Coach, broadcaster, esports icon: Inside the legacy of John Madden


This story originally published in April. In memory of John Madden, who died on Dec. 28 at the age of 85, we are republishing this piece from those who knew him best, talking about how Madden changed the sports we watch, how we watch them and how our kids — and their kids — will learn football.

1. During the 2006 Super Bowl weekend, Madden was waiting to hear whether he’d gotten into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’d always insisted that he be considered as a coach rather than a revolutionary broadcaster, endorsement groundbreaker or esports icon. He was a coach, period, and would get in — or not — based on the strength of his 1976 Super Bowl win, his 75.9 win percentage — still highest of any coach with at least 100 victories — and the 12 Hall of Fame players he’d coached.

But he’d been eligible for 22 years already with no luck, and since all Hall of Fame inductees get a heads-up phone call before the announcement goes public, Madden began watching that year’s official announcement by telling friends in the room, “Maybe next year.”

And then, as the names and photos of the six new inductees flashed across the screen, the room saw the one they’d been hoping for: John Madden. The room exploded in shocked jubilation. Madden had never been much of a touchy-feely guy, so he tried just giving out handshakes.

But there is an image of that moment hanging in Madden’s agent’s office, and in that blurry photo, you can just barely make out the old Raiders coach smiling and enduring the rarest of Madden sights: a hug or two.

2. In 1968, Frank Cooney, a reporter at the San Francisco Examiner, approached the Raiders’ 32-year-old linebackers coach. Other staffers had been buzzing about how the former Cal Poly lineman had been forced to limp away from the game in his early 20s but was on the road to being a fantastic coach. “He’s really good at explaining things,” one coach told Cooney.

Cooney, always in search of a good quote, asked Madden, entering his second season in Oakland, if they could talk. “Only off the record,” Madden said. He didn’t want to distract from the message of the head coach, John Rauch. Cooney agreed and was struck by the conversation that ensued. Madden was as sharp as advertised. He noticed little things about players and big things about the game. Most of what he said soared way above his specific coaching obligations — the eight or so linebackers on the Oakland roster — and was more about philosophy of roster construction, playcalling, driving guys to get better. “He had halogens — there were lights on inside his head,” Cooney says now.

Cooney can remember thinking Madden could be head-coach material. Someday — probably many years down the line. Who’d hire a head coach in his early 30s, right?

Six months later, Madden, 32, was named the Raiders’ head coach.

3. In 1977, Madden walked up to his fifth-round draft pick, All-American safety Lester Hayes, and told him he would be playing cornerback as a pro. Hayes had begrudgingly switched from linebacker to safety at Texas A&M. The last thing he wanted was to get further away from hitting people. Now Madden was asking — no, telling — him to play corner. “I started bawling like a newborn baby,” Hayes says.

Hayes sobbed and begged Madden, right there on the practice field, to reconsider. He didn’t eat lunch or dinner that day, then came back for evening practice still pleading with his coach.

Madden was firm but gentle. He told Hayes he was a former Texas prep sprint champion and that would translate better to playing one-on-one with wideouts. He promised Hayes he’d still have plenty of opportunities to try to decleat ball carriers from his new position.

“There was something in his eyes that made me trust him,” Hayes says. “John has that ability to see something in people that they didn’t know existed. Thank God he saw it in me.”

Hayes won NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1980 and was on the league’s all-decade team for the ’80s. As a cornerback.

4. By 1976, after losing three straight AFC title games, the pressure started to weigh on Madden. He’d begun to put considerable weight onto his 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame, and players noticed how many bottles of Maalox that Madden was guzzling every week.

But then he broke through: The Raiders beat the Steelers, and they were going to the Super Bowl. His players loved him, though they often made fun of him behind his back for his pregame pep talks — word salads that, when carefully dissected, didn’t actually make sense. So there was great anticipation for what Madden might say before this most important game. He talked for two minutes. At one point, he said, “Don’t worry about the horse being blind, just load the wagons,” which still causes perplexed side-eyes from his old Raiders.

But his closing line was clear enough: “Gentlemen, this is going to be the single biggest event in any of your lives — as long as you win. Go get ’em.”

There was a stampede into the tunnel, and the Vikings had no chance. Oakland 32, Minnesota 14.

5. Right before his first broadcast ever, Madden was perplexed at a production meeting when the crew laid out the schedule leading up to the game. “When do we go to watch the teams practice?” he asked.

Producers explained that TV broadcast teams don’t really go to practice.

“Why not?” Madden asked. “I’m going to be talking about these guys for three hours this weekend. I want to see them up close.”

