When John Madden announced his retirement from the broadcast booth last Tuesday, it was a sad day for sports. Madden’s retirement coincided with the passing of Philadelphia Phillies announcer Harry Kalas last week. In the same elite category as Howard Cosell and Vin Scully, Kalas and Madden became masters of their craft and were able to remain nationally relevant for more than 30 years, despite their contrasting broadcasting styles. However, of all the legendary broadcasters, no man contributed more to his sport than the 73-year old Madden. His co-worker, Al Michaels, called Madden “the most important figure in NFL history.” Michaels was absolutely right.
Madden’s impact on football is nothing short of astonishing. In 2006, voters enshrined him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Madden could have walked into Canton based on his coaching career alone. In 1967, he became the Oakland Raiders linebacker coach and, only two years later, at age 33, he became the youngest head coach in the American Football League (yes, he’s that old). His 10-year head coaching career included a 1976 Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders. Many, including Peter King, still say that his performance in Super Bowl XI “will survive as one of the greatest of all-time.” However, King also points out that a quick look at the NFL record books gives the best picture of Madden’s underrated coaching career. With a minimum of 100 wins, which NFL coach has the highest career winning percentage of all-time? If you answered Bill Belicheck or Vince Lombardi, sorry, no prize. The answer is John “Turducken” Madden.
Like many celebrities, Madden became a source of constant parody. His fear of flying, his plutonic love affair with Brett Farve, and his obsession with turducken (turkey stuffed with duck stuffed with chicken) made him an easy target. Comedian Frank Caliendo got a job on Fox simply because his John Madden impression was so popular.
It was sometimes difficult to look past Madden’s quirks and take the man seriously as an expert analyst. But it was these oddities that made Madden human and his humanity made him such a great commentator. He had the innate ability to make the complexities of football understandable to the common fan. On any given play, Madden could take 22 simultaneous moving parts and instantly freeze and analyze the most important of them. While hardcore NFL fans might have rolled their eyes when Madden explained an important block from a left tackle with words like “pow” or “boom,” he made it possible for my “how many points is a field goal” sister to grasp the importance of an offensive line. Explaining the intricacies of football to the fans who think “Tom Brady is hot” is no easy task but Madden always happily accepted the challenge. His enthusiastic and down-to-earth style won him 16 Emmy Awards for Outstanding Sports Analyst /Personality. Michael A. Smith put it best: “If aliens came here, we would want John Madden explaining football to them.”
Though Madden has retired from the broadcast booth, his name will still be in front of us because of the 21-year old Madden video-game series. “Madden NFL Football” is not only the best-selling sports video game of all-time but it has kept an entire generation plugged into football, cultivating countless young football fans.
The bottom line is that Madden found something he loved and made it his life. Madden’s enthusiasm for football represents the vibrant attitude each of us hopes to find for some passion. When Madden was asked if he had any doubts about his decision to retire, he said “The thing that made it hard is not because I’m second guessing: ‘Is it the right decision?’ But I enjoyed it so damn much.” That’s the kind of enthusiasm you want as the face of your sport or, for that matter, your business or your school. And that is exactly what Madden became over his 40-year football career: the face of the NFL. Star players like Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, and John Elway come and go but, while players have monstrous impacts on their franchises, none have had as long-lasting an impact as Madden. He made America his franchise, and he wanted to make the people of that franchise love football. Well, America does love football and if you want to thank one person for that, thank the passionate and turducken-loving John Madden.