John Madden is the best TV NFL expert-analyst of all time.
That probably doesn’t come as a shock to many. I realize opinions concerning anyone in broadcasting is purely subjective, but I have yet to hear anyone offer a dissent.
I knew Madden, worked with him for a game as many of us play-by-play announcers did in his rookie year behind the mike, but had an opportunity to really get to see what made this icon click in later years.
We were close enough friends that we would talk at least four times a week, have dinner at least once a week when he was staying at his west side New York co-op.
John used his residence there whenever he was assigned games involving NFC East teams. We would watch Monday Night Football along with a few other of his friends when he was in town.
Madden worked at CBS and later at Fox for most of his on-air career and finished at ABC working alongside Al Michaels, to me, the best at what he still does, on Sunday Nighttelecasts.
John was not without his issues. Many people know that he had a fear of flying in airplanes. I cannot say for sure, but I believe I worked his last game in which he flew to an assignment. It was a game in Tampa, and he had to make a stop in Houston on his way to his primary home in Pleasanton, California in the Oakland area.
From what I vaguely recall, John, who was claustrophobic got off the first leg from Tampa to Houston and never got on another aircraft.
He spent the rest of career, first riding trains, then acquiring his own bus, called the Maddencruiser. The bus had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a large screen to view tapes of games and two drivers who would roll through the highways, byways, and farms of America day and night.
It became a signature feature of a man who combined knowledge of the game of football, along with a persona which attracted him to viewers and a one-of-a-kind presenter who transcended all who came before him and who have come after him.
His key was that he was an educator, who could cut through the complicated X’s and O’s of football and make it easily understandable to the average fan.
He would repeat themes throughout a broadcast so that those watching would eventually nod in agreement and understanding.
It was a rare talent.
What I always considered amazing about Madden was his ability to make a game that was a rout sound interesting. I know he raised his level of enthusiasm whenever a game was a blowout. That’s when you would see the best of John Madden.
He worked with a stellar technical and production crew that would spend the hours before a game seeking unusual shots for use during the game. The cameramen were constantly on the look-out for pictures that had nothing to do with the action on the field, but were amusing sidelights to the game itself.
I remember one time during a Vikings-Giants playoff game at Giants Stadium when a camera operator found a sideline assistant passing out Gatorade to Vikings near the bench. Madden noticed that there was a tray filled with cups of the beverage, but that in handing out the cups to players, the assistant put his thumb in every cup he handed out. John noticed, and was hilarious in his commentary about cleanliness and how the Gatorade must taste. That’s just one example. If a band was performing at halftime, he would notice them gathering in the end zone, always discovering one of them perhaps sitting alone , or maybe even dozing off.
He rose to the occasion when the game had lost its luster.
John was no shrinking violet. He loved to mix with adoring fans. In New York City he would walk around Columbus Circle every day almost inviting those walking the same streets to yell out his name, shake his hand and take notice, of arguably, the greatest star ever to grace the screen in sports television.
When Madden worked games in the Midwest, his base would be a Chicago hotel.
It was one in which you needed to take an elevator which went straight to the 12th floor where guests would check-in. There was a bench just off the elevator on the way to the front desk. John would spend hours sitting on that bench. You couldn’t miss him when you got off the elevator, and that suited Madden just fine.
He loved the annual Thanksgiving Day game, and on the bus, he had his favorite specialty prepared. It was a Terducken. Turkey, duck and chicken rolled into one. It had something like six legs and it would appear for carving after the game for everyone to see and for the players of the game to enjoy.
One of the highlights of my broadcasting career has been to get to know John Madden, and to see first-hand, what made him such a unique talent on the air, and a fascinating figure off the air.