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Don Meredith, who infused 'Monday Night Football' with humor for 12 seasons, dies at 72

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Don Meredith, an accomplished Dallas Cowboys quarterback who brought humor and high jinks to the "Monday Night Football" broadcasts for 12 years, died Sunday night in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 72.

Meredith died of a brain hemorrhage, according to his third wife, Susan. He had been mostly out of the public eye since leaving the "Monday Night Football" booth in 1984.

Two years after retiring abruptly from the Cowboys after the 1968 season, a year when he was booed and benched for backup Craig Morton, Meredith joined Keith Jackson and Howard Cosell to call NFL games on ABC. A year later Frank Gifford replaced Jackson.

Meredith left ABC in 1973 and spent three years at NBC before returning to the "Monday Night Football" franchise at ABC in 1977. He retired in 1984, a year after Cosell retired.

Fred Gaudelli, a longtime producer of "Monday Night Football," said Meredith's approach was about having fun.

"Don played that perfect foil to Cosell," Gaudelli said. "He was the first guy to bring irreverence to the booth. He didn't demean the broadcast, but he didn't make it church, he didn't take the game as gospel. He brought a fun aspect to the thing. Frank Gifford kind of did it a serious way, and Don let it be known that it didn't have to be one prototype."

Gifford, who became a football star first at USC and then with the New York Giants, said in a statement released by the Giants:

"Together with Howard Cosell, we helped changed Monday night television into 'Monday Night Football.' Don would occasionally try his hand as an actor, but it wasn't long before he realized that for millions of football fans, he would always be the one who topped Howard Cosell with one-liners.

"But his trademark signature was when a team had a game locked up," Gifford said, when Meredith would sing "Turn out the lights, the party's over," the first line of a Willie Nelson hit.

Meredith, who earned the nickname "Dandy Don" for his fun-loving personality, was born April 10, 1938, in Mount Vernon, Texas, about 100 miles northeast of Dallas. He played college football at SMU, a school he chose because it was, Meredith would joke, "easy to spell."

He was an All-American quarterback his final two seasons at Southern Methodist University and a third-round pick of the Chicago Bears in the 1960 NFL draft. The Bears traded Meredith to the Cowboys for future draft picks and, in 1963, Dallas Coach Tom Landry made Meredith his starting quarterback.

In 1966 Meredith took the Cowboys to the playoffs, where his team was beaten 34-27 by the Green Bay Packers. In 1967 it was the Packers again who eliminated Meredith's Cowboys from the playoffs, 21-17, in a game famously called the "Ice Bowl" because of the frigid weather conditions in Green Bay. "Coldest I've ever been," Meredith said afterward.

Jon Gruden, an analyst on "Monday Night Football" on ESPN, said, "I used to sneak downstairs and watch Don when I was supposed to be asleep in bed. He was special. Those crews had a lot of fun together."

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement: "Don Meredith was one of the most colorful characters in NFL history. He was a star on the field that became an even bigger star on television. He brought joy to football fans."

Sometimes Meredith's unadulterated commentary got him in trouble. He once referred to President Nixon on the air as "Tricky Dick." He was equally uninhibited about making fun of himself, suggesting one night before a game in Denver that he was "a mile high."

In all, Meredith worked 12 seasons on "Monday Night Football" and when he retired, he made few public appearances, choosing instead to have a private life in Santa Fe and Palm Springs.

Gaudelli said that in 2005, when the "Monday Night Football" franchise was leaving ABC, he tried to get Meredith to go on the final broadcast.

"Actually twice I tried to coax him on," Gaudelli said. "Once when we celebrated our 500th game and then for the last one on ABC. He was very gracious but both times he said, 'Fred, you know, I had my time. It's somebody else's time.'

"For the last game I finally told him people would love to see him and we couldn't do that last broadcast without having something from him.

"He said he'd really rather not do it, but he did let us come to Santa Fe. We rented out a high school gym, put up a set and he sang 'turn out the lights' one more time. When you think of the seminal figures of 'Monday Night Football,' he's at the top."

Besides his 12 years of appearing on "Monday Night Football," Meredith also tried his hand at acting. He appeared in "Police Story" and other TV series and was well-known as a spokesman for Lipton teas.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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