In 1985, John Madden bought a two-bedroom flat in one of New York’s most dazzling residential buildings, the Dakota, for $625,000. It had previously belonged to Gilda Radner, the trailblazing comedienne who changed the way we saw women in comedy.
It was an appropriate apartment handoff. Madden, an iconic coach and Emmy-winning broadcaster, was just as much a goofy, joyful revolutionary. A pure entertainer, he possessed a uniquely sharp sense of humor that informed and disarmed and often was self-deprecating. “A coach is just a guy whose best class in grammar school was recess and whose best class in high school was PE. I never thought I was anything but a guy whose best class was PE,” he once said.
Mostly, his quips were imbued with old-school charm or good-natured ribbing. During a game, he once used the broadcast pen, which enabled him to draw on the screen for the folks watching at home, to draw a beard on baby-faced Troy Aikman. Upon meeting quarterback Steve Young, Madden asked, “Do you comb your hair with a pork chop?”
It could be said that Madden, a hulking man who stood at 6 foot 4, had a shine for pork, or anything that came out of a butcher shop. In fact, it was the Super Bowl-winning coach who shaped the way we celebrate Thanksgiving and introduced a bizarre frankenbird known as the turducken into the American lexicon.
When he died unexpectedly last week at 85, Madden left behind an enduring legacy that shifted focus depending on when you were born: He was a Super Bowl-winning coach, a star broadcaster, and the namesake of a wildly popular video game series.
He was survived by his wife Virginia, his two sons Michael and Joseph, and numerous grandchildren.
Born in Austin, Minnesota, on April 10, 1936, Madden moved to a working-class suburb of San Francisco at age 6. Trips into the city’s famed stadiums fueled his love of competitive sports. As a baseball player, he had interest from the Yankees and the Red Sox but opted for college, jumping around to a few before transferring to California Polytechnic State University, where he played football instead. In 1958, the collegiate offensive lineman was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, but he never played a down after sustaining a knee injury during training camp.
He returned to California to coach. While at San Diego State, he met Raiders owner Al Davis, whom he impressed with his knowledge of the game. In 1967, Davis hired Madden as an assistant. After just two seasons, he was promoted to head coach.
In 1977, he led the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl win over the Vikings.
Fearful of flying, he retired from coaching after the 1978 season with a .759 career winning percentage. He was 42. The next year, he started his second act as an analyst.
A natural professor, he was at home in the broadcast booth, which he used as a laboratory to teach viewers the finer points and nuances of the game. It made him a sort of gridiron cupid, making us fall head over heels for the bone-crushing, exhilarating sport. He was demonstrative and energetic, and his style made the perfect foil for the gravitas of Pat Summerall, his longtime partner, first at CBS and then at Fox.
Before long, Madden was a brand. He hosted Saturday Night Live in 1982 and played himself in the movies Little Giants and The Replacements. He was the co-author of numerous tomes, including one titled Hey Wait a Minute (I wrote a Book), and became a prolific pitchman, starring in Tinactin ads and Miller Lite campaigns.
As a late Gen Xer who grew up in a Giants household with two older brothers and a football official as a father, I counted on him as my Sunday soundtrack. But unable to grasp his ubiquity fully, I always thought of him as a mythological figure, papa pigskin.
Due to his flying aversion, he traveled the country in his Madden Cruiser, a kitted-out coach bus with a fridge, a bed, and an office for watching film. “You’ve got to be on the ground to see things,” he once said.
Even from his analyst perch, one that earned him 16 Emmys, he inherently turned up the heat on the field. Giants great Lawrence Taylor said that when Madden was there, you needed to put on a show: “He made me a better football player.”
In 1988, he signed on with Electronic Arts to become the face of the company's football video game, what would later prove to be a revolutionary moment all its own; to young millennials and zoomers, Madden is an addictive video game, not a colorful giant who touched and molded every aspect of football culture. But it was a natural evolution: yet another platform for the best football teacher on the planet to do his thing.
Kirsten Fleming is a senior writer for the New York Post. Twitter: @KirFlem.