Tuesday, December 14, 2010

G.I. Joe and Dandy Don

There were a few deaths in the news recently.  These things happen in threes, right?

Leslie Nielsen, Elizabeth Edwards and Don Meredith.  Each passing was sad in its own way, as they left behind family, friends and fans.  And each achieved fame, or at least notoriety, in ways not intended.

Leslie Nielsen didn't set out to be a comic actor.  He had dramatic roles for many years prior to becoming a caricature in "Airplane" and the "Naked Gun" films.  He was serious - and don't call him Shirley. 

Elizabeth Edwards was an accomplished attorney best known for her courageous battle against cancer. 

And "Dandy" Don Meredith was the original "star" of the Dallas Cowboys, a Texan through and through who never played a home game, at any level, outside of his home state.  But Meredith is best known for  broadcasting "Monday Night Football" in the 70's and early 80's.  Teamed with Frank Gifford (the straight man) and Howard Cosell (the blowhard), Meredith was the booth comedian.  For example, during the 4th quarter of game where the hometown Houston Oilers were getting drilled, the camera focused on a single fan in an otherwise empty section.  The fan looked up and flipped the bird, prompting Meredith to say, "Well, at least someone thinks the Oilers are number one!"
Don Meredith didn't set out to be a TV star.  Yet Meredith's death is felt mainly because he came of age during my formative years in the 1970's.

When Don Meredith began on Monday Night Football it was exactly that.  The big game.  A night game, held once a week.  And because it was the only night game, it was an event. 

I used to beg my Dad to stay up until halftime to catch Howard Cosell's "halftime highlights."  Because back then, those were the highlights.  And maybe, just maybe, our beloved Bears would make the two minute reel. 

I remember one Monday game vividly featuring the Bears against the Green Bay Packers when Wally Chambers, the Bears All-Pro defensive tackle, was featured in the intro as Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad, LeRoy Brown" played in the background.  What did I want to be when I grew up?  Meaner than a junkyard dog. 

I also remember watching baseball's "Game of the Week" on NBC with Joe Gargiola and Tony Kubek because that's exactly what it was.  The game of the week; the only nationally televised game.  I watched, even though it always featured the Yankees, Red Sox, or Dodgers. 

Now games are ubiquitous, available now or on demand.  A big game?  Only until tomorrow night.  Reminds me of Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas, who said shortly before playing in the Super Bowl, "If the Super Bowl is the ultimate game, why are they playing it again next year?

Growing up we had electric football (with the vibrating field), Slinky's and Pong. And Etch a Sketch.  You could either call sports phone (at 50 cents a pop) for scores or wait for the local news. 

My kids play interactive video games, pull up Internet highlights and choose among Sunday, Monday or Thursday night football games. 

We didn't hear much from Don Meredith after his retirement in 1984.  I admire him for knowing when to walk away, unlike Frank Gifford, who is trotted out like a weekly circus act.

Don Meredith won't ever be mentioned in the same breath as Vin Scully or Walter Cronkite, but his death is significant for two reasons:
First, Meredith was one of the last personalities in broadcasting. Can you name more than a couple network announcers today? Do you tune in to listen to them? Nobody "turned down the sound" in Monday Night Football's heyday.

Second, Meredith's death represents one of the last links to a bygone era, when the channels and games were few. Today everything seems instantaneous. Less was more. Or was it?

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