Health

John Madden, exuberant face and voice of the NFL, dies at 85

The National
Football League announced his death in a statement that didn’t include the
cause. He died at his home in Pleasanton, California, his agent, Sandy Montag,
said.

In his
irrepressible way, and with his distinctive voice, Madden left an imprint on
the sport on par with titans like George Halas, Paul Brown and his coaching
idol, Vince Lombardi. Madden’s influence, steeped in Everyman sensibilities and
studded with wild gesticulations and paroxysms of onomatopoeia — wham! doink!
whoosh! — made the NFL more interesting, more relevant and more fun, for over
40 years.

“John Madden
is as important as anybody in the history of football,” Al Michaels, his
broadcast partner from 2002 through 2008 with ABC and NBC, said in an interview
in 2013. “Tell me somebody who did all of the things that John did, and did
them over this long a period of time.”

Madden
retired from coaching the Oakland Raiders in 1979, at age 42 and with a Super
Bowl victory to his credit, but he turned the second act of his life into an
encore, a Rabelaisian emissary sent from the corner bar to demystify the
mysteries of football for the common fan and, in the process, revolutionize
sports broadcasting.

Rising to
prominence in an era of football commentating that hewed mostly toward a
conservative, fairly straightforward approach, Madden’s accessible parsing of
X’s and O’s added nuance and depth, and also a degree of sophistication that
delighted an audience that in some cases tuned in just for him.

Fastidious
in his preparation, Madden introduced what is now a standard exercise in the
craft — observing practices, studying game film and interviewing coaches and
players on Fridays and Saturdays. Come Sundays, he would distill that
information into bursts of animated, cogent and often prescient analysis,
diagraming plays with a Telestrator, an electronic stylus (whose scribbles and
squiggles reflected its handler’s often rumpled appearance) that showed why
which players went where.

Madden spent
his first 15 years of broadcasting at CBS, starting in 1979. There he
introduced his Thanksgiving tradition of bestowing a turducken — a turkey
stuffed with duck stuffed with chicken — to the winning team. But the three
other major networks all came to employ him because, at one point or another,
they all needed him.

Fox snagged
him in the mid-1990s to establish credibility for its fledgling sports
division. ABC followed in 2002, to boost the sagging fortunes of “Monday Night
Football.” NBC hired him when it regained football in 2006 — because, as Dick
Ebersol, then the chairman of NBC Universal Sports, said: “He’s the best
analyst in the history of sports. He’s able to cut through from people my age,
who remembered him as a coach, all the way to 12-year-olds.”

Madden
received 16 Sports Emmy Awards, including 15 for top analyst.

He parlayed
his appeal into a series of career incarnations — commercial pitchman,
successful author, video game entrepreneur — and embraced them all with zest.
He produced three New York Times bestsellers. He peddled Boom! Tough Actin’
Tinactin as an athlete’s foot remedy and broke through reams of paper (and the
odd door) in advertisements for Miller Lite. His Electronic Arts video game
evolved into a cultural phenomenon with annual midnight releases and widespread
tournaments since its inception in 1988, selling tens of millions of copies
with revenue in the billions.

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At his core,
though, Madden was a coach and by extension a teacher; as he proudly noted in
interviews, he graduated with a master’s degree in physical education, a few
credits short of a doctorate, from California Polytechnic State University in
San Luis Obispo. His unscripted manner translated as well in the Raiders’
locker room — where he guided a cast of self-styled outlaws and misfits to
eight playoff appearances in 10 seasons as head coach — as it did in living
rooms, man caves and bookstores.

“He was who
you saw on TV,” said Ted Hendricks, a Hall of Fame linebacker who played for
Madden from 1975 through 1978. “He gave us freedom, but he always had complete
control of his players.”

A Fear of
Flying

As inclusive
as he was beloved, Madden embodied a rare breed of sports personality. He could
relate to the plumber in Pennsylvania or the custodian in Kentucky — or the
cameramen on his broadcast crew — because he viewed himself, at bottom, as an
ordinary guy who just happened to know a lot about football. Grounded by an
incapacitating fear of flying, he met many of his fans while crisscrossing the
country, first in Amtrak trains and then in his Madden Cruiser, a decked-out
motor coach that was a rare luxurious concession for a man whose idea of a big
night out, as detailed in his book “One Size Doesn’t Fit All” (1988) was
wearing “a sweatsuit and sneakers to a real Mexican restaurant for nachos and a
chile Colorado.”

For more
than 20 years, that bus shepherded Madden to and from his assignments, a
fulfillment of sorts of a favorite book, “Travels with Charley,” by John
Steinbeck, who had driven around America in a camper with his poodle. When
Madden greeted family members and friends on the flight he had chartered for
them to attend his induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in
Canton, Ohio, in August 2006, it was his first time in an airplane in 27 years.

“When you
pulled up somewhere in that bus, it was like Air Force One had arrived,” said
Fred Gaudelli, who as Madden’s producer at ABC and NBC traveled with him for
seven years. “It was amazing the way people would react to that thing.”

If
contemporaries like Bud Grant and Tom Landry epitomised the archetype of coach
as sideline stoic, Madden served as their counterweight. He imparted an
iconoclastic, demonstrative presence, one that echoed the spirit of the 1970s
and the countercultural nexus of Northern California and that also suited his
team of so-called renegades. The enduring image of Madden was of his oversize
frame bounding onto the field, flouting the tenets of sideline decorum with
arms flailing, mouth racing and red hair flopping against a pink face.