Again, they explained, that really wasn’t how things worked in the relationship between NFL teams and production crews. They told him they could get him film from TV games of the teams from earlier in the season. Madden insisted that wasn’t good enough.

Well, Madden was told, usually we sit down with PR people from both teams to get a download of both teams. That ought to work, right?

“Nope,” Madden said. “I’ll talk to the coaches.”

From that day forward, Madden’s broadcast teams went to practice, spoke directly with players and coaches, and were given the same film that coaching staffs used. Within six months, it had become standard practice for TV crews.

6. In the mid-1990s, Fox was in the middle of a pre-production meeting. Madden was on the telestrator showing the crew how he planned to break down a particular play before kickoff. He drew all over the field, mapping out what individual guys had to do on the play, and he slapped on a line where the first down was located.

“Why can’t we just keep a first-down line on the screen the whole game?” he asked.

Everybody shrugged their shoulders. Somebody said it’d be too distracting. Somebody else said the technology wouldn’t allow it. “You’re wrong — we should do it,” Madden said, shaking his head.

He let it hang in the air, and producers in the room started to wonder whether maybe Madden was right. “The yellow line is a direct descendant of that moment,” says Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks, a longtime Madden crew producer who was in the room that day.

7.1. Back in 1984, Trip Hawkins had an idea for a football video game. The founder of EA Sports requested an audience with John Madden, and got a strange reply: Yes, you can meet with John from Dec. 16-18, but it will be on an Amtrak train for three days. You will meet him in Denver and ride west.

Because of his infamous refusal to fly, Madden was traveling to his next assignment by train. “It was never the actual plane that was the problem for John,” longtime producer Bob Stenner says. “It was his claustrophobia.”

Hawkins was in. He and some developers boarded the train and met Madden in the dining car. Madden had a giant cigar in his mouth, and it stayed there for the next three days as they held what would become the most important video game meeting ever held. Madden never lit the cigar — he loved cigars, but not smoking them — so as the hours went on, the wet cigar began to disintegrate, one sloppy piece at a time. “It was like his own little pacifier,” Hawkins says now.

Hawkins warned him that the technology just wasn’t there yet for 11-on-11 football. “We can probably only get 7-on-7 to fit on screen,” Hawkins said.

Madden loved the idea of the football game, but he hated the idea of 7-on-7. “That’s not real football,” he said, waving a dismissive mitt through the air as a chunk of cigar flew off.

Hawkins warned that it could take years to build a game that squeezed 22 players on one screen.

“Then it will take years,” Madden said.

It took two years.

7.2. In 1983, EA Sports paid Dr. J and Larry Bird $25,000 apiece, plus 2.5% of sales, to put together their first basketball game. A year later, Madden asked for $100,000 and 5% of sales. He got it. “No Madden meant no game,” Hawkins says now.

Madden Football has sold north of 130 million copies since its release in 1988.

8.1. Right after the EA team met Madden for the first time, they all went back to their train cars in disbelief at Madden’s prolific deployment of swear words. “I’m not exaggerating, I think every third word out of his mouth is an F-bomb,” Hawkins says. “He is incredibly profane. That’s one of the signatures of how smart John is. To have the self-discipline to never do that on the air, it’s remarkable. He knows how to switch over to a completely different vocabulary.”

8.2. One time, the Fox production team was struggling during a game. Graphics were late. Camera angles were off. He was catching confusion in his ear. Madden hit the cough button and said, “You f—ers are missing a good game out here.”

9. Before one game in the mid-1980s, Madden had his first pregame session with a makeup artist. He was told it would help reduce glare for the camera, that it was necessary. As the makeup artist worked on him, Madden said, “You really think it’s gonna make me look better? This is like putting frosting on s—.”

10. Madden loved to ask his crew about their own athletic exploits. One day, he peppered Stenner with questions about his baseball career. Stenner had been pretty good, and he was especially proud of the way he could read fly balls off the bat and immediately get to the right spot. “Sort of like how DiMaggio used to get back,” Stenner said. He realized the mistake he had made and tried to keep going.

“Wait — did you just compare yourself to Joe DiMaggio?” Madden asked.

“Oh no, of course not, that’d be ridiculous,” Stenner said.

It’s been more than three decades, and to this day, when Stenner walks into a room, Madden says, “Hey, look everybody, it’s DiMaggio.”

11. Right before Super Bowl XXI in 1987 between the Broncos and Giants, producer Michael Frank was in charge of getting tape of both teams, so he got the broadcasts of both conference title games. Big mistake. Madden was furious — he wanted only the coaches’ film.

