DALLAS -- He was first among Cowboys only in chronological order. Eleven have busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but none bear his handsome likeness. He wasn't even Dallas' best quarterback. In the category of unofficial titles, Bob Lilly was "Mr. Cowboy," not Don Meredith. If he leads the organization in anything after all these years, in fact, it's in boos.
But of all the Cowboys the last half-century -- a cast as star-studded as any ever cooked up in Hollywood -- none was more intriguing than Jeff and Hazel's baby boy, dead at 72.
He was always the story you wanted to write. Where did it all go wrong? How did a Cowboy with Meredith's talent, looks, humor and toughness, a man more beloved by teammates than any in the organization's history, retire at 31?
How could he quit with the Cowboys on the cusp of greatness?
"I think Don just burned out," Lilly said Monday.
How could Don Meredith burn out? From the moment he signed a contract before the Cowboys were officially a franchise, he was the perfect fit for stardom: the good ol' Mount Vernon boy, an All-American at SMU with a country wit quicker than his release.
He chose SMU, he would say, because "it was close to home and easy to spell." He was funny anywhere. Huddles, locker rooms, even at the line of scrimmage.
In '63, Meredith's first year as a starter, the Steelers pounded him so mercilessly that he suddenly switched the "huts" in his snap count to "Peaches! . . . Pineapples! . . . Pears!"
The Steelers laughed so hard they had to call a timeout to gather themselves.
They stopped laughing, but they didn't stop coming. He was sacked 58 times in '64, still a club record. And in just 14 games.
When longtime Dallas sportswriter Sam Blair asked him after the '64 season what he was going to do, Meredith said, "I'm thinking about giving my body to medical science."
He didn't complain about his line or receivers. He didn't complain about anything. He wanted to have fun, and he wanted everyone around him to do the same. He'd sing in the huddle or cut the straps on a teammate's jock. Once in Cleveland, he treated teammates to a $250 meal. This in an era when per diem was $12, and football was a second job. When Walt Garrison asked how he could spend that much, Meredith said he made $250 in the bargain.
"We had $500 worth of fun, didn't we?"
Tom Landry didn't think it was fun. They personified the '60s generation gap. Landry didn't think Meredith took the game seriously enough. He couldn't have been more wrong.
Meredith's heir among Cowboys quarterbacks is Romo. The same age Meredith was in his last season, he can dazzle fans like Meredith did. He can drive them crazy, too.
The comparison once prompted Romo to ask Blair what Meredith was like.
"He was the best high school basketball player I ever saw," Blair told him, "the most competitive person I've ever been around and the toughest man I ever knew."
Here's how tough: Once hospitalized with a broken rib, punctured lung and pneumonia, he checked out in time to play that Sunday.
For some reason, it wasn't good enough for fans. They booed him at his first mistake. Sometimes, they didn't wait. They booed at introductions.
"He was the focal point of all their frustrations," said Frank Luksa, who also covered Meredith. "He got to the lip of the cup so many times, and then something would always go wrong."
In only his fourth year as a starter, he led the Cowboys to the NFL Championship Game. But when the Cowboys lost to Green Bay that year and the next year, too, it was if he'd lost on purpose.
No athlete on any level before or since has endured that kind of abuse in Texas. No one's a close second.
Meredith held up with incomparable grace, but it took its toll. It had to. "He was very tender internally," Lilly said.
He was probably right to call it quits so soon. When it's not any fun anymore, it's hard to be good at what you do.
When Don Meredith isn't having any fun, it's a sin.
His peers will remember him for what he was: the best teammate they ever had. One of Lilly's favorite stories is the time a plane experienced engine problems on takeoff. As flight attendants swooped down the aisle and panic set in, a set of circumstances not unlike quarterbacking the Cowboys, Meredith's sang out with what could have been his epitaph.
"Don't worry, fellas," he said, smiling, "it's been a good ol' good 'un."