Sunday, August 09, 2009

Blog blast past: It's a mad, mad, mad Madden world, baby

The first Sunday night NFL game is on and it seems weird seeing Cris Collinsworth next to Al Michaels in the NBC booth. It seemed worth re-posting this, from April 16.

It's going to be tougher to enjoy a perfectly good game of football without John Madden.

Gushing over the retirement of the 73-year-old coaching, broadcasting and video game icon, not necessarily in that order, is a bit silly. Celebrating the career of John Madden is akin to a quarterback tossing the ball helplessly into the air before the blitz buries him.

His career was a triumph of commercialism and he probably lingered a little too long. At the end of the day, who cares, though? That's just a truth. A larger one is that, for Gen Xers, Madden or Madden, whether you're talking about the man or the video game, was the conduit for learning football. He's even credited with suggesting the virtual first-down line, so try imagining watching the NFL without that innovation.

The first generation that was weaned on television was occasionally described as McLuhan babies. The point today is that football-obsessives of a certain age could be called Madden babies. In a sense, this is being written by the ultimate Madden baby, since yours truly, no word of a lie, was born on the Tuesday before Madden's Oakland Raiders crushed the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl 11. Minnesota (all together now: "Damn!") has not played in the big game since, except in Madden, "the one place where the Vikings hold roughly a .996 winning percentage all-time," according to Daily Norseman.

Someone had the wisdom to position Madden as the jovial next-door neighbour, a kind of Foghorn Leghorn who knew football backwards and forwards. It helped him become ubiquitous as a commercial pitchman, but no one ever said the high priest of football commentary was required to take a vow of poverty. Please bear in mind, if you take Tony Kornheiser on Monday Night Football as the baseline, Madden still comes off as pretty good.

The point is Madden wouldn't have become as big as he was if he wasn't, deep-down, the genuine article. He was the perfect guy to bring football to the masses, since he had a special eye for seeing what all 22 players on the field were doing. He demystified a very complex game.

In his prime, he could make an exhibition game in August seem riveting just by talking enthusiastically about some rookie free agent. The player was probably going to get cut the following Thursday, but Madden could make you care about a San Diego Chargers running back named Jo Jo Jones like no one else. He sort of radiated an interest in anyone who stepped on the field (which was why he came up with the All-Madden team), not just the glamour-boy quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers.

That carried over into his style of analysis. He didn't plug the stars, or stick to story lines hammered out by producers. (How many times have you watched a NFL game where some lesser-known player does something good, and the commentator immediately goes into a spiel about his more popular teammates?) He was always good for the stream of consciousness observation, like saying, "No kid wants to grow up to be a catcher or a nosetackle," or employing pants as a verb. He never seemed to get crusty with age, either, or see himself as bigger than the game.

Madden, the ex-coach, made it known that football is the most thoroughly team sport of them all. It's meaningless unless everyone on the team is seen as important, right down to the 53rd man on a NFL roster. He had a human side that made him unique in the cutthroat pro football world, as one of his Raiders players, the defensive lineman turned author Pat Toomay, related years later when recalling how Madden stood by New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley after he was paralyzed in a game in 1978.
"It was Madden's first instinct to go to Stingley. At the hospital, Stingley had been found to have fractured vertebrae in his neck and was being fitted with a halo brace to stabilize the injury. Our physicians, thankfully, had risen to the occasion. Having overseen a safe transport, they had summoned the appropriate specialists. Experts were now at hand.

"But even at the hospital something was dissonant, out of sync. Expecting to find himself among concerned New England officials, Madden found himself alone. No one from the Patriots was there. Not the owner. Not the coach. No one.

"Grabbing a phone, Madden called the Oakland airport. Immediately, he was patched through to the New England charter, taxiing out to take off. A more-than-animated discussion followed. The plane returned to the gate. The business manager was put off.

"In the hospital, Stingley was conscious, as doctors worked to fit the halo. Having donned surgeon's garb, Madden appeared beside him, leaning close. 'Everything's going to be all right,' he whispered.

"... In the days and weeks that followed, Madden visited Stingley, if not daily, then as often as he could. During one visit, Madden discovered a malfunction in Stingley's ventilator. In summoning a nurse to fix the problem, Madden might have saved Stingley's life."
Curiously enough, two other coaching icons, Marv Levy and the late Bill Walsh, who are often credited with possessing the same traits, also cut their coaching teeth at colleges in California in the 1960s. As Toomay has written elsewhere, that was a last bastion of football being the players' game, instead a coaches' game.

In one of his books, published during the mid-1980s, Howard Cosell sniffed in one of his books that Madden had "allowed himself to become a caricature of someone bursting through the wall with a beer can in his hands." That was a small price to pay, and it's worth noting that Madden is leaving beloved, while Cosell, not to speak ill of the dead, was bitter at the end.

