Elephant, Pa. is the last resting place of Umstead Drube, who lies beneath the sod across from an old church with stained-glass windows. Driving past the church, Don Meredith glances at the tombstone and reflects on his own need to find serenity, though not so final as Umstead Drube's. A few miles from the church, up a dirt road through the woods, Meredith hides out with his wife Susan and son Michael in an old house on a hill, surrounded by 21 acres of trees, fields and ponds and guarded by a sign that says:
STOP NO TRESPASSING
VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED
And then, with the wry sort of afterthought that marks much of what Meredith does, the sign continues:
For the past four years Meredith has been one-third of the vocal group on what he calls The Monday Night Freak Show—the ABC pro football telecast that in terms of celebrity-making is the grandest thing Meredith, Howard Cosell or Frank Gifford ever did. Neither Meredith and Gifford on the football field nor Cosell in his notorious television encounters with the likes of Muhammad Ali had ever come close to being as widely noted as they have been as a result of Monday night football. (At the start of the show's second season Gifford replaced Keith Jackson, who moved on to NCAA football where his voice is often heard giving information but his face and personality remain a mystery to viewers.)
But not long ago, searching for something further to do with his life, Meredith decided he was fed up with Monday night football and he quit ABC. He was tired of being called Dandy Don and Danderoo. He decided professional football bored him to the point where he no longer had anything pleasant to say about it. In fact, Meredith had decided those things many times and had threatened to quit the show so frequently that Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports, says half the time last season they were unsure if Meredith would arrive at the broadcast booth on Monday night.
When Meredith finally decided to quit Monday night football for a grand final time, he did a possibly strange thing. He signed what amounts to a personal service contract (two years and an option) with NBC. Herbert S. Schlosser, new NBC president, and the entertainment division of the network won Meredith over with promises to help him develop a career as an actor. They offered to work him into leads in several TV movies and to consider him for series pilots to be developed. Carl Lindemann, head of sports at NBC, had scarcely met Meredith until after the contract was signed. So it looked as if a restless Meredith, at 36, was moving on in his quest for the thing that satisfies him.
But NBC has announced Meredith will appear on 10 pro football telecasts this coming season, including the Super Bowl, and will do two or three Monday night baseball specials. "Plus, I guess, any other sports that make sense," says Chet Simmons, a vice-president of sports operations for the network. The plan is for Meredith to team with Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis on Sunday afternoon AFC games where—by comparison with the old Monday Night Freak Show exposure—he could become practically invisible.
Meredith also will be on call as guest host on the Tonight Show and will work on the Today show. The rest of the time, he can be an actor. NBC has some people right now trying to think up a character for him to play in the movies; it won't do, evidently, for Dandy Don to race around shooting it out with thugs, as he did in his two appearances on the Police Story series.
"It's kind of like when I left high school in Mount Vernon, Texas, to go to SMU," Meredith said, walking across the yard toward his house in Elephant, a town named for the decrepit Elephant Hotel, which sort of looks like one. "It was a big, spooky world out there, and I didn't know what to expect, but I knew this was what I was supposed to do. I'm scared to death."