"That field was so bad," Meredith says. "We thought we had an advantage in our speed, our quickness, our multiple formations. We had studied hard and knew what to do. Suddenly we couldn't do anything we had done all season. Our game plan was gone down the ice."
This season, having signed a new three-year contract, Meredith reported a week early to a motel near the Cowboy camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif., while an impending player strike was being settled. Meredith was somewhat overweight from a practice of reordering entire Tex-Mex dinners at Casa Dominguez, a Dallas restaurant owned by his friend, Pete Dominguez, and from high living at such places as Majorca—where he went to pose for Jantzen ads—Palm Springs, Reno and other comfortable wateringholes to which his enterprises took him between January and July. At camp he went on a severe diet and stopped smoking cigarettes at the same time, an undertaking which caused him to look a bit crazed. Landry had decreed that Meredith should play at 200 pounds or less, five pounds under his weight of last season. The idea is that Meredith, who like the other Cowboys is on a continual weight-lifting and isometrics program from training camp until the last game, will be more alert and nimble, and maybe more enduring.
" Landry thinks, and Meredith agrees, that we have been lacking a little something extra in the fourth quarter," says Ralph Neely, a Dallas tackle. "The way to get it is to work harder. Meredith is setting the example. He nearly ran my legs off the first week we were out here, before camp started. Some days I'll be draggy and tired, and I see him working hard. That makes me think if he can do it, I can do it. So I work hard, too. If we are going to win the championship this year, he's the man who will do it for us. He's the leader. If he comes into the huddle and calls a triple reverse, there's not a man in our starting offensive lineup who doesn't believe it's the greatest play anybody ever thought of. He's got authority. In our preseason game with Chicago this year, a linebacker smashed him. He came to the huddle and said, 'O.K., let's cut that out; I'm not going to put up with it,' and we kept that linebacker away. The kind of offense we have if we're going good will average about four yards per rush, and if we're going bad we'll average less than two. On those bad days, Meredith is the one who keeps us together."
Cowboy President Tex Schramm has been in intimate contact with Meredith for the past eight years—not always to their mutual satisfaction—and has watched his quarterback go through the rather bruising process of growing up, by which Schramm would mean at least partially conforming, coming around to accepting the Landry way. "It's easy to say Meredith has matured. But what form does that take?" says Schramm. "When he first came to us he thought if we just gave him the ball he would find somebody and throw it to him. That's how he played, and that's how he approached life. The significant thing is that now he understands there must be a plan and a reason, and it's reflected in both his life and his football playing. He's planning for the future, making investments with a purpose. He hasn't totally accepted what we tell him or completely disciplined himself to what needs to be done, but he recognizes what we mean. Little by little, the self-discipline will come, he'll see that he does have certain weaknesses—one being his physical makeup—and to be a success, to attain what he wants, he has to work at it. This year he has stopped many of his performances and personal appearances beyond his radio and TV shows and a few other things in order to concentrate more on his job.
"Meredith has plenty of self-doubts," Schramm says. "That's probably the reason for the finger-snapping facade he puts up. That facade is not his real nature." Schramm laughs. He is fond of Meredith though often exasperated by him, a game they both understand. "What Meredith should be is a singer or something where he can do what he wants to excel in without having to do the practice."
Singers, of course, do have to practice. But the fact is, Meredith might have been a professional singer by now except that he is not all that good at it. He toured for a time in a show with Roger Miller and Molly Bee and found the routine disappointing. "I woke up one morning and said, 'Self, they didn't raise you to make a living in this business,' " he says. But he will sing anytime, anyplace. You can usually hear him coming—the strong and slightly nasal voice racketing out tunes like God Made Me A Black Land Fanner, Hello, Wall, With a Little Help From My Friends and The Biggest Fool That Ever Hit the Big Time, mixing in an occasional rock 'n' roll or soul song. Willie Nelson, the country-and-western singer and composer, is among the friends who have stayed at Meredith's house. Meredith once made a record called Them That Ain't Got It Cain't Lose. However, Meredith will sing any sort of music. A few years ago we went into Asti's, a Manhattan restaurant where waiters and customers leap up and bellow opera. Meredith was going to test himself against that crowd, but I collided with a waiter carrying a tray-load of dinners, and after the crash and the yelling we decided opera was not in Meredith's line, anyhow. There is no doubt that show business is, or could be. Meredith has been offered the leads in two new television series. Seeing him at The Daisy or La Scala or The Factory in Los Angeles, you would pick him out as a young actor.
"Meredith just doesn't enjoy practice," says Schramm. "I don't imagine he even spends any time on the practice tee at golf. When the season starts, he'll work hard. But not in April. If he would work for three months in the spring throwing sideline passes to a receiver, there's little limit to what a great quarterback he would be. But Don resents any attempt to change him.
"When you've got your future riding on one guy, a quarterback, you like to have him be a little serious," Schramm says. "You say be dedicated, pay the price, and he says I'm not Bart Starr, I'm Don Meredith. Well, we know we'll never make Don Meredith into Bart Starr. They're different personalities. Starr is the epitome of a hardworking, dedicated athlete. Meredith is like a Babe Ruth or a Bobby Layne. If Starr is Stan Musial, Meredith is Mickey Mantle. I understand that, but sometimes I get annoyed at his flippancy. Last spring I told him he had to join the adult world. He got mad and stormed out of my office. The next day he came back and said, 'I'm not gonna join your adult world. I'll live in my world and you live in yours.' " Schramm is laughing again as he thinks about it.
"Like most athletes, Meredith has an inner fear that when he quits playing, people won't like him so much," says Schramm. "All his investments are defensive, so he won't ever have to be dependent on anyone or ever be poor. It would destroy him to have to be dependent on somebody. He's his own worst enemy, but he knows that. He knows when he's not doing things right. He's tougher on himself than others are on him. But what he doesn't understand is that if he worked harder and became as complete a quarterback as Unitas or Starr, he'd make 10 times as much money as they do. Because of Meredith's personality, he'd make Unitas and Starr look like peanuts."
Meredith enjoys being the sensitive poet-clown-athlete touched by sadness and danger. He will do his imitations—a flamingo, a lighthouse, a lighthouse with a snake in it, a cow, a pig—and then will suddenly become very grave, almost morose, but still be smiling, talking about the most desperate matters as if he understood they were absurd and would eventually wind up as nothing. "He has these periods of intense honesty," says Pete Gent, "when he gets you aside and tells you at length what all is wrong with him." One thing Meredith has wondered about—apart from the usual jokes after a bad day when linebackers have dazed him, ends and tackles have fallen heavily on him and cornerbacks have caught his passes and brought them back in a direction he never intended—is why he plays professional football. Money alone is never the answer. "Money is part of it," Meredith says. "But I guess the main reason has something to do with masculinity. Proving your manhood. This is a very masculine game. It's hard to do that frontier stuff anymore, fording rivers and so forth, but this game sort of occupies that place for me. I've met a lot of professional athletes, and they're all pretty much alike. Some may be artists, some may be animals, some may be gentlemen, some may cross you out, but they've all got something in common—coordinated bodies, love of competition, this feeling for proving themselves. I really like this game, I need it, I must love it, or Lord knows I wouldn't be playing it. I'm certainly not a sports fan. In the last eight years I haven't seen 10 athletic events that I wasn't playing in. I don't read about sports in the papers as a regular thing, except that I know a lot of golfers and like to check and see how they're doing now and then."