Few men have impacted the game of football like John Madden. He traveled quite a journey from Daly City, California to Canton, Ohio. After a Hall of Fame coaching career with the Oakland Raiders, he became one of the most beloved and well known broadcasters of all time. Along the way, he helped develop a video game which bears his name. His personality was larger than life as was his impact on the sport that he loved. This is his story.
John Madden was born on April 10, 1936 in Austin, Minnesota and moved to Daly City when he was young. He soon met John Robinson who would become a lifelong friend as they journeyed through their well publicized careers. After playing on the offensive line at Jefferson High School, Madden spent one year at San Mateo College before venturing over to the University of Oregon. Eugene proved to be a bad fit for Madden and after several more transfers he wound up at Cal Poly where he finished his college career. The Philadelphia Eagles noticed the all-conference offensive tackle and took him in the 21st round of the 1958 NFL Draft.
An Indoctrination into the NFL
Shortly after being drafted by the Eagles, John Madden hurt his knee and never played a down in the NFL. During his lone year in Philadelphia, Madden was drawn to the film room by Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. It was in those moments that Madden learned how to study film and gained a deeper appreciation for the preparation involved in the game that he loved. Even though his playing career had ended, he knew what he wanted in life.
He began his coaching career at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria from 1960 to 1963 first as an assistant and then as the head coach. From there he moved on to San Diego State where he served as the Aztec's defensive coordinator for head coach Don Coryell until 1966. After the Aztecs went undefeated in Madden's last year, the Raiders hired him to be their linebackers coach.
Ever since Al Davis arrived in 1963, the Raiders had been building a contender. By the time Madden arrived, John Rauch was the head coach and Daryl Lamonica was slinging the football all over the field. The first position group that Madden coached in the NFL included linebackers Bill Laskey, Dan Conners and Gus Otto. The Raiders made it to the Super Bowl at the end of 1967 but lost badly to a Packers team determined to win one more title for their coach, Vince Lombardi.
Two years later, John Rauch abruptly left Oakland for the Buffalo Bills and the Raiders were left without a coach. Although he was just 33 years old, John Madden already possessed the self confidence that would make him so very famous. He lobbied for the opportunity to be the Raider's head coach and Al Davis made the fateful decision to promote him.
The Raiders were immediately successful under the guidance of Madden, reaching the AFL/AFC Championship Game in each of his first two years at the helm. Much of their success can be attributed to Madden allowing his players to be themselves. The Raiders had a wide assortment of personalities that were not always accepted in the NFL. Madden accepted them and let them act like themselves, as long as they played hard on Sunday. It worked and the Raiders only missed the playoffs twice in John Madden's 10 years at the helm. After missing the playoffs in 1971, the Raiders began a bitter rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers where the two teams faced each other in the playoffs in five consecutive years. Most of the time, the Steelers had the upper hand.
In 1972, the Raiders held a slim 7-6 lead with 22 seconds to go and the Pittsburgh on its own 40-yards line when the Steeler's quarterback Terry Bradshaw launched a desperation pass into traffic. Running back Frenchy Fuqua failed to catch the pass and the ball bounced into the hands of fullback Franco Harris who rumbled into the end zone for the improbable victory. To this day, Raider fans from across America seethe at the memory of the Immaculate Reception.
The following year, the Raiders gained a measure of revenge by beating the Steelers in the first round 33-14 but lost to Miami the next week. The Raiders made it to the AFC Championship again in both 1974 and 1975 but lost to the Steelers both times. Time and time again, the Raiders fell short against their hated rivals in the most pivotal moments. Urgency was beginning to darken the hearts of the Raiders. They knew that if they didn't find a way to defeat the Steelers soon, they may never win the Super Bowl.
The 1976 season felt different. In an era before free agency, the Raiders did not experience any major additions or subtractions from their roster. The same cast of characters had been through much during that time; Ken Stabler, Fred Biletnikoff, Dave Casper, Gene Upshaw, and Art Shell formed the nucleus of a team that went 13-1 in the regular season and finally found a way to beat the Steelers. In the season's opening week, the Raiders came back from a 14 point deficit late in the fourth quarter and beat Pittsburgh on a last second field goal. After that tremendous comeback a lot of their wins were close, but they stuck together and earned the top seed in the playoffs.
After defeating the Patriots on a late touchdown score in the opening round, the Raiders were headed to the AFC Championship Game for the fourth straight year. The Steelers had been plagued with injuries all year but their defense had stepped up in a big way, once holding opponents to just one touchdown in four games. The Raiders knew this but refused to let Pittsburgh's defense intimidate them. Before an rauckus crowd in Oakland, the Raiders defeated their nemesis 24-7 and broke through to reach the Super Bowl.
In the locker room of the Rose Bowl before the Super Bowl, John Madden told his team that this would be the greatest day of their lives... if they won. That was all the Raiders needed to hear and they went out and defeated the Minnesota Vikings 32-14 to capture their first world championship.
The Raiders made it to the AFC Championship Game for the fifth straight year in 1977 but they lost to the Denver Broncos. After that, John Madden spent one more year on the sidelines before he retired to the broadcast booth due to ulcers and fatigue. Little did he know how much more he would give the game.
Madden and Summerall
After leaving the sidelines, John Madden was hired as color commentator for CBS in 1979. Over the next couple of year, he went from one partner to another but never really clicked with any of them. That changed when he was paired with Pat Summerall. Together, the two called five Super Bowls from the very beginning of the 49er's dynasty in 1981 to the very beginning of the Patriot's dynasty in 2001.
They were the perfect compliment for each other. While Madden was loud and bombastic, Summerall was more down to earth. This partnership showcased Madden's personality and landed him many endorsement deals. Soon, television viewers saw him crashing through paper walls of commercials as he endorsed one product or another.
Early in his broadcasting career, John Madden realized a deep fear of flying and vowed never to fly again. Instead he took trains and buses from game to game. In 1987, Greyhound gave him an endorsement deal which included his own private bus and a driver. He would travel like this for the rest of his career. In time, much like his various phrases and larger than life personality, the Madden Cruiser would become a permanent part of his legacy.
A Lasting Legacy
By 1989, all was well with John Madden's career as his broadcasting career and various endorsement deals were becoming more profitable. But something was missing. In 1988, EA Sports approached Madden about him narrating a new football game they were developing. Madden was intrigued but insisted on being personally involved so that the game would be as close to the real thing as possible.
He lent his voice in more ways than one to the video game. Originally intended for seven-on-seven football, Madden scoffed at the idea and insisted on "real" football with 11-on-11 action. He also used his voice to narrate an advisor for players, became an opposing coach on the sidelines and even donated an old Raiders playbook so that the game would be as authentic as possible.
The game was initially called "John Madden Football" and was released for the Apple II computer in the summer of 1988. It was a big hit and was soon being developed for other consoles. As the years progressed, the game's name was changed to "Madden" and the graphics got significantly better and the players on the screen looked more lifelike. Decades later, the game is still immensely popular and has made EA Sports a giants in the video game industry. What's more, by making the game as authentic as possible, it became a private tutor of the game of football for generations of fans and players alike.
After a decades long wait, John Madden was finally inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. He died unexpectedly on December 28, 2021 at the age of 85. His impact on the game will not soon be forgotten.