When I first met him it wasn’t the best of circumstances, sitting alone in his office, wearing a suit and tie, palms sweaty, feeling anxious, patiently waiting for his entrance.
I’ll never forget that day, a hot one indeed, as a young candidate seeking a front office position with the Oakland Raiders, I found myself up north in Santa Rosa, the El Rancho Motel precisely, the summer camp home of the then Oakland Raiders.
I had already pretty much secured the job of publication’s director after meeting earlier with Al LoCasale, the right hand man to Al Davis, the team’s managing general partner and legendary NFL figure. It was Davis, after our encounter who suggested as a matter of principle I meet with the man coaching the team – John Madden.
Oh sure, I’d sat in on plenty of press conferences with him addressing the media when I was the sports editor of the Valley Pioneer in Danville, California, as I covered the Raiders in the early ‘70’s straight out of college.
Yet, this felt different. A lot different.
So, there I sat, a young 26-year-old, pondering what he might ask me as the wait time moved from 5, 10, 15 minutes long past our scheduled visit. As I casually looked at my watch at one point, realizing that 45 minutes had now gone by, I wondered if the interview would be shelved and placed on hold for another day.
Summer drills for NFL teams often include “twoadays,” as they call them, one practice starting early in the day and a second slated for the afternoon over a month long period at a site customarily away from everyday family life and other distractions. It was for players to fully concentrate on football, oftentimes under the hottest of conditions with physical fitness in mind. Santa Rosa, fit the bill perfectly as it was already 90 degrees by noon as I continued to wait.
Checking my watch once more, I had been given more than enough time to rehearse what I wanted to say once he arrived. Telling Madden I was a lifelong fan of the club, attending the Raiders’ first-ever game as an 8-year-old, listening to my father describe the difference between offense and defense, as we sat together with my brother watching the action in the cold confines of Kezar Stadium, the team’s first venue in San Francisco. My father later became a longtime season ticket holder, taking his family of five to Raider football games as a Sunday ritual, first to Frank Youell Field and later the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum.
On this day, however, none of that mattered. My practiced speech went up in flames as a gruff Madden finally entered his office in the worst of moods, the result of the morning session on the field with his players, which I later learned was not his team’s best performance.
Glancing my way, obviously tipped off about my presence, in disdain, his anger for what had taken place in the preceding two and a half hours got the best of him as he asked: “Why the &*%#@ do you want to work for the Oakland Raiders?!”
Not exactly your typical interview, but fortunately I can attest it got better from there, and I ultimately accepted the role and became a member of the Raiders family, remaining with the organization for eight seasons before returning to the Bay Area a few years after the team moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s to accept a job with a rival professional football league.
Outside of the initial rocky introduction and unfortunate decision on my part to allow the media into the locker room following the Raiders’ league opener in 1978, a loss to the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium, my relationship with Madden was at least cordial in the beginning, only to improve during his final year as head coach, before he handed over the reigns to Tom Flores – like him, another Hall of Famer – the following season with plenty of success behind him.
“What the &*%#@ are you doing letting those guys in here while I’m talking to my players,” he said, standing above me in the aisle of the plane headed back to Oakland that day, reliving my locker room blunder, as I recognized for the first time he was claustrophobic and had a fear of flying.
I chalked it up as a lesson well learned. Our relationship only got better following the rookie mistake.
Years later, at the 30th weekend reunion of Super Bowl XVIII, my son and I shared a moment with Madden, briefly reflecting on the past. Who knew if he even remembered me as so much time had passed, but I told the story to Michael this week about one of Madden’s early assignments before he made it big making those “Boom!” Lite Beer TV commercials after he left coaching.
In charge of the club’s off-season speakers bureau, as one of my various tasks, sending players to events around town representing the Raiders, one day soon after he announced his retirement, I received a request from an IBM employee asking Madden to be a guest speaker. For a $500 honorarium, the former Raiders coach was asked to give an inspirational speech, like the kind his players were used to hearing, but this time to a group of the company’s top executives. Madden gratefully accepted, and didn’t balk when told it would be held on an airplane on the tarmac at the Oakland Airport that wouldn’t take off. Every seat was filled and soon Madden had those on board laughing, showcasing a likable personality. He thanked me for the opportunity, and not long after he attended other engagements around town before the Lite Beer folks came calling, Madden’s agent monitoring future assignments from there.
This week my son said, “Thanks for introducing me that one day,” referring to the Super Bowl reunion. “It was an honor to meet him.”
Those words hold true for all of us who had the opportunity to know him, even if millions of television viewers really didn’t. Like so many have said since Madden’s passing on Tuesday at the age of 85, they felt he was talking to them about football in their living rooms, breaking the game down so easily to understand. That was his remarkable gift, working for all four major networks in his 30-year broadcasting career, reinventing himself to become the best football analyst in the game. Along the way he called 11 Super Bowls and earned 16 sports Emmys.
“I’ve never worked a day in my life,” he said during his induction speech into the Hall of Fame, his award at the podium. “I went from player to coach to a broadcaster and I am the luckiest guy in the world.” Some of us think we will be immortal, that we’ll live forever. But when we really think about it, we’re not going to be. But I say this, this is overwhelming and mind-blowing that through this bust [a bronze impression of his face], with these guys in that Hall, we will forever.”
Madden will go down in history as one of the most iconic and recognizable names in the game, a person who touched different generations, not only for his football knowledge but for those who didn’t even know he coached, recognizing him for his award-winning broadcasting skills and namesake NFL video series. Through EA Sports, more than 130 million copies of the Madden video game have been sold worldwide.
His love of coaching helped him win nearly 75 percent of the contests played over his 10-year career as the Oakland Raiders won seven AFC championships and Super Bowl XI.
“The Raider Family is deeply saddened by the passing of the legendary John Madden,” in part read a statement from the Raiders’ organization. “Few individuals meant as much to the growth and popularity of professional football as Coach Madden, whose impact on the game both on and off the field was immeasurable. The thoughts and prayers of the Raider Nation are with Virginia, Joseph, Michael and the entire Madden Family at this time.”
In an FOX-11 special airing on Christmas Day, Virginia, Madden’s wife of 61-plus years, said: “I never saw any reason the Raiders should lose a game,” noting she would get so upset hearing the wife of a coach say, “Well, you can’t win them all.” To that, she’d respond, “Why the hell can’t you?”
A beloved sports figure of our time, John Madden was a football legend, a titan in the game, a true treasure, and one of a kind.
Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, gave him the most loftiest of compliments, saying: “John Madden is to the NFL what Elvis Presley was to rock ‘n roll. He’s the King.”
I’m glad he profoundly touched my life and so many others. John Madden will be deeply missed. Rest in Peace.