On December 28th 2021, we lost an icon in the world of sports and entertainment. John Madden was, by all accounts, never expected to be a household name. His career path took several unexpected turns that would transform him from a player, to a coach, to a broadcaster, to one of the biggest names in video games. Some people are lucky to be remembered for something outside their personal lives; Madden will be remembered for at least three. As a tribute to his passing, we’d like to go back and take a look at those accomplishments.
John Madden: Super Bowl Winning Coach
In 1958, John Madden was signed to the Philadelphia Eagles and suffered a knee injury during training. It was a career-ender; John had already had an injury to his other knee, and the combination of these ailments prevented him from being able to play. It didn’t stop him from learning the game though and spent the next several years working in the coaching staff of various college football teams.
Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis would bring Madden to the team’s coaching line-up in 1967. After a subsequent shake-up of leadership, Madden became the head coach of the team in 1969. At the time, he was 32-years old, much younger than an average coach of the day, or even today. From his debut year to 1975, Madden routinely got his team into the divisional title playoff game, only to lose it five times. It was the next year, 1976, where he took the Raiders to a 13-1 record and defeat the Minnesota Vikings 32-14 in Super Bowl XI. In 1977, he would once again get them to the divisional championship to suffer yet another loss and miss the playoffs entirely in his final years as a coach in 1978.
Madden’s overall stats as a coach include 103 wins against 32 losses, giving him a shorter tenure than many other longtime coaches, but an incredibly high win percentage of .763. Perhaps it’s because of his comparatively brief career as a head coach that he’s not spoken of in the same breath as Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Bill Belichick, and others. There’s also the very real possibility that it’s because Madden is one of the very few to make a name for himself off the gridiron as a sportscaster.
John Madden: Color Commentator
CBS Sports picked up John as a sportscaster in 1979, right after he ended his coaching career. In 1981, his future would change forever when he was paired with former NFL placekicker, Pat Summerall. This pairing would last on CBS until 1993, and resume again on Fox from 1994 until Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002. It would also change the course of sports broadcasting and in a way, entertainment; even though no one knew it at the time.
The two-man booth of Summerall and Madden was a pairing of opposites that somehow remained completely in-sync with each other. Pat had a very dry and direct kind of voice, the kind of delivery that is plainspoken but gets the point across without any ambiguity or unnecessary fluff, so to say. John meanwhile had an almost folksy kind of approach to commentating. He could speak at length about something, filling in backstory, minutia, history, and context, in a way that could go beyond the realm of necessary. John could add nuance to Pat’s play-by-play, while Pat could rein in John’s loquacious tendencies.
It’s hard to put into words how effective this pairing is and how there was nothing else quite like it on television. Sure you had other big name sportscasters across sports- Al Michaels, Ken Squier, Howard Cosell, Marv Albert, Jack Buck, Bob Uecker, etc.- but they weren’t the team of Summerall and Madden. They could work in tandem with others, but their personalities were so large that the booth felt like it belonged to them and them alone when they were in it. Much to John Madden’s credit, despite his big, powerful personality, he knew how to give deference to Pat. This video of John speaking at Pat’s memorial service gives an indication as to why that was; he deeply respected Pat and needed him there by his side.
The pairing was so strong that when it ended at CBS, Fox hired the two of them on to help catapult their NFL contract to ratings success. The pairing of them gave a sense of legitimacy to a the broadcast, which is something Fox needed in the early ’90s when they were still struggling against the bigger networks.
After his contract at Fox ended and Summerall elected to retire from broadcasting, John moved on to ABC where he was paired with Al Michaels for ABC’s “Monday Night Football” program. After that program shifted from ABC to ESPN, Madden and Michaels would move to NBC to broadcast Sunday Night Football until John’s retirement in 2009. This final move would make him the only major sportscaster in history to work for all four major broadcast networks. It’s also because of his ubiquitous presence, that he became the biggest name in football video games.
Madden: The Biggest Name in Sports Video Games
At the time of John’s passing, the culture of video games has changed tremendously since the late 80s and early 1990s. Back then, celebrity endorsements of video games were a huge deal since the gaming industry was still trying to prove it was viable and legitimate. There was everything from “Lee Trevino’s Fighting Golf,” to “Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge,” to “Barkley Shut Up and Jam.” That’s not nearly as prevalent today, in part due to big companies like Electronic Arts buying up exclusive rights to sports games. But even before this, the concept of the athlete endorsed video game was dying off. There was one exception though: John Madden.
