John Madden died Tuesday at 85. The passing of the exuberant, Hall of Fame former Oakland Raiders coach who retired that post after a decade and then became a broadcast-booth legend, a popular pitchman and later the wildly successful Madden NFL video game franchise, was announced by the National Football League, which said he died unexpectedly Tuesday morning. If you were a football watcher when Madden worked a game, you might agree there will never be another like him.
“Nobody loved football more than Coach,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday. “He was football. He was an incredible sounding board to me and so many others. There will never be another John Madden, and we will be forever indebted to him for all he did to make football and the NFL what it is today.”
His death came close on the heels of Fox Sports premiering the documentary All Madden. Released on Christmas Day, the docu brought back a lot of memories for fans of telecasts by Madden and booth partner Pat Summerall, and you knew it was time to get ready to get up and go to work on Monday when Summerall teased a new episode of 60 Minutes, followed by Murder, She Wrote. The docu celebrated a great life and devotion to his wife Virginia and sons Joseph and Michael, with Madden watching as a series of Hall of Fame players from Lawrence Taylor and Troy Aikman to Joe Montana and Brett Favre described their interactions with Madden and how he helped make them better players.
The late Summerall brought gravitas to the booth and was the perfect straight man for Madden and an exuberance that was surpassed by his encyclopedic knowledge of X’s and O’s. He made it fun to learn about the intricacies of plays and strategies in real time, particularly in humanizing the previously unsung struggles between behemoth offensive and defensive linemen. He changed the way broadcasters worked games, and made the telestrator — a device that allowed him to ink up the screens on replays to show why things happened — a broadcast fixture.
After a flight left him panicked and feeling claustrophobic, the broadcaster decided from that moment on his wheels would never leave the ground. Inspired by a tour bus used by Dolly Parton, he christened the Madden Cruiser, a specially outfitted ride that allowed him to crisscross the country, review game tape and prepare for Sunday’s broadcast. Even though the ritual added days to Madden’s schedule, it also kept him a grounded man of the people who would show up at favored diners and eateries, where he would mix affably with fans. It became part of his everyman image, and like everything else about Madden, none of it was fake.
A Super Bowl winner and the second-winningest coach in NFL history during a decade leading the Oakland Raiders, Madden retired from coaching when he was only 42 years old, citing burnout and health concerns. After a stint teaching at UC Berkeley, he moved into the broadcast booth, where he would make his most enduring mark.
“John Madden is a part of the very fabric of this league, and of the game we all love so much.”
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) December 29, 2021
Madden became of the youngest coaches in NFL history when he took over the Oakland Raiders in 1969 at age 32, after two seasons as the team’s linebackers coach. He became the NFL Coach of the Year that season and led the Raiders to a Super Bowl title after the 1976 season. He would post a .759 career winning percentage over 10 seasons — among the best ever for coaches with at least 100 victories. His team also won 17 consecutive games during the 1976 and ’77 seasons, one short of the league record. He ended his career with a 103-32-7 record.
He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
“Coaching isn’t work,” Madden once said. “It’s more than a job. It’s a way of life … no one should go into coaching unless he couldn’t live without it … football is what I am. I didn’t go into it to make a living or because I enjoyed it. There is much more to it than just enjoying it. I am totally consumed by football, totally involved. I’m not into gardening … or any other hobbies. I don’t fish or hunt. I’m in football.”
Born on April 10, 1936, in Austin, MN, Madden began his coaching career as at Hancock Junior College in Northern California and was the defensive coordinator for San Diego State from 1964-66. As a player, Madden was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, but a knee injury during his rookie season ended his career.
In 1979, not long after leaving the NFL sidelines, Madden made an eye-opening debut as a pitchman in Miller Lite commercials. He was then invited to join CBS Sports as a color commentator. He began opposite baby-faced newcomer Bob Costas,, and it soon became clear to Madden and everyone else this would be his new calling. By 1981, he would join Summerall on the network’s No. 1 NFL announcing team. They were CBS’ A-team until 1993, when Fox landed TV rights to the NFL out from under CBS. Madden and Summerall then joined the nascent network and teamed there until 2001.
Loud, smiling and often unkempt, Madden endeared himself to viewers in any number of ways. Among them was his penchant for pointing what goes on among “the big guys” on the line of scrimmage and freely deploying such shouted phrases as “boom!” and “whap!” He was a perfect foil for ex-NFL kicker Summerall’s generally lower-key play-by-play.
Madden joined ABC’s Monday Night Football booth in 2002, doing color commentary alongside Al Michaels. Then in 2005, Dick Ebersol lured the ex-coach to do color for NBC’s Sunday Night Football — making Madden the first sportscaster to work for all of the “Big Four” TV networks. He ultimately would call nine Super Bowl games, and his final assignment was Super Bowl XLIII for NBC in 2009.
Among he most famous shtick was when Madden would award a turkey leg to the best player in the Thanksgiving game he’d just called. As the gag aged, he added extra legs to create a satisfying — if unappetizing — trophy turkey. He also made a household word out of Turducken, a mashup of turkey, duck, and chicken, separated by layers of stuffing.
Madden won 16 Sports Emmy Awards for Outstanding Sports Personality, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.
During his time in the broadcast booth, Madden would develop another following as a spirited pitched for Miller Lite, whose beer commercials of the 1970s and ’80s drew some of the sporting world’s biggest — or at least most colorful — names. Among the most popular, and, frankly, hilarious of these was the 1982 “all-star” ad that featured the “Tastes Great” and “Less Filling” sides in a hotly contested bowling tournament. The minute-long ad ended with Rodney Dangerfield getting no respect from the pins and then Madden “busting through” the screen to complain, loudly, “Hey! I didn’t get my turn!”
His pitchman career also included numerous spots for the likes of Ace Hardware and “tough-actin’ Tenactin” foot powder.
As if all that wasn’t enough for one sporting lifetime, Madden would become the first — or, rather, last name in sports video games.
The first version of Electronic Arts’ John Madden Football debuted in 1988, and EA Sports has released new version every year since 1990. Renamed Madden NFL in in 1993, the game has sold more than 100 million units and billions of dollars in revenue. The games also feature Madden’s voice.
Making the game’s cover became a badge of honor for NFL players. It remains a strong seller annually, with Madden NFL 2022 arriving last August 31.
R.I.P. to John Madden. It was one of my greatest honors to grace the cover of your video game. Thank you for the years of joy and motivation! pic.twitter.com/4P4NKdC1gT
— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) December 29, 2021
Madden’s garrulous nature and self-deprecating likability made him a favorite on TV — not just football. He hosted Saturday Night Live in 1982, appeared in countless documentaries and did plenty of talk shows. He’s also featured in at least two music videos. Madden does a cameo for the 1988 video Paul Simon made for his 1972 song “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” which appeared on the hits compilation Negotiations and Love Songs. More than a decade later, Madden caught the attention of the world’s biggest rock band. Madden features prominently in U2’s American football-themed U.S. video for “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” The 2001 clip from the Irish band’s album All That You Can’t Leave Behind opens with Madden doing commentary for a “game” between the Lemons and the Flys. Watch the clip here:
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.