Iconic Madden Was More Than A Name On A Video Game
My own video game history never extended further than Intellivision hockey wars at my friend David Wertheim’s house in the 1980s, but my two sons grew up as avid players of EA Sports Madden NFL games. All the way through their teen years, the purchase of the new version became a ritual without them or most others in their generation really knowing the significance behind the title.
I always felt that was a shame, because the game named after John Madden, who died on Tuesday at the age of 85, was just the last arc of an incredible three-act story that included enshrinements in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for both coaching and broadcasting.
Bur forget about just football for the moment; few people have made as much of an impact on American life as Madden. He was a celebrity who didn’t come across to the public like he was anything special, he was just your average, relatable guy.
He first surfaced as the highly-animated head coach of the Oakland Raiders, reveling in the organization’s role as the NFL’s outlaws. He patrolled the sidelines for 10 seasons, compiling a record of 103-32-7. His .759 career winning percentage is the highest of anyone who coached over 100 games in league history.
From 1969-75, he made the playoffs every season but one, though he was criticized for never winning the Big One. That all changed with the 1976 season, when the Raiders devoured the league competition in going 13-1 and culminated with a 32-14 rout of the Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
Just two-seasons later, Madden suddenly walked away from coaching due to health and burnout concerns. However, he wouldn’t be absent from the game he loved for long. After a year off, he resurfaced in the broadcast booth on CBS.
By 1981, Madden’s enthusiastic and entertaining commentary elevated him to the network’s top slot alongside play-by-play man Pat Summerall, who was more than willing to play the straight man in a legendary pairing.
Madden knew the game at its deepest levels, but that wasn’t how he communicated it. The games were meant to be fun, so his analysis was often in the form of the subscripts in the 1960s “Batman” TV series—“Boom! Bam!” etc. Football fans adored him for it. He even made Thanksgiving games featuring the Lions enjoyable, handing out turkey bones and introducing the world to turducken.
With the NFL constantly playing the networks off each other, Madden moved around, from CBS to FOX to ABC and, finally, to NBC’s introduction to Sunday night games in 2006. Everywhere he went, he was a sensation, compiling 16 Emmy Awards and calling 11 Super Bowls, including his final game, the Steelers victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII in 2009.
As for how Madden moved around the country to broadcast these games every week, he despised airplanes even when he was coaching, so in his new life he took to the road on a bus called “The Madden Cruiser” that was laid out with all the gadgets of the day.
One of the highlights each season was his picks for “The All-Madden Team”, which didn’t just encompass the league’s top performers, but also included those who fit his mold for grit and toughness. Even the players ate it up.
The Madden brand also ventured out into the business world, where he appeared in a host of commercials, most notably Miller Lite, Ace Hardware, and Tinactin, and he also played himself in the films “Little Giants” and “The Replacements.”
In the 1980s, he was approached to help out with an upstart video game company. Madden did more than lend his voice and name to EA Sports; he reportedly was involved with the early designs to ensure the most realistic look possible.
Given Madden’s personal popularity, it was no surprise that the game evolved into a decades-long powerhouse, generating billions of dollars in revenue, even if some of the more recent updates haven’t wowed consumers (at least according to my sons). The trick was that like Madden the person, the game always had mass appeal, from kids who were just learning about football all the way to current NFL players who use Madden as part of their real-life game preparations.
And that’s what made John Madden so special. To earn broad-based adulation is rare, even before these divisive times. To me, he will be remembered as more than just a name on a video game.