One Man, Three Hall-Worthy Careers - John Madden: 1936-2021

Hall of Famer Forever Published on : 12/28/2021

The football world today is celebrating the life of John Madden, a man whose relentless passion for the game and unique career will leave an indelible mark on the sport forever.

A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2006, Madden died Tuesday. He was 85.

Madden called his Enshrinement “the sweetest ride of them all” at a time when he was still actively changing the football landscape for fans worldwide.

Depending on one’s age, Madden is known best as the successful coach of the Oakland Raiders; or as the winner of multiple Emmy Awards as a longtime broadcaster across all four major television networks; or as the namesake, image and voice behind the “Madden” video games, an empire that has entertained millions of fans and for many served as their introduction to the sport he cherished.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Madden said in several interviews. “I’ve been in football all my life.”

Hall of Fame President Jim Porter said “the entire Pro Football Hall of Fame family mourns the passing of Coach Madden. Few, if any, have had as great an impact on the sport of professional football on so many different levels. He was first and foremost a coach. He was a coach on the field, a coach in the broadcast booth and a coach in life.

“He was dearly loved by millions of football fans worldwide. While it’s a very sad day, it’s also a day we should celebrate the life of a man who brought joy through the game of football to millions.”

Al Michaels summed up his broadcasting partner at ABC and NBC this way: “People who love and follow the game respected him greatly as a coach. He was an iconic broadcaster, and in addition to that the guy behind one of the great video games in the history of video games. John has had three careers, and they’ve all been amazing. He could have gone into a hall of fame on any one of those levels.”

Madden, who was born April 10, 1936, had none of those hall-worthy career paths in mind when he was entering the National Football League as a late draft pick (21st round, 244th player overall) of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958 after a standout career as a lineman at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. He simply wanted to play the game.

Fate intervened.

Madden suffered a knee injury in training camp. While rehabbing, he began watching game films with future Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. The chatty mentor found a receptive student with a mind for detail and thirst for knowledge. The sessions were priceless, Madden said. He called them “the greatest education I ever had,” and when his injury proved to be career-ending, a new door opened.

“Playing is the best thing. Coaching is the next-best thing,” Madden would say years later.

A teacher at heart with a degree in education, Madden entered coaching and rose through the ranks rapidly in the 1960s, from a community college in California to San Diego State, where he learned under Don Coryell, to an assistant coaching position with the Oakland Raiders by 1967. That season, the Raiders won the AFL title and reached Super Bowl II.

When the head coaching position became available after the following season, owner Al Davis selected Madden to lead the Raiders. He was the youngest head coach in pro football.

“Who the heck names a guy 32 years old as a head coach?” Madden said in his Hall of Fame Enshrinement speech. “Al Davis did.”

In Madden’s first year, the Raiders went 13-2-1 overall, losing the AFL Championship Game to the eventual World Champion Kansas City Chiefs. His teams reached the playoffs in eight of his 10 seasons, won Super Bowl XI to cap a 16-1 season in 1976 and never posted a losing record. He was the NFL coach fastest to 100 career victories, and his 75.9 winning percentage (103-32-7 regular-season record) ranks second among all coaches and first in the Modern Era.

In presenting him for enshrinement, Davis pointed out that Madden coached the Raiders in a “golden era” of NFL coaches, including Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins, Hank Stram of the Kansas City Chiefs, Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys, Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Weeb Ewbank of the New York Jets, Bud Grant of the Minnesota Vikings and Sid Gillman of the San Diego Chargers. Each is a member of the Hall of Fame. Madden’s combined career record against them: 36-16-2.

“John was a superb football coach,” said Ron Wolf, a scout for the Raiders whose own Hall of Fame career overlapped with Madden’s for eight seasons in Oakland.

Success under Madden came in part because anyone who could contribute was welcome on the team – as long as he followed the coach’s three rules: “Be on time, pay attention and play like hell when I tell you to.”

Or, as Hall of Fame tight end Dave Casper remembers it, “Suit up and shut up.”

Oakland safety George Atkinson called Madden “a player’s coach.”

“He demanded excellence from us,” Atkinson told NFL Films. “Our practices were basically harder than the games we played. He demanded perfection. He demanded that you be in shape. He demanded that you knew exactly what you were doing. … We had some characters. For him to manage us and keep us engrossed in playing football and winning, that was in and of itself a hell of a job.”

Madden wasn’t afraid to challenge his players to take on different roles or even different positions. As an example, Lester Hayes never played cornerback until Madden moved him there. He responded by later winning the 1980 Defensive Player of the Year Award and earning a spot on the All-Decade Teams of the 1980s.

