For a woman who loves watching football, John Madden was practically a gift from God.
I can’t even remember when I got hooked on sports, but it’s probably a genetic trait. For most kids (boys and girls), dad is the one who teaches you the actual names for “that guy throwing the ball” and “that guy. I was luckier than most. My dad played varsity football and baseball in high school (including a senior year with only one strikeout at the plate), and he had the patience to put up with my endless questions. Still, there were three other members of our family who rightfully demanded some of dad’s attention, and my dad didn’t have the leisure time I did in my pre-teen and teenage years to sit down almost every Sunday during football season and watch a three-hour broadcast (six, if I got to watch the double header).
Madden and his cohorts were the solution. You can’t beat the guy’s knowledge of the game — he’s played it, he’s coached it and won it at the highest level, and by the time I came around, he’d been explaining it to people like me for over twenty years. Without brothers to show me additional tricks of the trade, I became a pupil of commentators such as Madden.
Madden was everywhere, explaining the game in his hyperkinetic way. I had two choices: join in Madden’s excitement and follow his manic pen across the screenwriter, which often became unreadable. The only other choice was to change the channel. But now, like millions of other fans, I won’t have either option.
Madden retires this year holding a stellar collection of IOUs from sports fans and every major network — NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox. He’s worked for them all over the past 30 years, and they’ve made him more rich and famous than Al Davis did. The Washington Times reported NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol as saying Madden was “the only analyst he knew who influenced television ratings for games.”
It’s easy to see why. Madden was a rare combination of an analyst with sports credentials and a personality that makes Kathie Lee Gifford seem bland. Networks have entire shows based around personalities like his. When Troy Aikman does play-by-play, you know you’re getting football expertise and a nice guy. With Madden, you never knew quite what you were going to get, besides excitement and the truth (and an inevitable tribute to Brett Favre).
It’s interesting, actually. What many say Brett Favre brought to the field, Madden brought to the broadcast booth — that intense, gut-deep love of the game which defined both of their careers. Maybe it’s fitting in the end that both chose to retire in the same year.
“The thing that made it hard is not because I’m second guessing: ‘Is it the right decision?’ But I enjoyed it so damn much,” the AP quoted Madden as saying.
Madden spent most of his 73 years (so far) in football, beginning with high school (in the AP story, Madden says this will be his first season away from the sport since his freshman year). Like my dad, Madden played both football and baseball, though he did it as a college student at California Polytechnic State University.
At first, I found it disorienting when Madden jumped networks. Miniscule as that event seems, it’s weird to have his voice follow NBC’s Sunday Night Football anthem instead of Fox’ NFL theme or ABC’s Monday Night Football music. But I came to realize that, in a world of ever changing rosters and broadcasters — and coaches becoming broadcasters — Madden was one of a handful who you could count on being there Week 1 through 16 and beyond.
Madden said his decision to retire this year is unrelated to health issues and more about spending time with his family. In perhaps the wisest move in sports journalism since Madden’s hiring, NBC Sports did not choose to replace him with Keith Olbermann (undeniable proof that there is indeed a God.) Chris Collingsworth is set to take over for Madden instead.
It’s going to be a different game come September. Coach, we’re all going to miss you.