Don Meredith, a former star quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys who helped change the perception of professional football with the easy Texas charm and provocative wit he brought to its first prime-time telecasts on Monday nights, died on Sunday in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 72.
The cause was a brain hemorrhage, his lawyer, Lisa Fine Moses, said.
Mr. Meredith always thought of himself as the small-town kid from Mount Vernon, Tex., where his parents, Jeff and Hazel, owned a dry goods store and where his mother swung a tire so he could practice throwing a football at a moving target. He spent much of his life backing away from the nickname Dandy Don, particularly during his secluded later decades in New Mexico.
As a boy, Mr. Meredith dreamed of playing in the Cotton Bowl, 100 miles to the southwest in Dallas, and that was where he played many home games in high school, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and in the pros. He set passing records for the Cowboys that still stand, including the one for most yards in a game, 460, set on Nov. 10, 1963, against San Francisco.
But it was his sparkling, fun-loving personality that seemed to define him. As a quarterback he sometimes irked the buttoned-down Cowboys coach, Tom Landry, by breaking into a country tune in the huddle, and as one of the first two color commentator on ABC’s “Monday Night Football” he made his down-home ribbing of the loquacious Howard Cosell, one of his two broadcasting partners, a hallmark of the show.
Their spirited banter helped make “Monday Night Football” one of the most popular programs on television, one that soon took its place in the television pantheon, alongside classics like “M*A*S*H,” in terms of longevity, ratings and cultural influence. The weekly clash between an opinionated intellectual and a freewheeling spirit drew women to watch football games and caused restaurants and movie theaters to report lower traffic during broadcasts.
“I’d just wait for Howard to make a mistake,” Mr. Meredith said in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2000. “Didn’t usually take too long.”
In fact, the whole act was planned, by Mr. Cosell. “You wear the white hat, I’ll wear the black hat,” he said to Mr. Meredith in a rehearsal before the premiere of “Monday Night Football” on Sept. 21, 1970.
Mr. Meredith offered a taste of his breezy, even risky, humor in that first broadcast. In talking about the Cleveland Browns receiver Fair Hooker, Mr. Meredith said, “Fair Hooker — I haven’t met one yet.”
He later referred to President Richard M. Nixon as Tricky Dick and made what seemed to be a joke about his own marijuana use at a Denver Broncos game. “Welcome to Mile High Stadium — and I really am,” he said.
Frank Gifford replaced Keith Jackson as the play-by-play announcer — and straight man of the crew — in the broadcast’s second year, and many announcing-team combinations followed over the next decades. ESPN now broadcasts Monday night games.
Joseph Donald Meredith was born on April 10, 1938. In high school, he acted in school plays, scored 52 points in a basketball tournament game, graduated second in his class and won a statewide contest for identifying shrubs. He was an all-American quarterback for two years at Southern Methodist, after turning down Bear Bryant’s entreaties to go to Texas A&M, where Mr. Bryant coached before he became an Alabama legend.
The Cowboys coveted the local hero and signed him to a personal-services contract before the N.F.L. had even granted Dallas a franchise. The Chicago Bears drafted him, and the Cowboys traded future draft picks to get him.
In an interview with The New York Post in 1966, Mr. Meredith said he assumed he would supplant Johnny Unitas as the league’s pre-eminent quarterback in about a year, but Coach Landry thought quarterbacks should ideally have around five years of seasoning before starting. Mr. Meredith mainly sat on the bench the first three years.
As he sat, he grimly regretted not becoming a lawyer or preacher. “It was two years before Landry even spoke to me,” he said.
He got his chance to start at quarterback in 1963, and he succeeded by almost any standard. He was named to three Pro Bowls and in 1966 was named the N.F.L.’s most valuable player. But he sustained many injuries and bickered with Mr. Landry about play-calling. Mr. Landry ended up calling plays.
Dallas fans began booing him after the Cowboys were unsuccessful in the playoffs, losing by inches and seconds to the Green Bay Packers in 1967 and 1968. He retired after nine seasons in 1969 at 31, saying he was eager to try other fields.
But the road to his future was paved after the second loss to Green Bay in an epic battle called the Ice Bowl. Wearing a blood-stained uniform, Mr. Meredith poured out his heart in a postgame interview. CBS was flooded with mail about this soulful, articulate, apparently real-life cowboy.
The interviewer was Mr. Gifford, who recommended Mr. Meredith to Roone Arledge of ABC, who was then planning to bring pro football to prime-time TV. Mr. Arledge wanted a former player with lots of personality.
But Mr. Meredith had already agreed to work for CBS’s football coverage. He met Mr. Arledge for lunch and, scribbling contract terms on napkins, agreed to join “Monday Night Football” for $30,000. Mr. Arledge grumbled that the lunch cost him $10,000.
“It’s the best $10,000 you’ll ever spend,” Mr. Meredith said.
He left the show after the 1973 season for NBC, which promised movies as well as work on N.F.L. coverage.
It met another condition as well: no one would call him Dandy Don. Mr. Meredith returned to the Monday show in 1977 and stayed until ABC’s coverage of the 1985 Super Bowl.
After acting in movies and television, Mr. Meredith receded into a quiet life in Santa Fe, writing, painting, golfing and acting in a stage production of “The Odd Couple.” He played Oscar. Mr. Gifford was Felix.
He is survived by his wife, Susan; his brother, Jack; and his three children.