John Madden–Simply the very best

After four decades, John Madden is retiring from the game of football.

No, this is not life and death. Yet for a leatherhead like myself, it feels like it.

Football is not about cheerleaders, parties, or even gambling, although they are all part of the game. Football in its truest and purest form is about Xs and Os. Nobody understood Xs and Os better than John Madden.,0,3046804.column,_wont_soon_(ever)_be_replaced

He insists that his health is fine, yet I keep referring to him in the past tense.

Too many times we wait until it is too late. So while John Madden is alive and healthy, I will proclaim that he was the best color commentator in the history of football.

One of my favorite Madden moments came in 2006 at his (long overdue) induction ceremony into the NFL Hall of Fame. I was in Canton, Ohio, for the festivities. John Madden began his speech overcome by emotion, saying, “I don’t plan on making a heckuva lot of sense, and I don’t care.” The crowd went wild.–nCJiyrA4

So forgive me if my hyperbole is tribute is disjointed. I love John Madden, and am overcome by emotion. So in praising him, I don’t plan on making a heckuva lot of sense, and I don’t care.”

He started out as a football player. He has often said that if you play one game of football, your life will never be the same. In the first quarter of his first professional game, he blew out his knee. One minute he is on his way to being a star offensive lineman, and the next minute his career as a player was over. Football was his life. He had to stay in the game somehow. He was hired to be an assistant coach with the Oakland Raiders. Two years later in 1969, Renegade Owner Al Davis shocked the football world by hiring the then 32 year old Madden to coach what was already an elite franchise.

John Madden was one of the best football coaches of all time. In 10 years, the Raiders went 103-32. Madden had a better winning percentage than Vince Lombardi. Madden’s Raiders reached the AFC Title Game six times. Some of the greatest games in NFL history were played with Madden prowling the sidelines for the Silver and Black.

In 1972, the big story was the Miami Dolphins having the only perfect Season at 17-0. Yet the playoff game between the Raiders and Steelers featured what became known as the “Immaculate Reception.” A 7-6 Raiders victory became a shocking 13-7 Steelers win.

John Madden has said that the immaculate reception will bother him until the day he dies. He claims that the official went to the sidelines, called the Pittsburgh Police Department, and asked them how many officers they could spare if he disallowed the touchdown and handed the Raiders the victory. When told only six officers could be spared, the officer asked if the police department meant 600 or 6,000. When told that the number was six, the official raised his hands and exclaimed for the home team, “Six for Pittsburgh!”

While there has always been a theory that the officials hated the Raiders because of the Commissioner’s war with Raiders Owner Al Davis, John Madden did get to witness some miracle finishes where the Raiders came out on top.

The 1973 Raiders got revenge against the Steelers by thrashing them in the playoffs 33-14. That season saw them defeat the Dolphins 14-10 in the second week of the season. That snapped the then record 18 game winning streak. Although Miami did not go unbeaten again, they did win the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year. The Raiders did fall to the Dolphins in the AFC Title Game 27-10. Miami had too much firepower in the rematch.

1974 was probably the most exhilarating and heartbreaking season for Madden. They began the season by beating the Steelers 17-0 in Pittsburgh. They finished with the best record in the NFL at 12-2. They played the two time defending Dolphins in the divisional playoffs. Yet this time the game was in Oakland.

The Dolphins ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown to lead 7-0. A see-saw game had the Dolphins leading 26-21 with seconds remaining. The Raiders had one last chance, and veteran quarterback Ken Stabler went over to discuss options with Madden. Madden was his typical excitable self. As he describes it, he was rambling at Stabler, “Should we run? Should we pass? What should we call? What what what?”

Stabler just looked at Madden and said, “Coach, these people are sure getting their money’s worth.”

Stabler ran back on the field, nearly got sacked, and as he was going down, threw a miracle touchdown to Clarence Davis. Davis ripped the ball from three Miami defenders in what became known as the “Sea of Hands” catch. The Raiders had won 28-26.