Somebody got ahold of the NFC title game tape, so they just needed the AFC tape. Frank was handed the unenviable task of going to the Giants’ team hotel to get a copy of the tape New York coaches were using to scout the Broncos. When he got there, he was ushered into a conference room. After a few minutes, he heard footsteps and in walked … Giants coach Bill Parcells. “You really screwed up, huh?” Parcells said.

Frank said yes, that he just needed a copy of the coaches’ film of the Broncos. Parcells sighed. “We only have one copy,” he said and just stared at Frank for a very awkward five seconds.

“You know what?” Parcells finally said. “I’d do anything for John. Take this.”

Parcells had gone 12-19-1 in his first two years in New York, and anxious Giants fans had started to call for his head. Madden spoke up consistently to say that Parcells was going to be a really good coach, that he needed time. Parcells thought it made a huge difference in keeping the temperature of his seat at a reasonable level.

So he handed Frank the film and made him vow to protect it with his life. But on his way back to the production team’s hotel, Frank started to suspect Madden had called Parcells and put him up to it. “I think maybe he was just giving me a hard time,” Frank says.

12.1 In the mid-1980s, Madden was constantly getting assignments for NFC East games, so he decided to get an apartment in New York City. He settled on The Dakota in Manhattan, and he bought Gilda Radner’s old apartment in the complex, which had become infamous after John Lennon was shot there years earlier.

Within a few years, without even trying, Madden became the complex’s mascot. The Madden Cruiser would pull up out front, and singer Roberta Flack would hustle out to get onboard for a few minutes. Sometimes Madden would hang out in the courtyard and go through notes, and on more than one occasion, Fox crew members would show up to meet with Madden and he’d be sitting with a friend and her son.

The woman would always say hello and excuse herself, and then Yoko Ono would take Sean Lennon back to their apartment so Madden could get to work.

12.2. One morning, Madden and his agent, Sandy Montag, were having breakfast in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago. As they ate, a man rolled up to their table. He had a thick British accent, and mentioned to Madden that in the U.K., they usually were limited to one NFL broadcast per week, and it rotated between the networks. “I only watch the games you do, John,” the man said.

Madden, used to fans approaching him in public, thanked him and waved goodbye. “That guy had big glasses and a big attitude,” Madden remarked after he was out of earshot. Montag had a funny look on his face.

“That was Elton John,” he said.

13. In the mid-1980s, CBS foisted a ridiculous one-week grind upon Madden: a Sunday game in Atlanta, a show in Las Vegas midweek, then back to D.C. for a Washington game on Sunday.

But no matter how hard the network tried, it couldn’t cobble together a train and car schedule for Madden. So it pulled some strings and got him set up to borrow Dolly Parton’s tour bus for a week.

He loved it. CBS loved that he loved it. The idea for the Madden Cruiser was born.

14. Early in the 1994 season, Madden became obsessed with the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Everybody who boarded the bus was asked their opinion of the case, and Madden had just had an early cellphone installed on the Cruiser. He’d call L.A. friends like Wayne Gretzky or Fred Dryer just to see what they thought of the trial.

At some point, Madden got introduced to Vincent Bugliosi, who famously prosecuted Charles Manson. Madden immediately added Bugliosi to his frequent caller list, and would dial up the bombastic ex-prosecutor every day and put him on speakerphone. “John treated that trial like a football game,” Stenner says.

Madden would pepper Bugliosi about game plans from both Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran and what actually unfolded in the courtroom. Madden was especially fired up about why Judge Lance Ito would have allowed Simpson to try on the glove while wearing another glove. “Of course it didn’t fit — he had two gloves on!” Madden said.

Bugliosi always played along. He realized what his role was: to be John Madden’s legal John Madden.

15. On Sept. 11, 2001, Peggy Fleming was giving a speech in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, when news broke of a terrorist attack. The Olympic figure skating legend finished talking at the breast cancer awareness fundraiser and went back to her hotel. She connected with her agent at IMG, who told her there was no way she was going to be able to get home to California anytime soon.

She didn’t think she could handle the cross-country drive by herself in a rental car. So for five days, she stayed in a hotel in Wilkes-Barre. Then her agent called her with a surprise: John Madden, another client at the agency, was on his way to California from New York in his Cruiser. He’d offered to pick her up.

On Sept. 17, the Cruiser pulled in. Fleming was there with her luggage, and jokingly stuck her thumb up, like a hitchhiker. The doors flew open, and Madden swung his head out. “Get in!” he yelled.

