I don’t remember when I first became aware of John Madden because he has always been a part of my life. I was born in 1982, when Madden was already a couple of years into a football broadcasting career that would span nearly thirty years before retiring after the 2008 NFL season. John Madden embodied the American Everyman. And we loved him.
He was an omnipresent part of my family just as in millions of American families. He joined us in our living rooms, a living legend of a game as uniquely American as Thanksgiving itself — becoming a mainstay of the holiday along with the turkey dinner. Before his broadcasting career he was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. His 103-32-7 record remains the best in Raiders’ history.
He was known for his passion and simple style, only having three rules for his players: “Be on time; pay attention; play like hell when I tell you to.” It was a credo that eventually led him to a Super Bowl championship win over the Minnesota Vikings in the 1976-77 season. The kid from humble beginnings born in Austin, Minn., is arguably the closest my native state might ever get to the Lombardi Trophy.
Despite his football success and fame, he remained the quintessential teacher with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. Bob Stenner, a sports broadcast producer who worked with Madden for more than 20 years, described his relatability and natural talent: “John is such a unique person. He’s very curious, and he’s a teacher, as are many coaches. That translates well to broadcasting because he could educate the fan. It was evident from the public’s reaction how much people loved John and how much they enjoyed him in the booth with Pat [Summerall]. Fans fell in love with them.”
And I learned the game along with everyone else. Growing up as the youngest and only daughter in a sports-centric family, football was an institution. Never having played the game, I didn’t have the same insight as my brothers and dad, but Madden was there with his telecaster, describing plays in detail with ubiquitous X’s and O’s, explaining terms like “Bootleg,” “Slant Route,” and “Shotgun Spread.”
He ushered me into the mind of the sometimes hapless quarterback who didn’t have the good fortune of years of playbook study, nor the vantage of a perch from the broadcast booth. He loved the game and his earnestness and depth of knowledge taught me to love the game, too.
But John Madden was more than just a walking football playbook. He was a gregarious personality whose voice commanded attention, and in my house was synonymous with the NFL, whether it was a game on Sunday or Monday night or coming from my brothers’ room as they played his eponymous video game.
His personality was magnetic, and his tenor was one of authenticity and humble self-deprecation that complimented his wide, easy smile — reaching his eyes that seemed to be brimming over with gridiron knowledge. He was a great ambassador for football and the NFL, a contrast to the stiff, milquetoast, often politically motivated NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who regularly and enthusiastically gets booed at the annual NFL draft.
Madden was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. His endearing speech reflected much of why he loved football. But it had a greater meaning: It reflected America, its good nature, humble beginnings, heartfelt determination, and striving for perfection despite human fault.
Madden said about history, “Sometimes we tend to get caught up in the players, the games now. Honor your history. Bring back the Hall of Famers. Bring back their teammates. Let the fans show their appreciation to the history.” He expressed a deep and profound appreciation for his wife and sons, and his mother and father who sacrificed to make his dreams possible.
Al Davis, the late owner of the Raiders who introduced Madden, expressed a shared passion for victory – one that transcended the politics of the time and should be a model for our current culture of racial division and unrest. “At a time when our country needed it, John Madden saw no color,” Davis said in his 2006 speech. “It was pretty tough in those days, in the ‘70s and early ’80s, to lead that fight. But the Raiders had one thing in mind: We wanted to win, and to win you had to have the best players. So, as I said, you saw no color.”
Unlike many sports personalities of today — who have traded their zeal and sports enthusiasm for a woke conformity, are dedicated to a corporate narrative instead of competition and pure athletic achievement, and make their jobs more about themselves than the game — John Madden was unabashedly football.
He never stirred controversy for controversy’s sake, and never nursed a grievance for attention. His personality fit his purpose: To talk about and analyze football and instill his love of the game into the viewers. He loved football as much as America loved him. R.I.P.