For the third straight year, the Steelers and Raiders faced off in the playoffs, although this was for a trip to the Super Bowl. The Raiders led 10-3 after three quarters, but they collapsed in the fourth quarter. The Steelers won 24-13.

More painful than losing that game was the quiet whispering that John Madden “could not win the big one.” Five times the Raiders made it to the AFC Title Game, and in those games they were 0-4. While the first three games were on the road, this was a home loss. Even worse, they led with one quarter to play. They were underdogs in previous years. This year the favorite had blown it.

Madden stayed the course, and in 1975 the Raiders and Steelers again met in the AFC Title Game. This time the game was in Pittsburgh, and the field was a block of ice. The Steelers led 3-0 after three quarters in a  game where nobody could move. The offenses got going in the fourth quarter, and on the last play of the game, Stabler threw a Hail Mary with the Raiders trailing 16-10. The ball was caught, but the receiver was dragged out of bounds at the five yard line. Five yards separated a trip to the Super Bowl from another tough loss. Madden was 0-5 in AFC Title Games.

In 1976, the Raiders finally broke through. In the opening week, the Raiders trailed the Steelers in Oakland 28-14 with 5 minutes remaining. A furious rally had the Raiders win 31-28 on the final play of the game.

Yet the true essence of John Madden came in the last game o the 1976 season, in a Monday Night Football game against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Raiders had locked up home field throughout playoffs. Madden could have rested his starters. Had the Raiders won this final “meaningless” game, the Bengals would be out of the playoffs. Yet had the Raiders lost, the Bengals would be in the playoffs, and the two time defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers would be out of the playoffs.

Broadcasters around the country, particularly in Pittsburgh, maintained that the Raiders were afraid of the Steelers. The Raiders were going to purposely lose the game to keep Pittsburgh out of the playoffs.

This enraged Madden. His Raiders had always been accused of cheating. They were considered the dirtiest team in professional sports. Yet every accusation against Madden and the Raiders was that they would do whatever it took, even if it meant breaking the rules, in order to win. Now they were being accused of purposely losing. John Madden made it clear that his players may have bent the rules, but nobody on that team, including him, ever cheated the game of football itself.

Madden wanted to play Pittsburgh. He didn’t want people to say that the Raiders got lucky. The Raiders began by thrashing the Bengals, knocking them out of the playoffs and getting the Steelers in. The Oakland fans began chanting “We want Pittsburgh.”

The team barreled through a 13-1 season. Yet before playing Pittsburgh, they had a playoff game that they would not overlook. In the divisional playoffs, they faced the only team that had beaten them that year, the New England Patriots. The Patriots destroyed the Raiders 48-17 in Oakland. The rematch had the Patriots leading 21-10 in the third quarter. The Raiders fought back, and late in the game they benefited from a controversial late hit of Ken Stabler by Sugar Bear Hamilton. The personal foul kept the last Oakland Drive alive. With only 10 seconds remaining, Staber himself snuck over from one yard out to give the Raiders a heart stopping 24-21 win. New England would get revenge exactly 25 years later.

The Raiders then faced the Steelers for the fifth straight year in the playoffs, and the third straight year in the AFC Title Game. The game was not close. The Raiders battered the Steelers 24-7. The Super Bowl was almost an afterthought, but Madden had the Raiders prepared. They thrashed the Minnesota Vikings 32-14, and Madden was finally a Super Bowl champion. The Super Bowl rings had the score of 24-7 instead of 32-14, since the Raiders knew that beating Pittsburgh meant crushing their archenemy.

Some teams get complacent after a Superbowl win. The Raiders came out wanting to repeat. The 1977 Raiders reached the AFC Title game for the fifth consecutive season. The Oakland Raiders to this day are the only team to ever do this. John Madden is the only coach to ever do this. The Raiders had lost only eight regular season games in the previous four years combined, going 12-2, 12-2, 13-1, and 11-3.

The division rival Denver Broncos had the home field, and again a controversial call robbed the Raiders. The Broncos fumbled at the one yard line, and replays clearly showed the ball coming out. The play was ruled a touchdown, and the Broncos prevailed 20-17.

