John Madden, exuberant face and voice of the NFL, dies at 85
By Ben Shpigel
John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach who became one of America’s most recognizable ambassadors of professional football, reaching millions, and generations, from the broadcast booth and the popular video game that bears his name, died on Tuesday. He was 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.
Madden spent his first 15 years of broadcasting at CBS, starting in 1979. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Madden and his wife had two sons, Joseph and Michael, and a number of grandchildren. Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available.
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.”