On his bus to Canton, Ohio for the 2005 Hall of Fame game, John Madden was talking about his favorite season—not spring or summer—but football season.
Sitting side-by-side in a diner-style cabin, Madden described how he woke up like a bear from hibernation as the NFL season approached. He had recently been to Chicago Bears practice at Soldier Field, which was an appetizer for a season’s meal.
“I know this sounds fake,” he said as he boarded Interstate 80, “but there’s no better smell than that grass and the smell of a baby’s head. It’s a great feeling that football is back. You’re off for six months. Then my body feels something.”
I’m not sure when I first heard of Madden. Died Tuesday at age 85, analyze a football match. But when he was on CBS in the early 1980s, he shared his hunger and enthusiasm for the sport like a newly awakened bear. His antique yet sublime approach to discussing X’s and O’s was a whirlwind of originality, with comic book sound effects (Bam! Boom! Doink!) and waves of electronic Telestrator teaching a generation how games evolve.
He had brought a coach’s chalkboard into America’s living room, and watching football would never be the same.
As a commentator and entertainer, Madden was light years better than most analysts before him; Apparently, he was looking for a completely different sport. Their predecessors in the cabin were slower at parsing a pass or run, and were rarely able to first guess games as deftly as Madden. Today’s top analysts – Cris Collinsworth (who replaced him on NBC), Tony Romo and Troy Aikman – aren’t nearly as engaging or funny.
One advantage of Madden’s highly knowledgeable, unpolished, Everyman charm was his ability to keep audiences watching or awake during a blast. Most of them were Madden – he would be unmatched by almost any other individual announcer. But her relationship with her broadcast partner, succinct ex-actor Pat Summerall, was a piece of magic. Summerall set up Madden like an expert straight guy, Bud Abbott into Madden’s Lou Costello.
The end of a conversation—after describing the basic fundamentals of a game—could be as simple as saying “yes” at both ends of a Madden monologue, Summerall says. Fans who complained that the announcers talked too much didn’t complain about Summerall’s stalemate.
Al Michaels was more talkative than Summerall and had a different chemistry with Madden, including two football doctorates on ABC’s “Monday Night Football” and NBC’s “Sunday Night Football”. students who pursue a higher level of understanding of pigskin.
“He pampered you,” Michaels said after Madden. retired in 2009. “I never had to wonder if John was informed or prepared. John can run with you on anything and keep you busy with anything.”
Many sports announcers only seem to exist when they call it a game. But Madden has created a massive football brand for himself: as a commercial master of countless products (“Do you have a hard case of athlete’s foot? Boom! Get Tinactin”); The name of the hugely popular Electronic Arts video game “Madden NFL” and the most famous bus resident since Ralph Kramden because he didn’t fly (his wife, Virginia, was a pilot and had a driver’s license).
Fans knew they could see him and chat—after all, it was pigskin Charles Kuralt—to get some food when he and his crew (two drivers, friends, his manager, maybe another analyst like Matt Millen) stopped to catch his breath at a roadside restaurant.
Food was a central motif in Madden’s world. During a trip with him to New York from a game in Pittsburgh in 1997, the menu on the bus consisted of a tangy cabbage and noodle dish, sausage and peppers. “Mmmm,” he said, inhaling the scent of his coroner smorgasbord. “The only thing that smells good is oil and sugar. Boiled tofu doesn’t smell good.”
“Anything that smells good makes you fat,” she added.
And, of course, there was the Thanksgiving turkey, which was replaced by the turducken, which is a boneless chicken stuffed into a deboned duck and stuffed into a deboned turkey. This poultry festival existed before Madden made it famous, but it seemed to have been created just to satisfy Madden’s appetite and desire to talk about food during games.
He was a physical presence dating back to his time as the Oakland Raiders’ coach: overweight, red hair uncombed, shirt partially unbuttoned, a side pass dangling from his belt loop (as if security were going to question his belonging), shouting and waving his arms. This one perfectly translated into the Miller Lite commercial campaign featuring former athletes, coaches and celebrities; In one, he crashed into the wall of a bar.
He broke our TV sets like no sportscaster did, and changed his craft so much that he wasn’t a true imitator.
A few days before Madden retired, Philadelphia Phillies voice Harry Kalas collapsed in his cabin in Nationals Park before a Phillies-Nationals game in Washington and died in a nearby hospital. I asked Madden if retiring while healthy was the way to avoid dying in a match.
“This was not one of my thoughts” he told me, “but maybe that wouldn’t be so bad after all.”