The 1978 season began as insanely as any other season in Raiderland. In the second game of the season, trailing 20-14 against the Chargers in San Diego, the Raiders pulled out a miracle. A sack of Stabler caused a fumble was batted and kicked forward 24 yards by two different players into the end zone for a ridiculous touchdown. The Raiders won 21-20 in the game that is now known as the “Holy Roller.”

Bill King exclaimed it best during the Holy Roller.

“The Oakland Raiders have scored on the most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play! Madden is on the field! He wants to know if it’s real! They say yes! Get your big butt out of here! He does! Nothing is real in the world anymore! The Oakland Raiders have won the football game! 52,000 people minus a few lonely Raider fans are stunned! The Chargers are staring at the sky! They don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I don’t even think the Raiders believe it! This one will go down in the history books and be relived forever, bitterly in San Diego, and Joyfully in Oakland!”

Rumors that have never been substantiated have this as the only game where a coach got into it with an opposing team’s mascot. Yet analysis of the tape shows that John Madden and the San Diego Chicken were not on the same sideline. Their reactions were on opposite sidelines. Madden could have taken that chicken and made him one leg of his later to be famous “turducken.”

Yet the roller coaster ride that was the NFL took its toll on Madden. He developed an intense fear of flying. He would get ill before, during, and after games. After the 1978 season, the team finished 9-7, missing the playoffs altogether. The losses bothered Madden, but the flying bothered him more. He offered his resignation, but Al Davis refused it. He told Madden to take an entire week to think about it. Madden did, but after the week, he declared himself retired from coaching.

Madden, as he had over a decade ago, faced a decision that terrifies people everywhere. What was he going to do next? He still loved football. He could not tear himself away. He took a job as an announcer at CBS, and teamed up with Pat Summerall. They became inseparable, as the words “Madden” and “Summerall” blended together.

This is what makes John Madden so special. He went from coaching, to where he was one of the best, to announcing as a color commentator, and becoming the very best that ever did it.

Fans loved him because he really did come across as the guy sitting next to you at the bar. Madden is often described as “blue collar.” Yes, his last contract paid him seven million dollars per year. It didn’t matter. John Madden really was blue collar. He was that guy sitting in the bar, with one exception. He knew what he was talking about. He knew the game cold, inside and out. He presented it in a fun way.

Yes, there was the time when he asked Summerall whether a centimeter was bigger or smaller than a millimeter. Yet people were not fooled, and Madden was no fool. Beneath the Batman language of “Whap! Boom! Bam!” was a man who could explain Xs and Os better than anybody.

He also made the NFL watchable when the game itself was out of hand. Uncompetitive games still maintained ratings so that people could see what Madden would talk about next. In 1986, when the New York Giants defensive stars, led by Harry Carson and Lawrence Taylor, began dumping the Gatorade bucket on never satisfied coach Bill Parcells, Madden realized a new tradition had been born. He used the telestrator to illustrate how a proper Gatorade dumping is done. He pointed to various buckets, and pointed out the “Momma Bucket, Poppa Bucket, and Baby Bucket.” He showed what angle makes for the best Gatorade dumping, and how you have to get the entire head, not just the back. During the Super Bowl, he showed winning coach Parcells looking around nervously to see where his top players were. Madden made it fun when he showed the path that they took to finally douse him.

Yet Madden was no clown. He would also use his telestrator to show things that nobody else would see. When other announcers were focusing on a quarterback sack, Madden would point out the missed blocking assignment. When Others pointed out a spectacular touchdown pass and catch, Madden would note the blocking scheme that gave the quarterback an extra split second of protection. Madden’s ever so brief career as a lineman gave him an extra appreciation for the “mudders,” “grunters,” and “guys in the trenches.”

Madden recognized the everyman players that others overlooked. When he declared a player to be “All Madden,” it meant they had blood and mud on their shirt, but were still playing hard. NFL Players took great pride in being named to his All Madden Team. True to his character, Madden even has in his backyard the blocking device that offensive lineman practice on when pile-driving forward on run blocks.

