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Remembering John Madden

In August of 1983 while working on the first version of Madden Football, I had the honor of spending a few hours with Coach Madden at his townhouse in New York City.

While it was only a few hours —- as Art Shell said, Madden was “loved by all” —- and from everything I saw and loved about John Madden, I would agree.

The Beatles wrote, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

John Madden understood this —- not only did he love the game of football, he loved rubbing elbows with his family, friends and the millions of Americans whom he took the time to get to know while traveling across the USA in his Madden Cruiser.

John Madden was an all-out giver.

An interesting coincidence here with regard to the Beatles lyric is that John Madden, his wife Virginia and his sons Joe and Mike, lived in The Dakota where John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived.

One of the 16 stories I wrote in my recently published book The Freechia Brothers and Other Foolish Risks was about my day with John Madden. Kyle Ledbetter and I just taped a Red Rain podcast in which I narrate the story. Here is one little anecdote from the story:

What a character!

If you would like to hear the story here is the podcast:

Things That Stand Out About John Madden:

  1. He was always a teacher first. He had a reverence for teaching, so much so that he dedicated his life to it. More on this at the end of the list.
  2. His searing blue eyes —- from what I experienced, which still seems as vivid to me today as it was on that August afternoon in 1983, there was a ferocity and yet a warmth of kindness in John Madden’s eyes that made him so engaging and spontaneously entertaining.
  3. When John Madden said he would never do something ever again —- he meant it. When he retired from coaching at the age of 42, after 10 excellent years as head coach of the Raiders, he said that he had given his all to coaching, that he had nothing left to give and that he would never coach another day in his life. He also said that after suffering a terrifying panic attack on an airplane, he made himself a promise that if the plane landed safely, he would never fly again. From that moment the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac, John Madden spent the rest of his life traveling in cars, trains and the legendary Madden Cruiser.
  4. His communication skills were ingeniously clever. So that he could make sure his audience would fully understand him—- he often conjured up logical paradigms (syllogisms: if a=b and b=c, then a=c). For example, when CBS offered him a 6 game broadcasting trial, Madden called his agent to express his distrust of the media and football broadcasters —- so much so that he was poised to decline the offer. However, Madden’s agent warned him that if he didn’t accept the offer, then they would never call him again, so the decision to get a small taste of broadcasting was now or never —- to which Madden concluded: “so I took the offer!” His agent’s caveat resonated with Madden because of the number of times when rookies would want to quit during training camp amidst the often grueling “2 a-days” and Coach would explain to them that “if you leave now, just make sure you know that you will likely never play football again.”
  5. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” How fitting that John Madden’s extraordinary wife is named Virginia. Thus, it was very fitting that FOX decided to air the recent Madden tribute/doc on Christmas Day, because, in spirit and in gesture, John Madden was a Father Christmas figure. Yes, Madden will always be tied to American Thanksgiving lore because of his invention of the now popular “turducken” and all of the good cheer and excitement he brought to the booth during the games —- but, John Madden’s generosity of heart and his irrepressible belief in the goodness of humanity made him an apt persona to Father Christmas or, in the Dickensian sense, to the splendid Ghost of Christmas Present.

What John Madden Taught America and the World About Football and Life:

  1. His “Man-to-Man Football” coaching manual (pictured above) was an inspiration to thousands of young coaches like myself. It’s no longer in print. I am so lucky to have a rare copy.
  2. His penchant for pointing out the importance of what’s going on in the “trenches” where the offensive and defensive lines did the dirty work —- brought forth a newfound romanticism for players who rarely received any of the glory that they so richly deserve.
  3. His lectures about how to gain a nuanced understanding of football were inspiring, not only for aspiring coaches, but for generations of women who wanted to learn abut the game. In my opinion, John Madden had a lot to do (perhaps more than any one person) with why women are so deeply in love with football these days.
  4. The All-Madden Team was a major teaching lesson to America and the world —- for John Madden made the criteria clear —- he was looking for high-effort tough guys who play the game the way it should be played. Many of the players he named to his All-Madden team over the years have stated that “John Madden helped make me a better football player.” In the process, Madden made the fans better, more well-advised viewers
  5. Madden Football —- talk about teaching the nuances of the game to the general public —- early on, before Madden Football hit the market, producers and programmers wanted Madden to simplify the video game by putting 5 or 6 players on each side. Madden immediately rejected that condition—- “it’s not football, football is 11 on 11.” Plus, with all of the players earning Madden grades, the game educates the public about which players on every team are standouts and which ones have yet to fulfill their potential. The game teaches people how to be play-callers, and in doing so, it creates an understanding of how challenging play-calling actually is.
  6. Making Broadcasting the Business of Lifting People Up —- what always irked Madden was the extent to which broadcasters and football pundits threw mud on coaches and players to the point of stigmatizing them. One of the main reasons why he embraced his role as a broadcaster was his passion for lifting the players up. Man, back in 1983, when he was telling me about what it was like to coach the Raiders, you should have seen the gleam in his eyes when he talked at length about the character of QB Kenny Stabler, T Art Shell, G Gene Upshaw and WR Fred Biletnikoff. The game for John Madden was always about the relationships and the common bonds that he had with his players. The iconic photo of John Madden was taken the day his players lifted him up after winning the Super Bowl in 1977. Yet, what John Madden will always be best known for —- is how he put the players on his shoulders.

You see —- Madden’s sheer affinity for his players is an apt reason why he always dangled his game pass from one of his pant loops —- he wanted to savor the anonymity of being the guy who told his gladiators when to show up at the Colosseum —- and that he, just like the frenzied fans who bought their tickets, was there to watch the gladiators perform with titanic strength and the unbreakable will to prevail. After all, when mere mortals perform with such intrepid endurance and consummate teamwork, they have a remarkable way of bringing mankind one step closer to the gods.

RIP Coach Madden —- thank you for the life-long lift.

Here is John Madden’s breakdown of Fitz’s TD catch from Kurt Warner in the Super Bowl, which happened to be the final broadcast of John Madden’s extraordinary 500 game career.