By Doug Ireland, Journal Services
Boom! Bam! Doink! Woosh!
No other way to start a piece about John Madden.
Once a Super Bowl champion football coach, Madden became a cultural icon after leaving the sidelines in 1978 and moving upstairs to the TV announcing booth. His everyman personality, candor and unabashed joy doing anything he did captivated us. Above all else, he was authentic, a man of the people, unpretentious.
His football commentary entertained and educated unlike any announcer in any sport ever had. It quickly made him a hot commodity for advertisers. His series of commercials for Miller Lite and Ace Hardware, among others, expanded his audience outside the sports world. If he liked something, we wanted it. Heck, he introduced turducken to the rest of the country after a Thanksgiving Day game in New Orleans.
That likeability brought him into the living rooms and mindsets of America. As his profile grew, a third dimension of his public life exploded: Madden NFL, the football video game launched in 1988 that provides gamers 8 to 85 with a realistic portrayal of pro football action offering actual playbooks, stunningly accurate player depictions, and commentary in the style of an NFL TV announcing crew. The founder of EA Sports came up with the idea in 1984 and pitched it to Madden, who wouldn’t lend his name to the project until it was strikingly accurate enough.
If you haven’t played Madden, your neighbor has. It’s one of the top 10 selling video games ever. Sales of well over $4 billion. More than half the guys playing in the NFL not only grew up playing Madden, but they continue to.
So much so that when a Philadelphia player walked into a hotel suite where Coach Madden was holding court in the runup to a game at San Francisco, he asked, “Where’s Madden?” Somebody said, “right over there.” The player responded, “no, the video game.”
When he passed away unexpectedly Tuesday at 85, a scant three days after an epic Fox Sports 90-minute special on him that aired Christmas Day, reaction rippled around the country far outside NFL territory.
The cascade of admiration for Madden is not about what he had done as much as who he was. That childlike wonderment, shared with all, about what he was seeing and doing. That ceaseless appreciation of the opportunities he encountered. Most of all, his eagerness to engage people from every walk of life, from the woman serving him Skyline Chili over the counter in Cincinnati (he’d walk out with a couple stains on his shirt), to the drivers at the truck stop in the middle of the night somewhere in Arizona, to the kids flipping Frisbees at the rest stop along I-20 in Mississippi, and everyone, anyone associated with the game he loved: football.
That’s why we’re hearing and reading tributes from the biggest names in and around the NFL, the Peyton Mannings and Sean Paytons and such, as well as those production assistants, those assistant coaches, those free agent signees, and everyone in between. And you, and me.
Two-time Super Bowl champion linebacker Gary Reasons, a Northwestern State graduate, was one of Madden’s favorites while playing for the powerhouse New York Giants. Wednesday, his wife Terri recalled the time in the late ‘80s when Madden invited their son Nic onto his “Madden Cruiser” tour bus, which he used to travel the country to avoid claustrophobia on airplanes. John and preschooler Nic shared a Coke on the bus, in the parking lot at Giants Stadium.
Nobody could tell who was having more fun.