Don Meredith was the best football analyst television has given us.
That “Dandy Don” was chosen for this year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame broadcasting prize, the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award, atones for an egregious omission.
There was a time, believe it or not, when televised professional football was not only worth watching but worth listening to. That was from 1970-73 and again from 1977-83, when the folksy, outspoken Meredith was a member of ABC’s Monday Night Football.
The best broadcast team ever assembled was an act of unnatural selection. Downright weird casting turned out to be a stroke of genius:
It brought us the team of Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Meredith.
Monday Night Football was the most entertaining sports show, and one of the best television programs period, that the medium has discovered.
Today, except for a gem of thought here and there from John Madden, it’s mostly monotonous shouts and murmurs from the broadcast booth. You’re better off muting the sound.
Ah, but in those golden days . . .
Cosell was the carnival barker, pompous, pretentious, condescending – and utterly entertaining. He was the W. C. Fields of the jock shop.
Humble Howie was like some guy sent over by the news department in an effort to get him chased off or killed. His ill-adjusted wig, nasal foghorn of a voice and highfalutin speech were the perfect foil for the spirited, uninhibited Meredith.
They tangled once, for example, on “wont.” It was some running back’s “wont,” Howard said, to do this or that. Meredith pretended to confuse wont with “want” and they sparred.
Gifford, like Meredith, was a former NFL star player. Unlike Meredith, his television character was “normal,” and therefor came across as ponderous and uninteresting. But that character fit perfectly in the casting.
Cosell’s legend is immense. My favorite Howardism, uttered when a player ran some distance for a touchdown, then held the ball in the air and danced in the end zone, was: “Look at him register elation!”
One Monday night in the middle of a game, a copy boy tore an Associated Press story off a teletype in the booth and handed it to Cosell. I believe the story was about Henry Kissinger’s first announced visit to China.
The kid handed the story to Cosell, who declared: “I have just been informed by the White House that Kissinger will visit China.”
Cosell seemed to believe his voice was the reason people tuned in to Monday Night Football and what anybody else had to say was ambient noise. He ran the gamut from hard to understand to hard to take. Sometimes you wanted Meredith and Gifford to throw him bodily out of the press box.
But it was great entertainment and this oddball mixture of personalities made the trio the Marx Brothers of sports broadcasting.
Once when Cosell mentioned then-President Nixon (probably suggesting they should get together to settle world problems), Meredith blurted out something about “Tricky Dick.”
Covering a Cleveland Browns game one night, Meredith had a little double-entendre fun with the name of a wide receiver, Fair Hooker, from Arizona State.
But it was harmless.
When ABC cameras were unfortunate enough to capture a group of fans exposing their middle fingers at the broadcast booth, Meredith suggested, “Aw, they’re just saying, ‘We’re No. 1.’ ”
In what became his trademark, when a team would score and put the game out of reach, Dandy Don would sing a line or two – off key – of Willie Nelson’s song “The Party’s Over.”
When he wanted to be, Meredith was sharp, clear and concise in explaining a play or strategy. The former Southern Methodist All-America quarterback was the NFL’s player of the year in 1966 and knew more about football than even Gifford (a former USC All-America running back).
The award Meredith, 69, will receive on Aug. 3 at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinees’ Dinner recognizes outstanding contributions to radio and TV.
Dandy Don had many, and the award is long overdue.
Retired columnist Corky Simpson writes for the Citizen every Saturday.