How John Madden Became the Most Influential Person in NFL History
An object appeared suddenly on the field during a game between the New York Giants, and what is now the Washington Football Team. It disrupted the Giants pass play. At first the CBS play-by-play man, the late Pat Summerall, said “somebody threw a shoe.” Then the camera panned to the culprit: a pigeon waddling around the 10-yard-line. Summerall then began to tee up John Madden as he did so many other times. “How did he get in there?”
Madden ran, as he did every time, with the situation. “Well, he wanted to get down there, he couldn’t get a seat,” Madden begins, analyzing avian behavior as if the pigeon was a lineman in the trenches. Madden’s words were pitched high enough for him to express an infectious love of football. He then began to talk in the familiar, charming way. This sound was unique and has been repeated by no one since. “He tried to get up above and there was no place … the only place… that he could land was right there.”
Madden also shared his strategy for the next play. “The old thing, you can run down to the pigeon,” Madden said just before the snap, “and turn left.”
Madden unexpectedly died Tuesday, at the age of 85. America had lost a great treasure. Madden was an arguably influential figure in a sport which, more than any other, doubles as religion. “He This was football,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, in a statement that contained no empty platitudes or hyperbole, but only truth.
Madden was the most influential figure in his sport. As a coach, Madden—who led the Oakland Raiders from 1969 to 1978—never had a losing season, won a Super Bowl, and holds the highest winning percentage, 75.9%, for an NFL coach with a minimum of ten years on the sideline. His role as a commentator was to explain football, America’s most beloved sport, to millions. He took fans beyond the obvious through the squiggly lines he drew on the screen and his own personal sound effects—”Boom!” “Bam!”—that captured the sheer physicality of the game. As a video game impresario he helped connect a new generation of football fans with his Madden NFL series. It debuted in 1988 and has more than 4 billion dollars in sales.
“I always felt that John Madden was as important as any figure in the history of the National Football League,” says NBC announcer Al Michaels, who worked with Madden from 2002 to 2008 on ABC’s Monday Night Football and NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcasts. “Because he did it on the field, he did it in the booth and with his game. This helped create millions, if not millions, of fans. So when you combine all of those, show me somebody who was as important as John Madden.”
Madden is the son of an auto mechanic and grew up near San Francisco in Daly City. John Robinson, one of his close childhood friends, was a former coach of both the University of Southern California Trojans (now the Los Angeles Rams) and Madden. Madden earned a football scholarship to the University of Oregon, but didn’t play because of a knee injury. Madden ended up moving to California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly), where he was a lineman, and a catcher for the baseball team. Madden was taken by the Philadelphia Eagles at the 21st Round of 1958’s draft. However, a knee injury ended his NFL football career quickly.
After completing his college education, he began coaching. Al Davis was the Oakland Raiders’ owner and he hired him to be a linebackers coaches in 1967. At 32 years old, Madden was named head coach after being promoted two years later. Madden enjoyed popularity with his team, and they carried him out of the stadium after Super Bowl XI, a win over the Minnesota Vikings in Oakland, in 1977. “The fewer rules a coach has, the fewer there are for players to break,” Madden said.
Learn More John Madden: I’m Just a Guy
Due to a bleeding ulcer, and his strained relationships with his sons, he retired as a coach after 1978’s season. CBS appointed him in 1979. He brought new life to the station. “He made everybody better,” says former Fox Sports President Ed Goren, who worked with Madden at both Fox and as a producer at CBS. “When John arrived at CBS, the definition of a production meeting was the announcers and the producer and the director would go down to the bar and meet with the PR guy for both teams, go through the [rosters]To get the pronunciation correct, that’s all. When John came on board, it was, ‘No, we’ve got to watch film, we’ve got to break this down.’ He just pushed the whole crew.”
He was able to make stars of the most unrecognized and beefy linesmen by broadcasting them. His All-Madden team rosters, which he designed to spotlight the finest players in the NFL, became synonymous for toughness. The world was introduced to turkey-stuffed duck, then filled with chicken. They were raving about it during Thanksgiving games. Summerall and Summerall worked together for CBS and Fox between 1981 and 1993, and then at Fox until 2001. Their music was the NFL’s soundtrack. Every week, they were privy to the top NFC matchup, sometimes at the hour of 4 p.m. Eastern Time. For a generation of kids in the 1980s and early 90s, Summerall’s intonation that a Giants-Cowboys game would be followed by 60 Minutes Murder, She WroteThis signalled the end to the weekend and the start of another school week. Madden and Summerall took bets on how long Summerall could hold the pause between “Murder” and “She Wrote.”
Madden was everywhere. His exploits included a break through the wall of Miller Light advertisements and he was also the face for Ace Hardware. Madden, who was afraid of flying, traveled across the United States in the Madden Cruiser bus. It added to the attraction. “He was unbelievably observant,” says Michaels. “Part of what made John so fascinating to me was he saw parts of the country that those of us who grew up in cities, or live on either coast, don’t see. You don’t see the farmers, you don’t see the people who work in the fields in Kearney, Nebraska. John was able to traverse the country so many times, he’d connect with those people. John had great empathy for both rural and urban folk as well as those who worked hard. It was all he understood. He understood.”
Voice of the game
Madden, who called 11 Super Bowls, didn’t just lend his name to the Madden NFL game franchise. It was a tool for teaching football and Madden saw it that way. “John got involved in the inner workings of that game,” says Michaels. “Either that game was going to be what John wanted it to be, and had to be, or he was out.”
Madden was interviewed by TIME 2008 about whether he ever played the game that inspired his name. “No, no. Too old,” Madden said. “I have the game on my bus, and I horse around with it, but I get more out of it by watching other people play.”
Madden, despite his retirement from broadcasting as of 2009, remained the heart and soul of football. In a surprising turn, the man who long celebrated football’s violence with his on-air sound effects became a leading advocate for safety. During a 2014 appearance on the NFL Network ostensibly touting the NFL’s Heads Up program that teaches kids how to tackle correctly, Madden told a panel—that included Goodell—”I don’t believe in it.”
“I’m a firm believer that there’s no way that a 6-year-old should have a helmet on and learn a tackling drill,” Madden said. “There’s no way. A 7-year old or 8-year old. They’re not ready for it. Get rid of the helmets, kids.
“Start at 6 years old, 7 years old, 8 years old, 9 years old. They don’t need helmets—they can play flag football. You can learn every technique with flag football. We don’t have to begin with a 6 year old who has just been potty-trained a year before. All we need is a helmet and some tackle. It’s not clear to me. We’ll eventually get to tackling.”
He loved the NFL and even his harsh criticism of them. This was evident every Sunday when he was analyzing how the Giants would deploy Gatorade ice cups to celebrate Super Bowl XXI. “One’s going to go [Giants coach Bill] Parcells,” Madden said, drawing a line from the bucket to the sideline. “One’s going to go to another assistant. And one will go to a player, later in the game.”
Madden broke down all the different games in the game. Madden shared his experience with the NFC Championship Game 1985 between the Chicago Bears (the Rams) and how quarterbacks attempted to draw opponents offside by their cadence. They’d raise their voice on the third beat, Madden explained, even though the play began on the fourth.
“Hut. Hut. HUTTTT!,” Madden shouted, near maximum volume, into millions of living rooms and bars.
This was John Madden’s unmistakable sound, heard louder than ever and ingrained in our football brains for all time.