The stories people tell about John Madden are like the side dishes at Thanksgiving dinner.
They’re memorable, comforting, warm and, though not meals in themselves, give you a flavor for this larger-than-life character who made the dizzying ascent from NFL coach to pop-culture icon.
Madden, who died three days after last Christmas, will be honored by the NFL on Thanksgiving, with special broadcast tributes during the games on CBS, Fox and NBC, all networks for whom he worked.
Whether it was using the telestrator to diagram how the New York Giants would dump a Gatorade bucket onto the head of victorious coach Bill Parcells, using the side of his hand like a knife to cut into a turducken or simply turning the broadcast booth into the Temple of Boom!, Madden always left a lasting impression.
“John would say something on the air that would take 12 seconds, and people would still be talking about it 40 years later,” said Drew Esocoff, who directed those “Sunday Night Football” games called by Al Michaels and Madden.
In keeping with that, The Times reached out to an array of people who knew Madden best to collect stories about him, among them NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, former Raiders offensive lineman Henry Lawrence, Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, Michaels and Madden’s son, Mike.
Some of their favorite stories:
Back to the drawing board
Manning was an Indianapolis Colts rookie in 1998, and his grandfather immediately wanted to know when the No. 1 Fox broadcast team of Madden and Pat Summerall would be calling one of his games.
“They just don’t do 3-13 teams, Pa-Pa,” the quarterback explained after the season.
The next season was a different story, and the Colts were on their way to a 13-3 finish. In Week 8, the Cowboys came to town as did Madden and Summerall.
Typically before a game, Manning would sit for an interview with the broadcast crew on Friday, but Madden was delayed and had to postpone until Saturday morning.
“We had a team meeting at 8:30, so Madden and I were going to meet at 7:45 that morning to do our production meeting,” Manning recalled. “I get in there and he’s got me up there on the board, I’m drawing up routes, he’s asking me what I’m looking for when we do our audibles. I feel like I’m at the combine trying to show a coach what I know about offenses. But this is Madden the broadcaster that’s got me all over the board. Next thing you know, it’s 8:29 and our PR guy comes in and says, ‘Hey, Peyton, you gotta go.’ [Sarcastically] Thanks for getting me one minute before.”
Manning ran down the hall to the team meeting but it was too late. The door was closed.
“I was not going to walk in there late, but I figured it was OK because Madden had me drawing up plays,” he said. “But it ended up not giving me a valid excuse.”
Good thing for Manning the Colts wound up winning.
Life of the party
The first broadcast Chris Collinsworth did as an NBC studio host was a Cincinnati preseason game and Madden was in the booth. Collinsworth played for the Bengals and still lives in the area, so he and his wife, Holly, had a small party at their home the night before the game. Once their friends and neighbors heard Madden would be stopping by, they too happened to meander over to say hello.
“My boys were around 10 to 12 years old,” Collinsworth recalled. “Both of them played football in the local league. So John sat down with them and the first thing he asked them, ‘What kind of defense are you playing?’ They told him they were playing a 4-4. ‘A 4-4? I know exactly how to beat that!’ Then he starts with the salt shakers and the knives and forks, doing his whole thing.
“I’m telling you, an hour later, John had not walked around to anybody else. I don’t even know if he’d ever even eaten, but he’s still with these utensils on the table drawing up plays and talking ball with the two boys.
“When he finally got finished, he jumped up and came over and gave Holly a hug and shook my hand and goes, ‘This was a great party. Great party! One of my favorites of all time. I’ve got to go now, but it was a great party.’ And that was all he did. It was fantastic.”
Meals on wheels
Madden famously avoided flying and instead traveled from game to game in his fully outfitted bus, the Madden Cruiser. There were five of those over the years, and the family still has Cruisers Nos. 4 and 5.
On the open highway is where a lot of the memories were made. Former USC and Rams coach John Robinson, best friends with Madden since they were kids growing up in San Francisco, made a lot of those road trips and recalls his buddy wasn’t always the best judge of restaurants.
“I once went from New York to New Orleans with him, and we stopped four or five times on the way down,” Robinson said. “He picked the places to eat and each one was worse than the last. We were all complaining: ‘John, let somebody else pick the places.’ He’d say, ‘No, I’m the picker.’ If the place looked bad, he’d pick it.”
He might have made hundreds of millions with all his endeavors, but Madden was a man of the people. He was a creature of habit too. When he was coaching the Oakland Raiders, he used to bring his two sons to Saturday walk-through practices. Every time, he’d stop at Denny’s for corned beef hash and two poached eggs, and they always stopped at Fosters Freeze on the way home for burgers and banana shakes.
It wasn’t all about greasy spoons. Madden knew good food too. Coupled with the peculiar eating habits of Michaels — who won’t let a vegetable as much as touch his plate — that made for some good comedy.
“We were in Green Bay, and I love cheese and broth and croutons, but I hate onions,” Michaels said. “French onion soup was the delicacy of choice at this restaurant and I said to the server, ‘Is there any chance I could get the French onion soup without the onions?’ She said they could do that, and John thought that was hysterical. He thought it was the most amazing order ever fulfilled. John and I would talk about that at least once a year. He’d ask, ‘Had any French onion soup without the onions lately?’”
Another order was more stomach-turning.
“We were in New York and we went to an upscale seafood restaurant,” Michaels said. “I ordered swordfish and John said, ‘You can’t have that. I have a couple of very good friends who are commercial fishermen and they tell me that swordfish is full of tumors and boils.’ Well, that ended that order.”