Madden’s blue collar likability allowed him to become a successful commercial pitchman. In the 1980s, Madden, Bob Eucker, and Rodney Dangerfield made legendary commercials for Miller Lite Beer. The commercials would end with John Madden bursting through a brick wall. Sales of Miller Lite skyrocketed during what should be described as the golden era of beer commercials. He eventually became satirized with affection by Frank Caliendo.

Madden also was one of the few people that still retained influence with Al Davis, who kept his inner circle small and secretive. It was Madden who played a major role in 1995 and getting Al Davis to “return the Raiders home” to Oakland after a brief sojourn in Los Angeles. Los Angeles was the entertainment capital of the world, but Oakland had the Raiders. Once again John Madden came through.

Yet even as Madden was aging, he managed to reach an entirely new generation when Electronic Arts featured him for their sports football video game. On Sega Genesis, I still remember playing Madden ’93 and hearing his voice saying “speed kills” after a wide receiver caught a touchdown or “He’ll remember that number” after a hard defensive hit.

Madden Football has gone on to become the top selling video sports game of all time. Every year he refines it. Now there are instant replays, slow motion viewings from several angles, fantasy drafts, player injuries, and more wisdom in the form of many famous Madden phrases.

Yet to me John Madden will always be the guy at the 2006 Hall of Fame Induction Weekend. I was probably five feet from him, but the fans were not allowed to get too close to the inductees. Asking for autographs was not allowed, but pictures were allowed with all players except the inductees. I understand that we live in a post 9/11 world, and safety comes first. I still hope that one day I get to shake his hand and thank him for providing so much joy on so many Sundays to so many people.

Whether it was his Thanksgiving celebration of the turducken, a bird that is part turkey, part duck, and part chicken, his yelling on the sidelines and running onto the field to “talk to” an official, or his finding marvel and wonder in every aspect of what others appeared to be a routine four yard gain, John Madden presented it as only he could.

He should have been in the Hall of Fame earlier, but some criticized the fact that he won “only one” Super Bowl. I suspect the voters just assumed incorrectly that he had already been enshrined twenty years earlier.

He eventually joined Al Michaels on Monday Night Football to combine the best play by play guy with the best color commentator. The pairing worked. Monday Night Football, which had fallen on hard times, was revitalized. The pair then moved to Sunday Night Football, and revitalized that as well with the help of better games.

After being the color commentator in a thrilling Super Bowl to end the 2008 season, John Madden took some time to reflect and then finally decided to retire. Like Al Davis 30 years ago, NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol tried to get Madden to reconsider. Ebersol even offered Madden the right to work two of the four football months and take alternate months off. Madden declined. Ebersol flew to Madden’s home, but after 11 hours, accepted the inevitable. John Madden had retired as an announcer.

At age 73, he repeatedly insists that his health is fine. He and his wife will celebrate their golden wedding anniversary later this year. He wants to spend time with his grandchildren.

As a Raider fan, I feel like the Silver and black let John Madden down. Had the Raiders (and 49ers) been better football teams, they would have gotten enough games on Sunday nights to allow Madden to stay near his family for some football weeks. Instead, Madden would have had to be traveling every week this season. Since he is afraid to fly, his Madden Cruiser bus would have kept him away from home for several months.He is not an 18 year old leaving for Iraq or Afghanistan. He is a 73 year old man who has given his life for the game he loves, and now he is walking away on his terms. He served us honorably for decades, and like the five star general of football that he is, he enjoys to enjoy his retirement.

During his 2006 induction speech, he mentioned that his father had advised him not to work when he was in college. He would have his whole life to work, and that he should enjoy his youth. He became a football player, a football coach, a football announcer, and a football video game entrepreneur. He even authored the book, “Hey! I’m Talking Football!” The book was not even about him. It was about football. Whether out of humility or other reasons, writing an autobiography was less desirable to him than simply writing about the game that defined his life. He always knew that the game of football was bigger than him, even if his legions of fans may disagree.

