John Madden: A True Storyteller
By Cal Insull
John Madden, the iconic figure in the world of American Football, has died at the age of 85.
Born in Austin, Minnesota, the former Super Bowl winning coach led a life in the sport akin to a fairytale, culminating in one of the most diverse careers the NFL has ever seen.
From playing and coaching, to talking about the sport as a pundit and forming possibly the best commentary duo that has ever been seen, to even being the face of a video game; there really was no stone left unturned by Madden.
The Early Days
John Madden had very limited success himself on the football field, particulaly compared to the sideline. Hailing from Cal-Poly, Madden was drafted in the TWENTY-FIRST round of the 1958 draft by the Eagles. Back then there were very few draftniks, and you would be excused for never knowing who he was. Injury curtailed his playing stint in Philly as Madden lasted just one year as a practice squad player, before he embarked upon the first steps of what would become a glittering coaching career.
Madden first rose to fame when Al Davis hired him as the linebacker coach for the then Oakland Raiders back in 1967, plucking him from the college ranks. In that role for two years, the NFL guru grew popular within the Raiders franchise – particularly with Davis – and when John Rauch left to take over at the Buffalo Bills, Madden was given the head coach role two years later. He never forgot what Davis did for him in making him the leader of the famous Silver & Black:
“Al Davis has been the biggest influence in my professional football life. I mean, he was a guy that gave me an opportunity, one, to get into professional football in 1967 as an assistant coach, and then at the age of 32, giving me the opportunity to be the head coach. That was something that was very special. I mean, there weren’t a lot of people that thought John Madden, the linebacker coach, is going to be the head coach of the Raiders. Al believed in me, then gave me the opportunity. During the time, the 10 years I was head coach, he gave me everything. I was never turned down for one thing that I ever wanted for football by Al Davis. Since I’ve been out, we’re still friends. We still see each other all the time. I just had dinner with him last week on his birthday. He’s just, you know, one of my best friends, one of my best friends in life. You know, if it weren’t for Al, you don’t know where you would have gone.”
The Head Coach
Madden cut a jovial figure but presided over the Raiders with an air of unchallenged authority, a testament to the esteem in which his unruly Raiders roster held him. Eight years later, Madden took Oakland – who were often referred to as the ‘crazy gang’ – to their first Super Bowl victory, beating the Minnesota Vikings 32-14.
The Raiders were considered the outlaws of the NFL, with a prickly owner, rebellious players and an excitable coach. Al Davis’ mantra – ‘Just Win Baby’ – often led to confrontation with the NFL, particularly Commissioner Pete Rozelle. But Madden’s geniality and success helped endear this franchise to the fans and be remembered as an iconic team in football history.
In ten years at the helm, John Madden led the Raiders to the playoff eight times and finished with a 112-39 record – the greatest winning percentage of any head coach over 100 games in NFL history.
After Madden’s successful coaching spell ended in 1978, it only took the former coach a year to get back into the swing of things – this time as a colour commentator on CBS. Leading the broadcasting team with the also legendary, Pat Summerall, Maddensomehow became as iconic a game caller as he was a coach.
A man of the people, Madden had an innate ability to be relatable to the working class fans sat at home watching the sport they loved. Not only was he a humorous, lovable, larger than life character in the booth with plenty of quips and anecdotes at the ready, but he was also able to convey his astute awareness of what was happening on the field. It’s fair to say that Madden changed the role of colour commentator within the sport, moulding it into an opportunity to educate the viewer and improve their enjoyment of the spectacle.
Madden was known for certain insecurities and had a fear of flying. He developed the phobia after his coaching career, and as a result travelled to games as a broadcaster by a bus. This wasn’t just any bus either; he logged 80,000 miles annually aboard the ‘Madden Cruiser’, an $800,000, 45-foot luxury vehicle with multiple TVs, sauna, shower, bathrooms, a full kitchen, and a bedroom with a queen-sized bed!
The Video Game Franchise
Off the back of his voice becoming a fixture in American households every Sunday evening, the exuberant Madden later lent his name to a little known video game franchise by EA Sports. Not happy with just being a voice, Madden offered his advice an expertise to the programmers and developers, encouraging them to add extra features to the game to improve realism. None of these ideas were more important than the groundbreaking decision by EA Sports to move away from a ‘sandbox’ version of the sport (seven players on each side) to a true, 11-on-11, realistic depiction of NFL football.
The Madden NFL video game franchise went from a niche interest to extremely successful, selling more than 250 million copies over it’s 33 year lifespan. Madden himself was the master of vocabulary, frequently coming out with words such as, “boom”, “whap” and “doink” to explain various action within a game. His effect on the success of the game cannot be understated, has changed the way fans and players alike interact with the sport, and is now synonymous with a game that truly brings a realistic version of football to everyone’s fingertips.
In 2009, Madden retired from broadcasting. His life and career have been immortalised in numerous NFL Films productions, including ‘America’s Game’ and ‘A Football Life’. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006 for both his contribution to the game as a coach and a broadcaster. He spent his final years with his wife Virginia in his home in California, but never stopped watching football.
Nobody loved the sport more than John Madden. And likewise, the sport itself will never love anyone the same. John Madden will be truly missed.
Feature Image: Boston Globe