The childhood memory is of seeing the coach of my favorite football team trampling along the sideline, not giving a whit about his appearance, mop of hair wandering off wherever it pleased, wide white belt genuflecting to his belly, massive mug red with passion.
While the NFL assembly line was rolling out high-profile coaches mostly stoic or fearsome – Chuck Noll in Pittsburgh, Tom Landry in Dallas, Don Shula in Miami to name three – John Madden didn’t flinch at unleashing his joy and pain.
The enduring adult memory is of seeing John outside a locker room in Dallas, maybe 45 minutes after a 49ers-Cowboys game in the mid-1990s, during the peak of their rivalry. I was there on behalf of the Oakland Tribune, and he was there as a TV analyst. His bus, the famous “MaddenCruiser,” was idling few yards away. I had talked to him several times over the phone, but this would be our first in-person meeting.
As I began walking over to introduce myself and ask if he had a few minutes, he looked up and grinned, extending his hand and greeting me by name before I could utter a word.
He was a familiar face. I was an early-career sports columnist. He was a Super Bowl winning coach, TV star and national celebrity. I was someone he treated as an equal. We were two guys talking football.
In the years that followed, such conversations became standard. If I was working an NFL game and John was on the broadcast crew, I’d seek him out. And usually find him. Not once did he say he was in a hurry.
Not many people possess the ability to naturally own every room they enter, cooling it if was too hot or warming it if it was too cold. This is not a skill. It’s a blessing. John had it.
While many saw him as the purveyor of hardware or the predominant video game bearing his name, he was to me a legendary former football coach, engaging conversationalist and a boxing fan of massive proportions.
I’d see him at championship fights in Las Vegas and we’d chat. I once saw him walking through the doors of a Pleasanton hotel – not Madden family’s Rose Hotel downtown – with a couple pals to watch local fighters with zero national profile slug it out in a ring set up in a ballroom.
There might have been 1,000 people in the room, but John was among them, grinning and cheering his way through the evening. Stayed until the last fight was over.
John’s excellent coaching career was by turns exhilaration and torture, the high point coming on Jan. 9, 1977, when the Raiders defeated the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
John once told me he enjoyed winning, but not as much as he agonized over losing. He spent nine years navigating the space between his players, who loved him, and Raiders owner Al Davis, who discovered and accepted him. It took a heavy toll.
I understood why John walked away from coaching at age 42, and not once considered going back.
Why would he? He had strolled into the prime of his life. No boss in his ear, no players to mollify, no flights to avoid and all the football and boxing he wanted.
He was free to go wherever he liked, whenever he wanted.
John died on Tuesday. He was 85. He lived a full life. His fear of flying – he was claustrophobic – put him on the roads of America. He was the perfect person to travel this land up close and personal, visiting friends old and new, an ambassador of life. I have no doubt he enjoyed every minute.
Looking back at our warm, but casual, relationship, I often wondered if it worked in my favor that John knew I grew up rooting for the Raiders. Maybe that was the initial ice breaker.
As the years rolled past, I became certain that it didn’t matter. The ice breaker was humility and grace that defined John’s personality.
May he rest in peace.