Dandy Don’s most unforgettable game was in Detroit

Don Meredith (center) was a swashbuckling quarterback for Tom Landry in Dallas.

Don Meredith (center) was a swashbuckling quarterback for Tom Landry in Dallas.

Whether he was inside a huddle, a cocktail lounge, or the “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth, Don Meredith was a man who breezily took life as it came and squeezed as much fun out of it as he could. “Dandy Don,” who quarterbacked the Dallas Cowboys for nine seasons in the 1960s, including two famous championship games against Green Bay, always maintained that his most unforgettable NFL game was one in which he didn’t even play – and that game was in Detroit.

It was December 11, 1960, a bitterly cold Sunday afternoon at Briggs Stadium. The expansion Cowboys were coming into the final game of their debut season with no wins and a tie in 11 games. Meredith, then a 23-year-old rookie out of Southern Methodist, was the back-up to Eddie LeBaron, a veteran of several seasons with the Washington Redskins. LeBaron, only 5-7, was a gifted ball handler but his short stature helped make him a mediocre passer. Little Eddie was winding up a season in which he would complete only 49 percent of his passes and toss a league-high 25 interceptions.

Despite LeBaron’s poor numbers, Meredith was certain coach Tom Landry was going to stick with his starter in a bid to avoid the ignominy of a winless season. The only action Meredith planned on seeing was the night before the game, when he and some drinking companions hit a few spots around Detroit. It was Meredith’s first visit to Motown, and he enjoyed every moment of it. He saw the sun rise on Sunday morning, and by the time he reported to the visitors’ dressing room at Briggs Stadium a few hours later, he was nursing and cursing a world-class hangover.

That was when Landry walked up to him and informed him that he would be starting. Meredith sat on the stool in front of his locker, “trying my darnedest to figure out how I was going to make it through the day,” he said. Just as the squad was getting ready to go out on the field, a teammate came up to the rookie quarterback and started laughing. Maybe, he suggested, it would be a good idea for Meredith to put on his pants.

Meredith, raised in Southern climes, could not believe the weather conditions. “It was well below the freezing mark and there were 17-mile-per-hour winds ripping off the icy river. Why in the world 43,000 people would come out to watch a game in weather like that was beyond me.”

The wind and cold “performed a minor miracle” on Meredith. “As we went through the pregame warmups I began to return to the living and, in fact, was getting pretty excited over the prospect of getting to start,” he remembered. “Then we went back into the dressing room before the kickoff and I had a major sinking spell. As soon as I got warm all I could think about was some nice, cozy place to lie down and sleep for a couple of days.”

Just before kickoff, Landry informed Meredith that LeBaron would be starting after all. But the rookie was to warm up and stay ready.

Meredith did as he was told, tossing the ball back and forth with a teammate as he watched LeBaron throw an interception and, later, cause a timeout after a Lion stepped on his hand. On both occasions, Meredith remained on the sideline. The alcohol coursing through his veins was definitely not working as anti-freeze. He shivered in the biting cold. Meanwhile, Nick Pietrosante tore off a pair of long TD runs in the first quarter to help the Lions build a 16-0 lead.

“I continued to warm up,” he said. “That went on through the whole first half. Never got in for a single play.” Meredith entered the welcoming warmth of the locker room at halftime, then somehow made it out for the start of the third quarter. Once again, Landry told him to be ready. “It was even colder by then,” Meredith said, “and had begun to snow. I had decided that Detroit was not one of my favorite places.”

By the end of the third quarter, Meredith’s arm was worn out. After LeBaron once again went down with an injury, only to remain in the game, his frustrated back-up said the hell with it. Meredith threw a parka over his shoulders, bummed a cigarette, and plopped down on the bench. Late in the game, Landry again approached Meredith. “I’d just as soon not,” he told Landry.

So LeBaron stayed in, tossing a TD pass to make the final score a more respectable 23-14. The loss cemented the Cowboys’ winless season. Inside the warm, toasty confines of the locker room, Meredith peeled off his spotless uniform. He later claimed he had learned a valuable lesson from his first visit to Detroit. “I found out that all-night partying is okay,” he said, “if you don’t have to play a football game the next day.”