I saw Tom Landry cry. He wasn't crying so much about the game as he was crying about me. He had been fair, more than fair, to his mind, and he wanted so much for me to do well, and I was awful. I'm no good at pep talks, but I got up in the locker room, that dismal locker room at Pittsburgh. The players had their heads down, couldn't do anything, couldn't remember how to take off their uniforms. I told them I was going to work harder and we were going to win."
Landry was not so sure of that. Sunday night, all day Monday and Monday night he tried to make a decision. "I had to think about it a long time," Landry says. "Meredith's career with us was in the balance. We had spent five years on him. Now did we want to junk it all and go with rookie quarterbacks? It's tough to start all over. I never had any real doubts about Meredith's ability. My only doubt was if he could stand up physically through an entire season and win a championship."
On Tuesday, Landry called Meredith into his office. "I didn't know what the word would be, but of course I was going to try and take it like a man," says Meredith. "You know, be cool no matter what. So Tom looked at me and said, 'Don, you're my quarterback. I believe in you.' And we both started crying again."
"That decision pleased a lot of players," says Frank Clarke, a Cowboy receiver for eight years. "We had come to understand the pressures on a quarterback, and we knew sticking with one would remove some of the uncertainty. Meredith had to be our leader. He used to be thinking, 'It'll come.' Then he found out it was here already, and he had to do something with it."
Since that Landry decision in midyear of 1965, the Cowboys have a 22-10-1 record in regular-season games. They won five of their last seven in 1965, despite Meredith's being hit so hard in the 13th game that he could not recognize old friends or remember teammates' names in the locker room. He fell in his New York hotel the following week and had to be hurried to the hospital for X rays of his skull. But the Cowboys finished second in the East. In 1966 Meredith stayed reasonably well, threw 24 touchdown passes while directing the league's best offense. The Cowboys won the East only to lose 34-27 to Green Bay in the NFL championship, failing to score from the two-yard line in the final minute of a game that Meredith has replayed many times in his mind.
Last year pain found Meredith again. He hurt his arm and shoulder in the exhibition season, twisted a knee and had his nose broken by a fist that got past the face bar. After the first Redskin game, which Dallas won on a 36-yard Meredith pass to Dan Reeves with 10 seconds to play, Cheryl called an ambulance to their home, and he was put into the hospital with pneumonia. He lost more than 20 pounds and was extremely ill, isolated in a room with a sign on the door warning hospital personnel to stay out and let him rest without bothering him for autographs. He missed three games. "Very few people realize how serious Meredith's condition was," Landry says. "An average man, even an above-average man, wouldn't have made it back on his feet for months, much less back to playing football. Courage is what did it. It was February before he ever felt good." The Cowboys, however, put together a 9-5 record, won their second Eastern title and again lost to Green Bay (21-17) when the Packers scored on a quarterback sneak in the last few seconds on a frozen field with the temperature 13� below zero. "I can't describe how cold it was. All I can say is it hurt just to breathe," says Meredith. After the game, Meredith and Bart Starr went on the Johnny Carson show. Carson asked whether the Packers would have had time for another play if the quarterback sneak had not been successful, and Starr replied that he didn't know. "You wouldn't have," Meredith said, as though ice was still cracking on his face. "You sure wouldn't have.