Madden was as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola, but a lot of people like Coca-Cola. With respect to the video game, the story that he wouldn't allow his name to be put on the game until Electronic Arts (now EA Sports) could offer full 11-on-11 play shows he was bit of an early adapter. He might not be able to articulate or explain it, but it's impossible to understate how Madden's helped a generation of guys and a few girls learn the difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 defence without having to put on the pads. People speak knowledgeably of I formations, trips right and Ace formations, not entirely because but largely thanks to the man.

In a sense, we're all a bit smarter as football fans thanks to him. It goes without saying that pausing to mull his legacy is a reflection that, as Ray Ratto at noted, we're reflecting on the end of the sports broadcaster as national institution:
"Madden broke in an era when there were three sports carriers, not hundreds. We have replaced authoritative voices with cacophony because we have democratized the airwaves, at least insofar as we now have access to every broadcast of every baseball, basketball, football, hockey and major college football and basketball game that can be reasonably found. There is not one voice, but hundreds, and most of them are, well, not Madden. They work for the teams, and you can't be a national figure that way."
It's simply different. There can't be another John Madden. He has rubbed off on countless people, and speaking as someone who spent untold hours playing the original John Madden Football on the family's Tandy back in 1990, the gratitude is all on this end.

(It's impossible to resist including a Madden ambulance montage.)

John Madden retires from broadcasting (Lisa Fernandez, San Jose Mercury News)
Only one Madden, then, now and forever (Ray Ratto,
BOOM! Madden Retires (Daily Norseman)


Salman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andrew Bucholtz said...

Good stuff, Neate. I've always been a big Madden fan; him and Al Michaels were great together and brought a lot of insight to the game. His work will be missed.

Amrit Ahluwalia said...

A) I love Madden's ability to take the geriatric tendency to say things completely unrelated to anything and pointing out the blatantly obvious -- and turn it into a successful career (that's not sarcastic, the man is a genius)

B) I love How I Met Your Mother references.

C) What're they going to call the games after he kicks it?

Tim in London said...


We diverge here. This guy brought nothing to the airwaves as an analyst of football. To me, he makes Joe Carter look great in baseball on a comparative basis. I'm glad he hit the jackpot w/ his schtick but I could never understand the appeal. I always assumed it was b/c he was aimed at the lowest common denominator and I consider myself slightly above that. His comments of "in order to improve, they have to get better", or, "the receiver found a dead spot in the zone and waited" didn't add anything to the game for me. Good riddance imo. Now, if I have missed a tongue in cheek post on your part, I stand humbled, but here are my thoughts.

sager said...


To each his own, eh?

It depends whether one is talking about the later-years Madden or how he was in the 1980s and '90s. A lot of the stuff he was part of in his first decade to decade and a half on the air (i.e., the telestrator, the All-Madden team) would be taken for granted today, but it was groundbreaking in sports broadcasting. You could argue that was more the medium than Madden, but that doesn't detract from him, necessarily.

I didn't mind Madden, at the end of the day. There will never be another one like him, either.

Anonymous said...

To Tim in London...
Remember the late Bill Walsh as a colour analyst?
As an analyst, Walsh was great coach, but was virtually unwatchable as a TV personality.
That's because he seemed to have next to zero personality, at least, what personality he had didn't translate on television.
While it's true Madden wasn't really on top of his game in his later years, he was still easily the most ENTERTAINING colour analyst out there, and that's the name of the game, entertainment.
His bombastic style at the very least could elicit a few chuckles and it lent itself to parody, which only enhanced Madden's broad appeal.
So you don't like Madden, eh Tim?
How about Boomer Esiason?
Or Dan Dierdorf?
Or, God forbid, Dennis Miller?
Those guys were neither good football analysts or entertaining.

Tim in London said...

@Anon 6:50,

Couldn't agree more on your other examples. All horrible participants in broadcasting in his own way (I think that's lack of agreement but nonetheless I'm too lazy to check my grammar). As Neate said, "to each his own". I found nothing about Madden entertaining or insightful. Watching him scribble on the telestrator was annoying. I'm glad for the guy turning blather into millions, wish it was me, but doesn't mean I think he was good at his job. I believe it's actually an NFL thing. The league is rammed down our throats as the greatest thing in the world. Week in and week out, maybe 25% of the games are entertaining, the rest are unwatchable. Unless you gamble... then things matter. As far as quality goes, yikes. Why else would anyone care about Brett Favre at this point (Sorry Neate). An average QB (now) brings a league to its knees w/ his every thought. So b/c the league is thrown at us, Madden must be great. Just listen carefully to what he says. It's nothing of value. I don't want buffoonery on my telecasts. I pointed this Madden thing out to a buddy of mine (who is a long time NFL nut) and he came around and said, "You're right. He says nothing of interest." Just saying... Thanks for listening.