The legendary Oakland Raider quarterback, Ken Stabler, once told me a story about John Madden when I was researching a book about Stabler’s life. In many ways, it was emblematic of who Madden was.
The story went like this. It was the late 1970s and the NFL was a vastly different game than the polished, high-tech product now. It was larger than life, full of personalities, and Madden, even then, was one of the more outsized ones. He was brilliant and funny and respected, things all immensely difficult to pull off simultaneously, but somehow Madden did, and would go on to do it once he entered the television booth.
Stabler said one of the first times he met Madden, the coach told him: You’ll get a fair shot from me. You’ll get support from me. All I care about is that you’re on time, pay attention and play hard. You can party but don’t let it get in the way of your job. You trust me, and I’ll trust you.
Madden didn’t care about dress codes. He got rid of the rule that said players can’t sit on helmets. He’d go on to win six division titles in his first seven seasons.
Stabler, the late Hall of Famer, said he’d never met a coach like Madden. “He made you want to play hard for him,” Stabler once said. “He stressed playing together as a team. He really pushed for selflessness and if you look at our teams that’s what we were. We were a true team. We weren’t a selfish one. No one cared about stats, just trying to win. That was John.”
Madden was a player’s coach and it didn’t carry the negative connotations it sometimes does. He listened and understood and cajoled and prodded and challenged. The Raiders responded to his every word. He was also respectful and, yes, kind. That wasn’t a dirty word to Madden even in the 70s.
The Raiders were Al Davis but they were also Madden. They were physical and tough. They were “17 Bob Trey O” a play they’d run over and over behind Hall of Famers Gene Upshaw and Art Shell. They were smart and took pride in being rebels and sticking their fingers in the eye of the NFL establishment.
But also, he was so much more. One generation of NFLers will say he was a genius coach who excelled at managing the game and the personalities of a generation of players who had outsized ones. Another generation will appreciate his broadcast skills where he won 16 Emmy awards and once appeared on “Saturday Night Live.” Another will say they play his video games. They are all correct. He really should be in the Hall of Fame three times.
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Madden was a coaching influence and a societal one; he understood football and the complexities of race. The Raiders were one of the few teams in the history of the league that when they said race and gender didn’t matter, it truly didn’t. Madden was a big reason why.
In the booth, his energy and “booms” were chaotic and addictive. It’s hard to put into words for people who don’t know just how must-watch Madden was. His broadcasts of NFC East games were hypnotic. If you heard Madden’s voice, you knew you were in on something special.
You were also listening and watching someone who was authentic.
The first time I met Madden it was as if I’d known him for years because he made you feel like you’d been friends for that long.
John Madden has died at the age of 85 but we all know the truth. People like Madden never really pass. They’ve had so much influence on our lives. They stay with us forever.