Much of the dining took place on the Madden Cruiser.
“The fridge on the bus was always stocked with food and drinks,” former “Sunday Night Football” producer Fred Gaudelli said. “At Lambeau Field, whenever we did a game, when the weather was warmer, John would bring a grill and have his guys cooking brats for the entire crew.
“A season with Madden was a good 15 to 20 pounds every year. It was comical.”
Gaudelli worked with Madden for seven years, and that included a lot of New England Patriots games. Since the producer lives in Madison, Conn., about a 1½-hour drive south of Gillette Stadium, Madden would swing by his house and pick him up in the bus.
“I live on a cul-de-sac, so John would wind around the street and pull up in front of my house,” he said. “The whole neighborhood would come out. I had a bunch of kids who lived on my street who played high school football so for them it was unbelievable that Madden was on their street. He always had his video games on the bus and he would hand them out to the kids.”
There would be a line of neighbors to climb the steps into the bus, say hello to the legendary coach and maybe get an autograph or a selfie. Madden was happy to oblige.
Hamming it up
Dick Ebersol, former chairman of NBC Sports, was good friends with Madden long before they worked on football broadcasts together. Ebersol and Lorne Michaels co-created “Saturday Night Live” and in 1982 brought in Madden as guest host.
So at ease was Madden that he played a prank during the dress rehearsal, just a couple of hours before the show went live. Madden was about to begin his monologue during the rehearsal when he called for Ebersol and threatened to quit the show.
“I’m going to finish this dress rehearsal and then I’m going to leave,” he told the audience. “I’m not happy with how things have been going, and I’m enough of a trooper to finish it for this audience, but then I’m outta here.”
Ebersol was in a panic.
“John kept yelling my name: ‘Ebersol! Ebersol! Get out here!’ I might have taken seven or eight steps out onto the studio floor. The crowd could see — I couldn’t — that he had this big grin on his face. All of a sudden he said, ‘Gotcha!’”
Madden was a natural. Everyone who hosts the show receives an orange, leather-bound copy of the script, with the date and their name embossed on the cover. After Madden died, the family presented that book to Ebersol.
“John always got me,” Ebersol said. “He got me right to the core of my heart.”
Man for all seasons
Some of the most interesting conversations with Madden concerned topics other than football.
“People think of him in terms of the sound effects, the boom, and the scribbling on the telestrator,” Michaels said. “It made it seem like John was oafish. He was anything but. He was an extremely well-read, smart man who could discuss anything. That’s what I loved most about working with John for seven years.
“He just had a great way of understanding the surroundings, reading the room, capturing the essence of anything, whether it was politics, the economy, the world in general.”
Jones said that after a rough first season of owning the Cowboys, he got a conference call from Madden and Al Davis, owner of the Raiders, complimenting him on his dogged determination to stick through the tough times.
“Other than a few owners, a very few, John had the best instincts and business sense of anyone I’ve met in the game,” Jones said. “He’s right at the top of sophisticated financial people that I have met in the entire NFL. That includes TV executives, commissioners, coaches, sponsors, heads of companies, all of them. John would be right up there.”
Rolling with Roger
Goodell, who refers to Madden as “Coach,” made some training camp trips along the Atlantic Coast in the Madden Cruiser, once pulling off the road and into a chain restaurant late at night.
“We stopped at a Chili’s along the New Jersey Turnpike,” the commissioner recalled. “It was clear it was getting close to closing, and Coach asked for a bowl of chili. The woman told him, ‘We’re out of chili.’ He had a field day with that one. ‘Chili’s is out of chili!’ You could have made a whole show out of it. It was like he was diagramming the whole thing. He wasn’t in any way rude to the server or anyone else, he just was having fun with it. It was like he was on TV again talking about turducken or something.”
Goodell often turned to Madden to seek his advice or bounce ideas off him.
“He understood the game on the field, he understood the business of the game,” Goodell said. “He was a student of the history of the game and understood its future and cared deeply about that. … He had a perspective that was as broad as anyone I’ve ever known in this business.”
On the road again
For much of his career, Madden wasn’t able to join his family for Thanksgiving. When he was coaching, they kept a plate warm for him when he got home at night. When he was a broadcaster, he was calling the game in another city.
“He made up for it on Christmas and Easter,” said his son, Mike. “We meticulously opened presents on Christmas Eve, and we had wonderfully orchestrated Easter-egg hunts.”
When Madden was in Dallas for Thanksgiving, and that was a lot, the Joneses tried to make him feel at home.
“He’d have dinner over here the night before, and Gene would fix him fried quail, which he loved,” the Cowboys owner said. “After dinner, we’d drive around Dallas and look at some of the real estate projects.”
Once, developer Ross Perot Jr. offered to give Madden a Thanksgiving helicopter tour of Dallas. The ground-bound football legend opted for a car.
Lawrence, who played tackle for the Raiders, was like a third son to Virginia and John Madden. He routinely made Thanksgiving dinner, and continued to do so long after his playing career was done.
“I definitely felt like a member of the family,” Lawrence said. “I still do.”
Madden accepted he often couldn’t be there for the holiday. He had a job to do.
Said Esocoff: “We’d be away from our families on Thanksgiving, and John would go, ‘Look, let me be honest with you, OK? You think they miss you? They don’t miss you. They care for a minute that you’re not there, but after that they don’t care.’”
And, as this Thanksgiving shows, that’s where Madden was wrong.