Meredith was a Dandy of an original

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Don Meredith, left, Howard Cosell, center, and Frank

Don Meredith, left, Howard Cosell, center, and Frank Gifford of ABC's "Monday Night Football" broadcast team. Photo Credit: AP

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.

Don Meredith arrived in our living rooms at exactly the right time, just as all heck was breaking loose in American media, culture was running a counter play and sober authority figures were falling out of favor for good.

The fact that he did so with a syrupy, good-ol'-boy drawl made the medicine go down more easily in some corners of the country, but make no mistake, the guy was a revolutionary in his way.

Until then, sports coverage mostly was serious business. Meredith helped lighten the mood and make Pete Rozelle's vision for extending the NFL into prime time a marketable reality.

Pretenders have spent four decades trying to match his touch, for better and worse - did someone say Tony Siragusa? - but the original edition remains exactly that: an original.

The best thing that happened to Meredith was having a sparring partner such as Howard Cosell, a brash, self-serious New Yorker who served as the perfect foil for the folksy Texan.

Meredith was twice as funny when he was having fun at Cosell's expense. But he was funny enough himself.

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One of his finest moments came in a 1972 game in which the Raiders were blowing out the Oilers in Houston and the camera focused on a disgruntled fan. The man promptly made an obscene gesture.

"He thinks they're No. 1 in the nation,'' Meredith cracked.

He joked about being a "mile high'' in Denver and called President Richard Nixon "Tricky Dick'' on the air.

The timing of Meredith's death allowed him to be recalled on what was certain to be a widely watched Monday night game between the Jets and Patriots.

ESPN aired a tribute on its pregame show, and Mike Tirico was to interview another former Monday night star, Frank Gifford, at halftime.

Gifford called it "mind-boggling'' yesterday how many people he had heard from expressing thoughts and sympathies about his old partner.

It was Gifford who suggested to Meredith that he talk to ABC Sports' Roone Arledge about the coming Monday night series after Meredith retired from the Cowboys in 1969.

"To say that Don was an instant success would be a gross understatement,'' Gifford said in a statement issued by the Giants. "I joined the 'Monday Night Football' team in the second year [1971] and, together with Howard Cosell, we helped change Monday night television into 'Monday Night Football,' or as some people called it, 'Monday Night Madness.' ''

Truth is, the old Monday night gang probably would have taken a beating from 21st century viewers and critics.

Their style at times was sloppily uneven and freewheeling in a way not seen on modern national TV productions. But they were just right for their time.

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In Dallas, Meredith is remembered as an All-American quarterback at SMU and the first star of a new pro team called the Cowboys, whose fans and coach, Tom Landry, sometimes lost patience with him.

(He never played a high school, college or NFL home game outside a 100-mile radius of Dallas.)

But everywhere else, he was part of the soundtrack of the NFL's rise to the top of American sports in the 1970s.

Meredith showed us sports television could and should be fun. His trademark singing of "Turn Out the Lights'' when a game's outcome was decided remains a pop culture touchstone.

The song reflected the way many fans of a certain age felt upon hearing the news that Meredith died Sunday at age 72. The party's over.

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