John Madden is the kind of guy you'd like to have in your living room on winter Sundays, assuming you have sufficient space for his agitated wingspan, incipient hearing loss to accommodate the sudden bursts—boom!—of volume and, of course, access to a flash fryer. Well, you did have him in your living room, for 30 years, the guy in the virtual next chair, not so much explaining the game to you ("The big guys just knock the little guys right over," was the presumably made-up quote one less-appreciative blogger used in reporting Madden's retirement last week) as communicating his ungodly enthusiasm for it. Pretty good company, virtual or not.
And, really, it was better that way, now that we think about it. If he were in your living room, watching Brett Favre sling an interception from his behind, all Madden would do is say something painfully obvious ("When your arm gets hit, the ball is not going to go where you want it to"—a quote that is not made up), jump up and knock over everybody's beer and then, still talking to himself, go out on the patio and fire up the propane and produce a magical turducken for halftime. And you'd have to clean up after him.
But at the safe remove of the broadcaster's booth, Madden was great company, about the greatest TV has produced. Looking back, it might seem impossible to say just why, exactly. Certainly, over the course of those three decades, there have been better announcers—more articulate voices, analysts whose default modifier wasn't "big ol'?" or whose pronouncement of satisfaction wasn't "Doink!" And even among that class of announcer that parlays actual NFL experience into broadcasting expertise—Madden was one of the first of these, coming to the booth from a Super Bowl and Hall of Fame coaching gig with the Oakland Raiders—he was never especially professorial. There was plenty enough evidence that he knew the game, even after so many years away from the clipboard, but he sometimes overlooked an opportunity for technical discussion to say something like this: "Hey, the offensive linemen are the biggest guys on the field. They're bigger than everybody else, and that's what makes them the biggest guys on the field." (Also not made up.)
(And don't get us started on the Telestrator, a supposed gadget of illustration that Madden seemed to use less for explanation than as a subversive mockery of all that was modern. Everybody dipped the Sunday paper for this must-see TV: It was like watching a kid with ADHD operate an Etch-a-Sketch.)
So what did make him so endearing, so enduring? He played on all four networks but was neither beholden to nor truly associated with any one of them. His only real partnership was with the game, and as one employer after another moved out of the increasingly expensive business of televising football, Madden simply moved on. His antic locution translated his love for the game no matter whose blazer he wore. That always came through.
He also maintained an outsized relatability, as the kind of guy who seemed more at ease with commoners than with any media elite. This had to do partly with his insistence on ground transportation over highfalutin' air travel (though the price of a first-class ticket might have been a bargain compared to a chauffeured bus trip) but also with his loyalty to those who worked in the trenches—cameramen and offensive linemen. His insistence on a blue-collar work ethic was probably from the heart; nothing exposes shtick, after all, like 30 years of continued exposure.
And then there was the matter of his mysterious cross-generational appeal. This last is presumed because of the popular video game that, for most of its best-selling existence, had his mug and input all over it. But that never had anything to do with his on-air popularity. Like a good coach, he knew he could not afford the old fogey's bias—Cornrows! Why, in my day ...—in the face of performance, which must be honored and encouraged above all. He remained eternally hip, even at 73, in his acceptance of all things entertaining (and Favre). He was largely nonjudgmental and refreshingly unironic, and that, my friend, is how you remain relevant for more than 30 years.
As he became more and more iconic, there is no question he seemed to grow ever more cartoonish (see: Doink!). The sheer accumulation of Madden-isms was bound to make him larger than life. He eventually became ripe enough for caricature that entire careers came to be based on his impersonation. For all that, the real John Madden still had enough memorable lines—"If you see a defense with dirt and mud on their backs, they've had a bad day"—to make him the poet laureate of NFL blatherers, if not quite the resident genius.
One more thing, and it has to do with our imagined scene of John Madden eating corn chips and drinking (Lite) beer in our living room (the turducken cooling on its massive platter), this time Favre completing his pass from his backside, probably for a touchdown, initiating a spew of corn chips, beer, exclamation points and some authentic football gibberish. It's kind of wonderful to imagine, isn't it? What we wouldn't give, at any age, for such wide-eyed excitability.
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His antic locution conveyed LOVE FOR THE GAME, no matter whose blazer he wore.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW