There's Icons, Then There's John Madden
(originally written 1/1/22)
(All "local" radio stations mentioned are based in San Francisco, CA)
Webster's Dictionary describes an icon as a graphic symbol on a computer display screen that represents an app, an object or a function.
Uhhh...I don't think that's the type of icon I was after.
Let's carry on.
Hall-of-Fame NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died on 12/28/2021. I received the news in my kitchen, watching the crawl on NFL Network. My first reaction, my instinctual gut reaction, was: "John MADDEN died? How did THAT happen?!" I, without even realizing it, held Madden in such reverence until it didn't occur to me that he could pass away at 85 from natural causes.
Madden was absolutely one-of-a-kind, a mold-breaker if there ever was one. I didn't see his coaching career as it unfolded back in the 1960's into the 1970's (he'd gone into coaching after an injury ended his career as an NFL lineman before it really started). But I've seen the infamous clip of Madden being carried off the field by his players after winning Super Bowl XI (in January 1977) a few dozen times. I can't recall ever seeing any one human being so overwhelmed with irrepressible joy.
In my mind, the players carried him all the way down the tunnel and into the locker room for a celebration that went on for hours. Yep...that's how that ended.
As great a coach as Madden was, however, he did not reach iconic status until he entered the broadcast booth. Initially working for CBS, then FOX, then ABC and finally NBC, Madden's unmistakable voice, love and knowledge of the game and above all else, authenticity quickly won over the nation. Before long, the big fella was pitching brands ranging from Tough Actin' Tinactin to Miller beer to Ace Hardware.
And not one American would have minded at all if Madden burst through their living room wall to sing the praises of Miller Lite. Except maybe the Busch family.
John Madden worked as a broadcaster from 1979-2009, calling 11 Super Bowls for four networks.
The only way I can accurately describe the broadcasting version of John Madden is as follows: he was John Madden with a microphone. Sure, he amped things up a little in his commercials but when calling a game, Madden did not pretend to be anyone or anything other than himself. There are plenty of broadcasters who develop an on-air persona—think Dick Vitale or Harry Caray or even Jon Gruden to an extent—and that's their prerogative.
Madden was not one of them. It would not shock me at all to learn he exclaimed "BOOM!" when shutting the oven door or dropping trash in the dumpster, and just carried it over into his TV work.
Without knowing Madden personally, I've seen enough of him and heard/read enough about him to firmly doubt he was even capable of being anyone other than himself on or off the air. He never acted as if he was smarter than his partners or the viewers or anyone on the field. Just the opposite—Madden was renowned for breaking down plays, formations, etc. in such a basic way that even football novices could quickly grasp what was going on, no matter how complex it appeared.
That appealed him to everyone. EVERYONE.
When the relatively-new FOX Network acquired the rights to NFL games in 1994, no one really took notice until they plucked Madden (and his partner Pat Summerall) away from CBS. It was kind of like the old show Melrose Place—no one paid attention to it until the night viewers looked up and saw Heather Locklear in the cast. The name alone brought desperately-needed credibility for MP—and in Madden's case, for the NFL on FOX.
I remember in high school, one day some friends came by my house to play some Madden '97 (more on his legendary video game series later). These guys happened to be black, and while not militant or anything, they weren't the type of guys to typically do what a white man in his 60's told them to do without question.
Except when it came to football.
One guy kept picking his own plays and ignoring the plays suggested by the game version of Madden. He wasn't having much luck, and another guy eventually blurted out "Man, if you don't do what Madden tellin' you to do, you stupid!" The third dude laughed in agreement; I seriously doubt any other person matching Madden's description would have commanded such respect from those guys.
Madden, even in retirement, stayed up-to-date on NFL happenings. He would appear on local news radio station KCBS every Monday and Friday during football season and give his thoughts on everything from the 49ers to the pending Raiders move to Las Vegas to whatever drama Odell Beckham had going on that particular week. What I'm about to tell you, I mean sincerely: the ONLY time I didn't mind KCBS traffic reports running late is when Madden was on.
Because it meant I got to listen to John Madden speak.
Perhaps the most defining point I could make about Madden: in a world so toxic and so bereft of basic humanity, not once—not a SINGLE time—have I ever heard anyone of merit say anything negative about John Madden. Not as a sports personality or as a man. And I've tried.
Granted, if Twitter existed during Madden's heyday, keyboard warriors would drag him through the mud just to pass the time. They'd hate on him for not using his fame to single-handedly end world hunger, sexism, oppression, etc. But those are not people with merit.
It takes a special person to win over the masses the way Madden did.
Lifetime, John Madden boasted an NFL coaching record of 103-32-7 across 10 seasons (1969-78). His Raiders won Super Bowl XI (1976-77).
In his memory, EA Sports is putting him back on the cover of its latest Madden NFL game. He graced the covers of the first dozen or so editions before being replaced by a star player from the previous season; the decision to restore his image for a (presumably) final time was a no-brainer and one of the precious few decisions EA has made that I can even partially get behind.
In closing, I'd just like to repeat a story from one of his former Raiders players, George Atkinson, as told on 95.7 The Game shortly after Madden passed:
"We (were in) Kansas City. They ran the ball on us like crazy and were up by like 21 points at halftime. John normally didn't say much at halftime, but this time he had a little speech and he ended it with 'Don't worry about the horse being blind, just load the wagon! And we were all like YEAH! YEAH!"
"But here's the thing: we came back (to Oakland) and asked 'Coach, what did that mean?' And he goes 'I don't know, I just said it.'"
One of the greatest stories ever, IMHO.
P.S. With the loss of Madden, we also have likely lost the legendary impersonations of him by comedian Frank Caliendo. If you have not seen/heard Caliendo perform as Madden, get on YouTube as soon as you finish reading this blog. You won't be disappointed.
To drive this point home, understand that I would trade MANY of my possessions to have a recording of Caliendo's guest appearance on local sports talk station KNBR around Thanksgiving 2005. That morning, "Madden" dropped classic observations such as:
"If you want to be a great player, you can't be a great player...if you're not PLAYING."
"Brett Favre is amazing. Here's a guy who's 150, and he's still playing like he's 140."
"The Green Bay Packers, I mean...you look around the league, and you look around that team. Half these guys are from the Milwaukee Brewers!"
"The TUR-DUCK-EN; we're still trying to find that fourth animal...Maybe a zebra..."
I'll miss that.
I'll miss John Madden.