Today, Raider Nation mourns the loss of an icon, a man synonymous with the game of football, a man symbolic of the Raiders organization as much as Al Davis and the nameless eye-patched man on the Raider shield. John Madden has left us to call the great football game in the sky, and he has left behind an example of what a life well lived looks like, an uncompromising and authentic life. You may find people who dislike the Raiders and people who dislike Al Davis, but you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who dislikes Madden.
Madden first played college football at the University of Oregon, but left after a knee injury and operation, and also because it rained too much in Eugene and he did not own a car. He ended up playing at Cal Poly, earning a Master’s in education, and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958. Another knee injury ended his playing days, but he couldn’t take himself out of the game, so he went into coaching. While rehabbing his injury with the Eagles, Madden watched film with quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, who was one of the best players of his day and would go on later to coach the Atlanta Falcons. Madden soaked up as much knowledge as possible from Van Brocklin, and by 1963, he was a defensive coach at San Diego State under future legendary Chargers coach Don Coryell.
His start with the Raiders…
Davis hired him as linebackers coach for the Raiders in 1967, and the team went on to lose Super Bowl II to the Green Bay Packers. A year later, Raiders head coach John Rauch left to coach the Buffalo Bills, and Davis was unsuccessful in luring Chuck Noll to coach in Oakland, as he was scooped up by the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he coached for decades. Davis instead turned to the 32-year-old Madden as head coach, which was one of the best decisions Davis ever made.
An older coach might have tried to force the miscreant Raiders to shape up or ship out, to conform to the idea of what the NFL wanted from a model franchise. But Madden had many principles, chief amongst them being to always “be yourself.” He knew who those Raiders were, and he encouraged them to be nothing less than that. He had three rules for his teams: be on time, pay attention, and play like hell when he told you to. There was no sanctimonious nonsense about hair length or wearing suits on the team plane, because as Madden expressed, when did a rule like that ever win a game? This philosophy fit right in with Davis’ famous words, “Just Win, baby.”
And oh, did Madden’s teams win games. Until his final coaching year in 1978, Madden’s Raiders never lost more than four games in a season, finishing either first or second in their division every single year he coached. Madden faced plenty of adversity in the playoffs, being unable to get past Noll’s Steelers in 1972, 1974, and 1975.
His team fell victim to the Immaculate Reception, and Madden was known to tell the story that after Franco Harris romped into the end zone, the referees on the field made a phone call to the league. This phone call was not to determine whether the play was legal, but to see whether the refs could get a helicopter to remove them from the stadium and save them from the violent wrath of the Steeler fans present if they called the play in the Raiders’ favor. The answer was no, and thus the play stood.
In 1976, the Raiders went 13-1 and demolished the Vikings in Super Bowl 11. This win was the culmination of Madden’s efforts and cemented his legacy as one of the greatest coaches of all time. Two years later, Madden retired from coaching, citing burnout and stomach ulcers. Many coaches put in ridiculous hours, sacrificing their health and family for the love of the game.
Moving on from coaching…
However, Madden was true to himself, and as usual, he did not do anything he did not want to do. When he was done, he was done, and that was that. Madden might sacrifice himself to the game he loved, but he would not sacrifice his family to it as well. And so, he walked off the field and into the broadcast booth, where he continued his legacy of excellence, becoming the greatest football commentator the game has ever seen, with his outlandish demeanor and insightful breakdowns of the games with his yellow Telestrator pen, endearing him to fans.
Madden was notoriously afraid of flying in airplanes, and so he traveled to each game he called by train and, starting in 1987, by bus, which was dubbed the Madden Cruiser. For that very reason, Madden never called the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. But Madden did call plenty of Thanksgiving Day games, beginning the tradition of having the game’s MVP eat a turkey leg after the game. One year, Madden lamented that he wished there was a six-legged turkey so the entire Cowboys offensive line could partake at once.
The next year, a man in Texas invented just such a thing, because when Madden wishes something into existence, someone will think highly enough of him to make it. Madden also made the Turducken famous in 1996 after its creator brought one to the New Orleans Superdome in December 1996, and Madden ate it before the game and raved about it on air.
The face of EA
Starting in 1988, Madden was the face of EA’s John Madden Football, a franchise that continues to this day. At the time, football games such as Tecmo Bowl or 10-Yard Fight were at the peak of technology, but those games were made by Japanese developers with limited knowledge of American football, who simply wanted the games to be fun.
But Madden insisted on making his game into something more, something that players could use to learn the game of football. Madden’s background in coaching and teaching spurred him to use the game bearing his likeness to be something that would inspire a love of football and develop an understanding of its principles. Today, many football fans know what Cover 2, Cover 3, and Cover 6 are, just because of the Madden game. Gamers may play MLB The Show 21, or NHL 22, or FIFA 22, but nobody plays NFL 22. They play Madden 22.
Madden symbolizes Raider Nation because he never tried to be anything he wasn’t, and he never did anything he didn’t want to do, and he won anyway, despite life getting in the way and throwing all manner of obstacles at him. The Raiders are rough around the edges; they are not a glamorous corporate monolith that plays by the rules. They are the red-headed stepchild of the NFL, the ones that get demonstrably screwed by the league on a regular basis. But the Raiders are champions because Madden made them champions. And that is his legacy: be real, be authentic, be yourself, and you will be a champion as well.
*Top Photo: Associated Press