John Madden: Great Announcer, Better Man

He was the voice, whose love both of his sport and his work was open and infectious. John Madden didn’t just make us understand football, he made us understand ourselves.

The NFL and its television broadcasts will go on because institutions inevitably outlast the people who bring them to popularity and prominence.

Yet, cliché as the phrase may be, things never will be the same.

Madden truly was the guy on the next chair in the restaurant, or the next stool in the bar, the guy who had to get into the conversation. Then, unpretentiously, unlike so many others because he knew what he was talking about, John simply took over.

Or to borrow a Madden observation, “Boom!’’

At age 73, John on Thursday announced he was retiring from the broadcast booth, a property he seemingly had held in perpetuity for four different networks, the last being NBC on Sunday nights. It was there he and Al Michaels kept us informed and entertained.

Now as Kipling would have said, like all captains and kings, John Madden departs, with his class, to our sorrow. We’re not only losing a football mind, we’re losing a friend.

His family had something to do with the decision. He’ll be married to the wonderful Virginia 50 years in December, and they have two sons and six grandchildren, whom, from August to January, were virtual strangers to John.

The two Northern California teams, the Oakland Raiders, which Madden coached to a Super Bowl win more than 30 years ago, and the San Francisco 49ers, also had something to do with the retirement. They have slipped so far from their championship years they’re not considered worthy of Sunday night TV. Madden thus never was able to get back to his Bay Area home during the NFL season.

“I’m not tired of anything,” said Madden, “but I’m going away.”

So, this fall, for the first time since he was a freshman at Jefferson High in Daly City, the working class community dead south of San Francisco, John Madden will not be involved in football.

“What made it hard,” he said during his morning radio spot on San Francisco’s KCBS, “is I enjoyed everything so much. I always felt I was the luckiest guy in the world.”

John Madden was everyman, with a sharper intellect. He liked to make us believe that on his cross-country bus journeys he only ate at places named “Joes,” or slept in his clothes.

He is a closet intellectual who always made you feel good. Even when he was berating you, as he did now and then when he was Raiders coach and I was covering the team for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Some sporting leaders, coaches, managers, general managers, insist they never read the papers. Madden wasn’t at all that disingenuous.

He’d come jogging and yelling across the Raiders old practice field in Alameda, waving the sports page and telling me in a few unsavory phrases I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Then, when the workout ended, he would give me a clue and an explanation. Boom.

A few years back I was driving from Oakland to San Francisco, sitting in the line of traffic waiting to pass through the toll booths on the east end of the Bay Bridge. A horn sounded. And sounded again. Three lanes to my right, it was Madden, honking and waving – his arm, not a sports story he didn’t appreciate.

John’s pal from the time they were kids has been John Robinson, who went on to a successful coaching career himself, leading USC to Rose Bowl wins. “We were just a couple of doofuses from Daly City,” Madden reminded of the pairing.

Part of their ritual among the group with which they ran was buying ice cream cones. “Another kid would yell ‘First dibs,’” said Madden, “and he got to lick your cone. So we all would immediately lick our own cones to keep anyone else from getting some of yours. John Robinson would still eat my cone after I licked it.”

Along the way, Madden has licked the world. He coached. He became a TV analyst. He did commercials for seemingly every product from Lite Beer – “Tastes great; less filling.” – to Ace Hardware. He has a weekend home on the Monterey Peninsula. He owns huge hunks of the Diablo Valley beyond the hills east of Oakland. He was voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He has an eponymous EA video game.

And arguably, he’s the biggest star ever connected to the NFL.

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” Madden said about leaving, repelling in advance any stories that he has a medical problem. “I’m not tired of traveling. It’s just this is the right time, the right thing.”

We’ll miss you, John.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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