“John has that ability to see something in people that they didn't know existed,” Hayes told ESPN in 2021.

Despite great regular-season records, years of frustrating defeats in the playoffs – the “Immaculate Reception” game in Pittsburgh perhaps the most memorable – began to saddle Madden with the label as someone whose teams “couldn’t win the big one.” The Raiders finally broke through in 1976 with a 16-1 overall record.

They eeked out a victory over the New England Patriots to open the playoffs, avenging their only regular-season loss, then dominated the Steelers to advance to the Super Bowl in a game Madden called one of his most satisfying. They overwhelmed the Minnesota Vikings 32-14 for the crown of world champions.

Two more winning seasons followed, but the hard-charging Madden was ready to step down after 10 years.

“I’m retiring from football coaching, and I’m never going to coach again,” he said at his news conference.

The second act

Madden didn’t intend to enter broadcasting and even spurned an initial offer from CBS. A few weeks later he relented, however, “and I found I really liked it,” he said.

Almost as much as the fans liked him.

“BOOM,” “WHAM,” “DOINK,” “turducken” and other Madden-isms entered the football-lover’s lexicon. Telestrators and whiteboards replaced the locker room chalkboard for Madden the coach-turned-broadcaster. He explained everything fans were seeing and made even blowout games entertaining.

He paired with Pat Summerall for most of his 22 seasons on CBS and on Fox, where both had moved in 1994. In 2002, Madden joined Michaels in the “Monday Night Football” booth on ABC. In 2005, NBC announced it had hired Madden and Michaels to form its team calling Sunday night games.

His first telecast for NBC: the Hall of Fame Game on the same weekend as his Enshrinement.

“He established the template for announcing,” Michaels told an interviewer. “There was only one John Madden.”

During his three-decade broadcasting career, Madden brought more than verbal innovation to the booth.

At the time, it wasn’t standard practice for production crews to talk with coaches and players or to watch practices leading up to games. Madden insisted.

The electronic line showing viewers the first down mark or the target for a team to reach to get in field goal range evolved from Madden asking, “Why can’t we …?”

In 1985, he began naming an All-Madden Team. Some were well-known players; others were unsung workhorses who played the game in a style the former coach appreciated.

In 1987, Madden – no fan or flying due to claustrophobia – adopted a converted bus tagged “The Madden Cruiser” for his cross-country travel.

Madden’s broadcasting “statistics”: 22 Thanksgiving Day games, 11 Super Bowls, 16 Emmy Awards, the 1994 NSAA National Sportscaster of the Year award and the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award in 2002.

He signed off for the last time moments after watching the Steelers defeat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

“He was a Hall of Fame football coach. He was a gigantic television star. Why? Because the bit of advice that everybody gets that's easy to say but hard to follow: Be yourself,” Bob Costas told NFL Films. “He was able to be himself … and people loved him.”

Another path to immortality

In 1984, EA Sports approached Madden about lending his expertise and voice to a new NFL football video game. Because he was so adamant “John Madden Football” be as realistic as possible, it took almost five years from idea to implementation.

One of the bigger obstacles seems mundane decades later. Game developers couldn’t fit 22 guys on the screen, and Madden wouldn’t attach his name to a game that wasn’t, in his words, “real football.”

Once launched, the game became an immediate hit and has continued to climb to new heights in popularity and in sophistication. In early 2021, the NFL’s Pro Bowl was played virtually – on “Madden NFL ’21” – with league players and other celebrities representing the AFC and NFC teams.

Madden continued to work with EA Sports to refine the video game. Throughout his later years, he also served as a safety and rules adviser for the NFL and spoke regularly with others whose roots reached into the American Football League to keep alive its legacy and to promote players he felt were overlooked for Hall of Fame consideration.

He always spoke candidly. He knew no other way.

“Nothing is worse than a phony,” he once said. “If you’re going to have longevity, you’d better be yourself. And you’d better be yourself every doggone day.”

Longevity and Madden seem synonymous. Hall of Fame coaching career, 30-year broadcasting career and generations of gamers who will keep the Madden name alive for many more decades attest to his staying power.

“Time never really stops for the great ones,” Davis said of Madden in presenting him for enshrinement at the Hall of Fame. “We wrap them in a cloak of immortality and remember what great people they were.”

Delivering a eulogy at the funeral of his dear friend Summerall, Madden said one criterion for greatness is, “Can the history of what you did be written without mentioning your name?”

Neither the history of football, nor broadcasting, nor gaming can be told without saying the name “Madden.” That legacy will be preserved forever in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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