After describing his entire life, he exclaimed that in his entire life, “I’ve never worked. I never had to go to work.”

In describing his childhood, he said, “Life with me was a locker room, and every day was recess.

No matter how tough my ordinary life can be at times, Sunday was always recess. Sometimes recess even extended to Monday nights. John Madden took the toughest day of the work week and helped make it the best day of the week.

Sundays and Monday nights will still exist, and football will still be played. However, there will never be another like John Madden.

He was simply the very best.


5 Responses to “John Madden–Simply the very best”

  1. Great post. Man, am I going to miss Madden. The NFL has suffered a great loss with his retirement. I am hugely disappointed with the selection of Collinsworth to replace Madden. I guess they figured only the anti-Madden could do it, because Lord knows no one can replace the man himself, but I wish they could have picked someone who isn’t such a %$#@. But now’s not the time for that. It’s time to rejoice in the memory of professional football’s Madden years. Then there’s the definitive sport video games – the Madden football series. I’ve played almost every one of those games since they came out. As with John Madden himself, the games were the standard of excellence in sports and entertainment. I hope they keep making them forever.

    Good luck John! We’ll miss you!


  2. Toma says:

    I echo JMJ, great post. It’s such a relief to reflect on some thing other than the horror of politics.

    John Madden is a legend and a legend can never be replaced.

    “Hey, I Wrote a Book” another of John’s literary works. Informative and funny as is the man.

    Welcome to the Oakland Raiders, “There are two rules, don’t be late for practice and don’t be late for a game”.

    Madden coached the meanest, unruliest, non-conforming bunch of outlaws the NFL has ever produced. The Raiders collected the outcasts of league and John Madden brought them together and molded a unit that believed in each other and fought for each other like no other team in the history of the NFL. But they were smart and knew football, just like their coach. Kenny Stabler was a Field General, he called most of the plays based on what his team mates told him they could do. They were very good.

    I remember a Monday night game years ago, I don’t know who they were playing and don’t remember the year. Don Merridith was commenting on some of the Raider players as the camera pictured each one and telling the audience what university each attended and the other teams they had tried to play for but was cut or discharged for one reason or another. When suddenly the camera panned onto Otis Sistrunk. The night was very cool and steam was streaming off of Otis’s head which was sporting a Mohawk hair cut in the shape of an arrow. It was amazing at the time. Don’s comment, ” Ladies and gentlemen, Meet Otis Sistrunk from the university of, (slight pause) Mars.”

    I could go on and on, so many memories and so thankful I had the oportunity to watch Raider Football and enjoy part of John Madden’s life. I hope he writes another book.


  3. […] John Madden–Simply the very best | THE TYGRRRR EXPRESSIn 1972, the big story was the Miami Dolphins having the only perfect Season at 17-0. Yet the playoff game between the Raiders and Steelers featured what became known as the “Immaculate Reception.” A 7-6 Raiders victory became a … […]

  4. egreenking says:

    Well written Eric. I have a VHS game of a Thanksgiving day game between the Packers & Lions in 1987, and I *think* that’s the year he started giving out parts of the turkeys to the game MVPs. Subtle genius. Seemed like he was beginning to lose it after he lost Summerall, but like a veteran with some remaining spark, his last couple of years with Michaels were strong. It won’t be the same, but all good things end.

    And IMO Collinsworth is a worthy replacement, and one of the better color guys out there – he’s just very different from Madden. Although I’ll admit on Madden 2009 Madden doesn’t do any color commentary…and Collinsworth did. Obviously a harbinger.

    Cheers Mr. Madden, you will be missed! Boom!!

  5. […] John Madden–Simply the very best | THE TYGRRRR EXPRESSHad the Raiders won this final “meaningless” game, the Bengals would be out of the playoffs. Yet had the Raiders lost, the Bengals would be in the playoffs, and the two time defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers would be out of the … […]

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