She hopped on and spent the next 52 hours watching coverage of the terrorist attacks and talking about winning a gold medal, surviving breast cancer, their families, everything. Fleming and Madden were both particularly struck by the visible signs of a unified country — flags on cars, farmers painting their barns red, white and blue, the national anthem playing at gas stations along the way. “It was such a scary, uncertain time,” she says now. “We didn’t know what the future held. But I had my big new buddy, John Madden, and it felt so safe on that bus.”

Fleming was blown away by the efficiency of the Madden Cruiser operation. Two drivers alternated for the entire trip with only occasional stops to eat or stretch their legs. They put up a curtain at night and made up the fold-out couch in the middle of the bus for Fleming, then Madden would say goodnight and head for his bedroom in the back.

“I want to earn my way on the trip,” she told Madden at one point, and she meant it. So Madden told her she could come on his weekly radio show from the Cruiser, and that he was going to get out in Nebraska and scrub the giant Cruiser windows, and she was welcome to help out. So she did both.

When they got to Omaha, Madden and Fleming grabbed a bite to eat and hit some local shops. Fleming mentioned that she wasn’t loving the current state of her hair and wished she had something to cover it up. Madden said, “Peggy, let me buy you a hat.” So she picked out a black felt cowboy hat, Madden insisted on paying for it, and she wore it the rest of the way.

A few days later, the bus pulled up in Pleasanton, and Fleming’s husband was there waiting for her. They hung out for an hour or two, but soon it was time to go. Madden shook hands with Fleming and she headed home to Los Gatos. She still puts on the cowboy hat from time to time, a reminder of an unlikely new friend. “He’ll always be my buddy,” she says.

16. In 1981, Madden and his co-host Pat Summerall began a run of 22 straight Thanksgiving football games. As a token of appreciation to the production crews, the network began putting together an annual banquet a day or two before the game, just to say thanks.

Everybody enjoyed the concept, and the first few were as good as advertised. But Madden himself was nagged by one thing: What about the refs? Members of the officiating crew also were sacrificing time away from their families to put on a football game. So early on in the run, he went to CBS with a request: Could they attend the feast? And from that day on, the refs ate, too.

17.1. In late 1996, Madden and Summerall were coming to town for a Saints broadcast. A New Orleans radio personality mentioned that somebody ought to introduce Madden to the turducken, a Louisiana-invented meat monstrosity of duck and chicken stuffed into a turkey.

Word filtered back to Madden, and sure enough, local restaurateur Glenn Mistich got a call. Madden wanted to try the turducken. At the time, Mistich was selling about 200 turduckens a year, almost all of which were purchased by locals around Thanksgiving. He jumped at the chance to expose one of the nation’s foremost TV foodies to the turducken.

He went to the Superdome before the Saints game that Sunday with a beautiful turducken — all three birds deboned, with sausage and cornbread dressing and a gravy made from the meat juices.

Just one problem: Mistich forgot to bring any plates or silverware. Somebody in the booth rounded up a couple of paper plates, but they couldn’t find any forks or knives. So Madden simply reached into the turducken and tore off a piece, then ate it with his hands.

He loved it. And as he was raving to Mistich about the turducken, Saints owner Tom Benson popped into the booth to say hello. Benson stuck out his hand, and Madden had to make a quick decision what to do with his turducken fingers. He quickly licked them and shook Benson’s hand. “That’s the last time Tom Benson ever spoke to me,” Madden once said.

17.2. Over the next few years, the turducken became the official All-Madden team food and was featured prominently every Thanksgiving by Madden and Summerall. Within a few years, Mistich had gone from selling 200 turduckens per year to shipping 6,000 annually all over the world. “I had to hire people just to deal with turducken orders,” Mistich says now.

Then, a few years ago, out of the blue, boxes of chocolate began arriving to his house every December. The note always reads, “Thanks for thinking of us all these years. John Madden.”

“John Madden changed my life, and my family’s lives, forever,” Mistich says. “And he’s sending me chocolates?”

18. When Summerall died in 2013, Madden gave a eulogy for his friend. They’d been partners for 22 years, and Madden always tells anybody who will listen that without Pat Summerall, there is no John Madden. That day, Madden told the crowd that one criterion for greatness is, Can the history of what you did be written without mentioning your name?

His voice cracked when he ran through the list of histories that cannot possibly be written without mentioning his friend, Pat — the history of college football, the NFL, the NFL on television, all the shows that he teed up during his broadcasts. “Even ‘Murder, She Wrote,'” he said.