The first Madden game began development back in 1984 but wouldn’t see release until 1988 for MS-DOS and Apple computer systems of the time. In 1990, “John Madden Football” was released for home consoles on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, which was really the start of what was to come. With its attention to detail and realism, it separated itself from the other popular NFL title at the time, “Tecmo Bowl” and “Tecmo Super Bowl.” While the Tecmo series was praised for its fast, arcade style action, most of the strategy of the game was a luck-based guess what your opponent will do and try to pick the opposite play.
Madden Football was more in-depth, allowing people to pick from a variety of plays, based on input from Madden himself. The only drawback for the series was that in its initial outings, it lacked the license of both the NFL and the NFL Player’s Association, so the game couldn’t feature the names or likenesses of teams or players. Those omissions would be rectified as the 1993 Madden release proudly branded itself as “Madden NFL ’94,” indicating that NFL license was officially obtained. Next season’s “Madden NFL ’95” added the license from the NFLPA and featured real, current for the time rosters.
Since then, the series has never really looked back, especially after Electronic Arts secured the exclusive rights to make NFL games starting with “Madden NFL 06.” While other sports series are just branded by their league name, “NBA Live,” “NHL (current year),” “MLB: The Show,” etc, Madden was never dropped from the title of the yearly releases. Even after John stopped doing commentary for them around 2008-2009, his name was still right there on the box. It’s a rare status to be afforded to someone; maybe Tom Clancy being the only other big name to continue having a video game “brand” despite not having much to do with the gaming industry in general.
But Madden did have a fondness for the games, even if he didn’t play them; he liked the games for the very same reason he liked coaching, because they taught people. Going back to the original Madden game release, the reason for its delay is said to be because John wanted the product to accurately represent football. He continued to attest that it’s because of the game series that people know more about plays, formations, strategy, positions, and tactics. There is enough real content in the games to carry over that sense of understanding to watching and enjoying the NFL on television or at the stadium.
What John Madden Meant To Me
It’s hard to type the word “meant” regarding John since even though he’s gone, I feel like he will continue to mean something to me in the things that I enjoy. There’s a certain culture around Madden games that I will truly never be a part of; it’s not my scene. That being said, I remember my first football video game being “Madden NFL ’95” on the Super Nintendo and it did indeed teach me a lot about the sport of football.
Learning about the game was a big part of my childhood and early teens because of how it gave me something to share with my father. Dad and I didn’t have a lot of shared interests, but football became one of them. John was the stepping stone that led me into that world of sports, partly because of the game but also because of his announcing.
I was and still am, not an athletic person in the slightest; but I do know quite a bit about various sports thanks to watching them and maybe more importantly, listening to them. Broadcasting always fascinated me and still does to this day. Commentators can add so much to the viewing experience; they can affect how you enjoy it and what you can learn from it. John Madden helped me learn from listening to his analysis just as much as I learned from playing the video games. From there, I could talk more with my father, bond with him a bit more, and feel like for at least a few hours in the week, we were talking the same language.
There will never be another John Madden. He had just the right combination of personality, aptitude, charm, and knowledge of football to separate him from the rest of his peers. Even today there’s no one with his combination of traits in the game or in the broadcasting booth. There was a lot of comfort I took from his voice, his and Pat Summerall’s. That perfect combination was something that made me feel like I was spending time with friends; and it’s a very rare feeling to find that in sports.
I wonder how many people reading this will know of John’s accomplishments outside of the video game world. It seems like no matter what he did, he incidentally eclipsed his previous ventures. His career as a coach eclipsed his career as a player, his days as a broadcaster outshone his days as a coach, and his involvement with the Madden video game franchise could easily eclipse everything else that he’s done.
I would not be surprised if going forward, his name remains attached to those EA Games-produced titles. Maybe one day the licensing agreements will get too complicated or his estate will want his name to pass away with him; but that name carries a lot of weight with it. In a way, that’s kind of ironic. Near the start of the clip of the eulogy I posted above, John says about Pat that you could basically tell his story and people would know who you were talking about without having to say his name; the same can now be said about John Madden.
He led the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl championship. He would then go on to be part of the biggest commentating team in the history of the NFL, while simultaneously lending his name to a series of NFL video games that continues to this day. He had a big personality, he had a tremendous love for the sport of football, and he helped millions of people to learn about and understand the game that has become the biggest sport in the United States.
And just from that paragraph, you know who he was without me having to say his name.