BB first saw the “push” on her phone. “NFL coaching and broadcasting legend John Madden dies at 85.” She told me, quietly.
The first word that flashed across my brain was “football.” I’m pretty sure that would have made Coach Madden happy.
John Madden was football. The game never had a better friend, advocate or ambassador. He was Johnny Football Seed, whose happy quest was to spread his pigskin passion to all. The seeds he planted and nurtured have grown into mighty sequoias that frame our entire sporting and popular culture.
And he did it all with a smile and with genuine humility. He just wanted us—you, me, everyone—to love it as much as he did. But he never bludgeoned us. “Boom!” was not mindless machismo. It was more of a velvet mitten. “Look at this, willya, friend!”
And like a great and instinctive jazz musician, Coach Madden could play it in any key, at any tempo, and for any audience. And like a master chef, he could cook up just the right “ear food” for blue-blooded football gastronomes and “snackers” alike.
That’s a gift.
We owe John Madden for all the rounds of joy. But it was always Coach Madden who “picked up the tab,” and with a smile.
We have at least one full generation of Americans who know John Madden only as a broadcaster and video game guru. And that’s absolutely fine and appropriate. Madden essentially invented the modern role of tv football analyst, and, yes, elevated even legendary play-by-play giants like Summerall and Michaels. And, yeah, who doesn’t love to play Madden? It’s FUN! The only reason I don’t play much is that I know myself. I could become an addict in a heartbeat.
But I ask Americans, particularly young Americans, to consider what he did as an NFL coach. He never had a losing season. He posted the highest winning percentage of any coach in NFL history with at least 100 games under his belt.
His coaching presence was central to countless unforgettable moments. Some of them, like The Immaculate Reception, cut him to the quick.
But for every tear, there were countless memorable triumphs, all now part of NFL Mythology.
Ghost to the Post.
The Holy Roller
The Sea of Hands
These moments, and others, have rightly been elevated to not only football mythology, but American mythology.
The NFL is king because it embraced and harnessed mythology. We Americans love our myths, and the bigger the better.
Pete Rozelle got that. Tex Schramm got that. Ed and Steve Sabol got that, and turned it into high art.
But who was ever a bigger or better storyteller or Myth Maker than John Madden?
I just remembered the first picture that flashed into my brain last night when BB told me John Madden was dead.
Super Bowl XI. January, 1977. The Rose Bowl. The Raiduhs against the Vikings.
There is that shot. You know the shot. Slo-mo. (What else? Myths must ALWAYS be depicted in slo-mo!)
We see Old Man Willie Brown bait Tarkenton into the interception. Then we cut to a reverse angle of Willie running toward us. The camera almost seems to be perched on Brown’s facemask, looking him straight in the mug. We see his eyes start to flash. We see his mouth start to snort and his cheeks start to billow as he realizes what is happening.
“I’m a Raider. And I’m taking this to The House. And Super Bowl XI is OVER. And we are world champions.”
And that meant that John Madden was, too, finally.
Not that there was ever a doubt.
If you really love something, you want to leave it in better shape than you found it.
Rest easy, Coach Madden. Mission accomplished.
You’re invited to move over to today’s sports blog, “The Games People Play,” for more.