About six minutes into the eulogy, Madden gestured toward the sky. “I know Pat’s up there saying, ‘Brevity, brevity, brevity,'” Madden said. “Well, I’m going to talk over you one more time.”

He spoke for four more minutes.

19. When Stenner checked into his first hotel room as a member of the Madden production team, his head was spinning. He’d go on to become one of Madden’s closest confidants, but at that time, he wasn’t sure how to connect with his new boss.

He knew why they were camping out in Chicago — Madden liked to park the Cruiser at a good Ritz-Carlton roughly halfway across the country as they awaited the next weekend’s assignment. But he didn’t know why the whole crew was required to stay on the 12th floor … until he left his room and went to the elevator for the first time.

There sat Madden on the hotel couch, waving him over. “Bob! How’s it going?” Stenner plopped down beside Madden, and they started talking, mostly about football. This went on for a good 20 minutes until somebody else from the crew got off the elevator. Madden said hello, and it was clear that Stenner could now leave, with the new guy replacing him on the couch.

Over the years, Stenner began to see that couch for what it was — a comfortable place for Madden to park, a warm spot in what could sometimes be a lonely life of bus rides and broadcast booths. Madden needed that couch. “You were captives,” Stenner says. “You had to stop and talk to him for a while, and everybody wanted to, anyway. He loved to just hang out and B.S.”

20. At the annual NFL owners meetings once, Madden met up for a Mexican dinner with his old friend, Hall of Fame general manager Bobby Beathard. They cared deeply about each other … but they also couldn’t do anything without turning it into a skills competition.

On this night, Madden told the server they wanted to start with chips and salsa. “Make sure it’s hot salsa,” he said. She brought out the chips, and Beathard and Madden both chowed down. The salsa was hot, but they both kept remarking to each other, “They call that hot?”

Beathard asked for salsa that had a little more kick to it, and pretty soon another bowl arrived. Madden and Beathard kept mowing through it, and kept staring at each other. Both men’s eyes were watering, and they were dabbing at their mouths with napkins and chugging water. “That was nothing,” Madden said, barely able to choke out the words. Beathard looked like he might vomit but nodded along.

“Got anything that is hotter?” Madden asked.

The woman brought out a third bowl of salsa, and everybody at the table bowed out of the silly salsa challenge-except for Madden and Beathard. The two men finished the third bowl of salsa, both red-faced and panting. Call it a tie.

21. A common theme among Madden’s friends is how good he has always been at reading people. “He’s like Sherlock Holmes, the way he could look at somebody and perfectly dissect everything about them,” says David Hill, who hired Madden at Fox.

One time, Madden leaned over and whispered into his producer Eric Shanks’ ear. “Don’t do business with that guy you were just talking to.”

“Why?” asked Shanks, who invented the RedZone channel as an executive VP at DirecTV before becoming Fox Sports CEO in 2010.

“His shoelaces aren’t tied right,” Madden said. “He’s not paying enough attention to something that could really trip him up. He cuts corners.”

To this day, before Shanks makes a deal, he likes to take a quick look at the shoelaces first.

22. One day, Madden was on the phone at his house when Richie Zyontz, a Fox producer and close friend, walked in. A friend of Madden’s wife, Virginia, had called and gotten Madden instead.

He waved hello to Zyontz, handed him the phone and headed for the bathroom. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “Her name is June. I think you’ll like each other.” Suddenly Zyontz was talking to a random woman he’d never met.

They hit it off, and when the season was over, he asked her to dinner.

Then they started dating.

Then they got engaged.

Then they got married. At John Madden’s house. The best man? John Madden.

23. Last Christmas, Zyontz went to Madden’s house. Thirty-nine years earlier, Madden had seen something in him, helping elevate him to a remarkable career and life. Zyontz will always love John Madden, even if they don’t say those words out loud to each other.

On that day, Zyontz and Madden hung out, talked football, about their families, about the good old days. It was a sweet reunion, one that Zyontz wishes he could do once a week. But it’s limited to about once a year these days, so it’s always hard for Zyontz to leave. He doesn’t want their time to end.

As he headed for the door this past Christmas, Zyontz felt a lot of emotions looking at Madden, who’s just a step slower physically but as sharp as ever mentally. He stood up and said goodbye. Madden rose from his seat, too, and Zyontz reached out his arm.

Madden slowly closed the 6 feet between the two, and stretched out his hand. They shook hands, and Madden put his palm on Zyontz’s shoulder, and Zyontz put his on Madden’s shoulder. It wasn’t a hug, but it was more than a handshake.

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