For the first four seasons of ABC's Monday Night Football, Don Meredith achieved what had never happened before or since in the annals of sport: he neutralized Howard Cosell. So by the time Dandy Don defected to NBC in 1974, prime-time pro ball was a Cosell-proof institution. It was American marriage that was in jeopardy.

Then this summer Roone Arledge, the empire-expanding president of ABC Sports (and now News), announced that he had raided Meredith back. But no, Harry Reasoner wasn't out. "This," cracked Arledge, "is a great leap backwards." The Danderoo, starting with this week's NFL kickoff, was once again part of the Monday night Fearsome Threesome that includes Cosell and Frank Gifford. Why had the prodigal Don returned? "I missed Howard," he grins. Of course, just last year he mocked Cosell's sesquipedalian style, noting, "Let us say that Howard has a veritable plethora of insignificant trivia."

The reasons why ex-Dallas Cowboy quarterback Meredith came home to ABC again at 39 were more than pigskin-deep. His original $200,000-a-year NBC package had included TV acting spots, a pilot of his own, substituting on the Tonight show (though not Today—that was too early in the morning) and no objection to commercials like Lipton tea. Don did creditably in cameos on action series like Police Woman and sat in for Johnny Carson—once. "I enjoyed NBC," Don says discreetly, but obviously he` felt the gunslingers who run ABC would offer more opportunity. NBC released him, says a top executive, explaining, "Unhappy talent is not good for the talent or the network."

It's safe to say that the two networks were not bidding for his services against the Royal Shakespeare Company. Yet Meredith 'fesses up that "being an actor has kind of been in the back of my mind all my life. That's one of the things you're afraid to say in east Texas, where an actor is one of those weird cats hanging around the drugstore." As every TV fan knows now by heart, Don is "Jeff and Hazel's little boy" from Mount Vernon, Texas, where Jeff was in dry goods and farming. Meredith made All-America his last two years at Southern Methodist University and also graduated (stars did so then) in business administration. He tried to apply it as a stockbroker after he quit the Cowboys. But with his grubstake disappearing—"I just needed a little pocket change, say $15,000 or $20,000"—he contacted his old pal, the Giffer, who suggested ABC.

Don has never been anybody's Rhinestone Dallas Cowboy, though he has relocated from his Elephant, Pa. farm to Beverly Hills. There he shares a three-bedroom manse with third wife Susan, 35, the ex-spouse of actor Keir Dullea, and his son by his second marriage, Michael, 10. (Don has two other children: Mary Donna, 16, who lives with his first wife in San Francisco, and Heather, 8, who is in a home for mentally retarded children in Texas.) The family bikes, swims and plays tennis together and pals around with Dinah Shore (whose ex-beau Burt Reynolds is also Meredith's good buddy). At one point Meredith aimed to write the Great American Gridiron Novel, but now hopes to throw the bomb, artistically, by painting.

Currently Don's most important impact on society may be in the National Football League's negotiations to extend prime-time games to, for starters, Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday nights. Though fighting for the ERA may be a heavier issue, women must also dig in to defense against the alphabet charms of D.M. and the NFL.