Madden
ditched the dress code and encouraged individual expression, tolerating his
players’ penchant for wild nights and carousing because, he knew, they would
always give him their full effort — especially on Sundays. Unlike the
disciplinarians of his day, he imposed few rules, asking them only to listen,
to be on time and to play hard when he demanded it. Madden told The New York
Times in 1969 that “there has to be an honesty that you be yourself”; for him,
that meant treating his players as “intelligent human beings.”

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Madden, at
age 32, inherited a team in 1969 that had gone a combined 25-3 the previous two
seasons, and he maintained the Raiders’ standard of excellence. Perhaps his
greatest accomplishment was working as long as 12 years for Al Davis, the
Raiders’ irascible and Machiavellian owner — and staying close friends until
Davis’ death in 2011.

But when
Madden retired, having been pummeled by ulcers and panic attacks and what is
now regarded as burnout, he could boast of a résumé that included a Super Bowl
XI demolition of Minnesota in 1977; a .759 regular-season winning percentage
(103-32-7), best among coaches who have worked at least 100 games; and an
on-field view of some of the most controversial and memorable moments in
football history: the notorious “Heidi” game (1968), the Immaculate Reception
(1972) and the infamous Holy Roller play in 1978, his final season.

The thought
of overseeing another minicamp, another round of draft preparation, bedeviled
him. Lombardi coached for 10 years, and so would Madden.

“You travelled
around but you never saw anything,” Madden told The Washington Post in 1984.
“Everything was an airplane, a bus, a hotel, a stadium, a bus, an airplane and
back home. One day I said, ‘There has to be more to life than this.’”

Bam.

And there
was.

Working-Class
Beginnings

John Earl
Madden was born in Austin, Minnesota, on April 10, 1936, the oldest of three
children, and the only son, of Earl and Mary (Flaherty) Madden. His father was
a mechanic. When John was 6, his family moved to Daly City, California, a
working-class suburb of San Francisco whose proximity to the city offered
adventurous escapes for sports-crazed boys. With his close friend John
Robinson, who would become the head coach at Southern California and of the Los
Angeles Rams, Madden hitched trolley rides into town, then sneaked into Kezar
Stadium and Seals Stadium to watch football and baseball games.

His family
was of modest means, but Madden was resourceful. He scrounged for gear in
rummage bins and fashioned his baseball bats by taping together pieces found at
semipro games. Opportunities for minor league baseball beckoned — the Boston
Red Sox and New York Yankees expressed interest — but Madden, from his time
caddying for the well-heeled at the San Francisco Golf Club, had come to equate
success with a college education.

He bookended
an unfulfilling year at the University of Oregon with stays at two community
colleges, the College of San Mateo in California and Grays Harbor College in
Aberdeen, Washington, before transferring to Cal-Poly, where he would meet his
future wife, Virginia Fields. There his prowess on the offensive line attracted
the Philadelphia Eagles, who selected him in the 21st round of the 1958 draft.

Madden never
played for the Eagles; a serious knee injury quashed his pro prospects. But
while rehabilitating in Philadelphia he began transitioning to the next phase
of his life. Reviewing game film with Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van
Brocklin, Madden was encouraged to start thinking like a coach, and he pursued
that calling back in California, where he worked for four years at Allan
Hancock College, two as head coach, and for three years at San Diego State, as
an assistant.

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It was at
San Diego, in November 1966, that Madden first encountered Davis, a meeting
that would change the course of football history. For an hour they talked
strategy and schemes. Only much later — long after Davis had hired him in 1967
to oversee the Raiders’ linebackers and then promoted him to head coach two
years later — did Madden realize that he had in effect sat for an interview.

Their
relationship was complicated. At times it was fraught with tension and
pressure, with Madden navigating the whims of his demanding boss while
combating the perception that Davis, not he, deserved credit for the team’s
success. But Davis valued Madden’s ability to manage his players’ diverse
personalities and mold them into a cohesive — and winning — team. In 2006,
Davis introduced Madden at the Hall of Fame.

Partners in
the Booth

It seems
difficult to imagine, but when Madden first experimented with broadcasting to
satisfy his football cravings, he was stiff and uncertain, far from the
polished professional who would set the standard for future analysts; reacting
to his popularity, networks searched for the next Madden. He expected members
of his production team to know their football, and if they did not, he was
known to glance at the heavens and apologise to Lombardi and Halas for the
indiscretion.

At CBS and
Fox, his frenetic style meshed smoothly with the minimalism of Pat Summerall,
his broadcast partner of 21 years. Al Michaels later complemented him in a
different way, with an opinionated style, though not overbearingly so, and a
knack for leading Madden into stimulating discussions. Working with Madden,
Michaels said, was like “singing a song, and we had the musical notes in front
of us. Away we went.”

Their last
game together was Super Bowl XLIII, in February 2009. Two months later, Madden
left the broadcast booth, citing a desire to spend more time with his family.

Madden and
his wife had two sons, Joseph and Michael, and a number of grandchildren.
Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available.

Even in
retirement, Madden remained active in football, serving as a consultant to NFL
Commissioner Roger Goodell and on committees for player safety and competition.

For all of
his celebrity, Madden was perhaps most closely identified with his video game
franchise, which connected him to younger generations. He was fond of saying that
when many younger people met him, it became apparent to him that they knew him
from the video game, not as a Hall of Fame coach or perhaps even as an
innovative broadcaster. Not that he was complaining, necessarily: He had
fulfilled his father’s wishes.

“Once you
start work, you’re going to have to work the rest of your life,” Madden, said,
recounting Earl’s advice, in his 2006 induction speech at the Hall of Fame.
Then he added: “I have never worked a day in my life. I went from player to
coach to a broadcaster, and I am the luckiest guy in the world.”

© 2022 The
New York Times Company

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