John Madden’s beautiful goodbye

Sports

ON CHRISTMAS DAY, John Madden gathered his close family members and friends around his TV at 2 p.m. A documentary about him and his tall-tale life, “All Madden,” was airing on Fox, and he wanted to watch it with the people he loved the most.

Many of the people in the room with him — namely, his wife, Virginia, and sons, Joe and Mike — had made tremendous sacrifices over the decades as Madden rose to stardom, first as a Hall of Fame coach, then as a broadcaster, then as an esports pioneer. He’d often acknowledge that he missed more of his boys’ young lives than he ever wanted. “Virginia raised the kids,” he’d tell friends.

But his family also had invested deeply in Madden’s success, and this documentary served as a perfect coda to their family story. They were proud of him, and Madden considered his career to be theirs, too.

As he sank down into his big chair in the Madden TV room, his wife and sons, their spouses and his grandkids gathered around and watched the film. They had no idea that for most of them, it was the last time they’d share with their beloved patriarch.

And what a time it was. Over 90 minutes, the story of Madden’s astounding life unfolds, beginning with the injured lineman who washed out as a pro football player, became a coaching legend, stunned the world by walking away 10 years later, then stunned the world even more by becoming the biggest broadcaster and video game luminary in sports history. (The doc airs on Fox at 8 p.m. tonight, and is also on ESPN+.)

It was a meta moment for many in the room. Much of the doc is centered around a July shoot with Madden at his home studio, in which he sat in a chair and watched video of his family and football luminaries rave about him. On Christmas, his loved ones then watched Madden watch himself as he watched the finished product. On screen, he had a big smile on his face. In the room, the smile was even bigger.

When the film ended, Madden asked every person in the room what they thought, even the kids.

“I loved it,” the first person said.

“Loved it,” the second person said.

And on and on, around the room. The vote was unanimous. Finally, after everybody spoke, it was Madden’s turn. Everybody waited. In his final years, Madden’s hearing wasn’t great, which impacted his booming voice. So he often chose his words carefully, then worked hard to broadcast them out.

“I loved it, too,” Madden finally said. “And we got to share it, together.”

The next day, Dec. 26, he and Virginia celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary together.

The day after that, he was gone. John Madden was 85 years old.

Family and friends spent the next 48 hours shedding some tears, but there were a lot of smiles about that Christmas Day screening. Like almost every moment in his entire life, John Madden had once again picked the perfect moment to say goodbye.

ABOVE ALL ELSE, John Madden wanted to be known as a coach. He insisted that Hall of Fame voters evaluate him as a coach, without the “other stuff” as he sometimes said to refer to his second, third and fourth lives as a pioneering broadcaster, product pitchman and esports innovator. “I’m a coach and a teacher, period,” he always said.

He’d been named Raiders coach in 1969 as a 32-year-old. The hiring was a jaw-dropper at the time, but as an assistant on the Raiders staff under John Rauch, Madden was beloved and respected by what was a wild, old-school roster. One thing that served him well in the locker room — and later in the booth — was Madden’s ability to occasionally weaponize his physical stature. He was a giant man, 6-foot-4, 250 pounds or so, with a voice that carried. He was a hard-driving but gregarious personality who laughed a lot more than he yelled … but when he did yell, look out. The same way he could later tap into the ebb and flow of games as a broadcaster, he could grab his team by the face mask when he had to.

His first year as the Raiders coach, Madden saw some quotes in the newspaper from linebacker Phil Villapiano. The Raiders were playing San Francisco in a preseason game, and Villapiano told the paper, “Who cares about the 49ers? I’m more worried about organizing our team air hockey tournament.”

Madden marched out of his office and exploded at Villapiano in front of the entire team. “Who the f— do you think you are? This is professional football. I don’t ever want to hear crap like that again.”

It was a jarring moment for the Raiders under their new coach, and Madden later told Villapiano that yes, he had been a little mad about the air hockey quotes and the spotty team work ethic that August. But he had mostly been looking for the right time to assert himself as a young coach, and Villapiano had printed it out for him on the front page of that day’s sports section.

“We all loved John,” Villapiano says. “But when he did have to raise his voice — which wasn’t often — it had tremendous power. It shut you right up, and he always knew when to use that.”

Villapiano loves the end to the air hockey story because it’s such a good window into Madden’s ability to read rooms. The next year, the Raiders were scuffling through the preseason, working their butts off but fighting amongst themselves and having no fun at all that August. Madden called Villapiano into his office and said, “Hey, what’s going on with the air hockey tournament? This team needs it.”

Madden went on to a remarkable 10-year shooting-star run with the Raiders, part of an organization that eventually had 12 future Hall of Famers roaming the hallways. Madden could deal with owner Al Davis every day and coach a veteran locker room full of legendarily hard-nosed, oft-penalized Raiders.

But the squeeze from both sides eventually caught up with Madden, as seen in a painful scene from the documentary in which Madden and Davis jointly announced that he was retiring at age 42. He’d gotten the Raiders over the hump in 1976, finally winning a Super Bowl after being a perennial playoff flameout. But players worried about him constantly as seasons went on, with his big frame ballooning every November and December from the pressure of Just Win, Baby. “He’d be up at 350 pounds sometimes by the end of the year, just pounding down Maalox for his stomach,” Villapiano says. “We loved him but we worried about him — a lot.”

By 1979, Madden was burning out. But he had become the youngest coach to ever win a Super Bowl at the time (37) and had a 103-32-7 record, still the best winning percentage (75.9%) of any coach who won 100 games. “He might have been more proud of that statistic than anything else he did in life,” says legendary TV producer and longtime friend Bob Stenner. “People forget that John was one of the brightest, most successful coaches in NFL history and he got out at the absolute perfect time.”

At the news conference announcing his retirement, Virginia pulled the boys out of school to come and watch. The whole family, including Madden, cried twice, before and after he emphatically told the world he would never coach again. “I gave it everything I had,” Madden says. “I don’t have any more. It’s very difficult after 10 years to stand up and say that you’re retiring. I’m not resigning. I’m not quitting. I’m retiring from football coaching, and I’m never going to coach again.”

And he never did.

A FEW YEARS LATER, when he got a chance to try broadcasting, Madden loved it immediately. He had a natural gift at teaching and explaining football to a wide audience, and a huge part of it was his mastery of timing: He had an innate ability to navigate the time between plays, without stepping on his play-by-play partner, in a way that befuddles even the smartest, most charismatic ex-players and coaches.

“New broadcasters usually try to say too much,” says Stenner, who produced eight Super Bowls and won 11 Emmys during his 50-year network career. “Then you work with them and they swing the other way and become too abrupt and choppy. From the very beginning, John had an uncanny way to say just the right things, in just the right amount of time, and that’s way harder than people realize.”

He eventually landed alongside veteran Pat Summerall, the ideal quarterback to hand the ball off to Madden. A play would end, and Summerall’s calm, concise voice would say something like, “What do you know about pulling guards, John?” and he’d clear out of the lane to let Madden cook. They did a 20-second dance, back and forth, every play, every Sunday for 22 years, in a way that might never be replicated.

Madden became so popular that by the mid-1980s, he’d become the king of the commercial, promoting everything from Tinactin and Miller Lite to Ace Hardware and Outback Steakhouse. And still, he said no to a lot more ads than he said yes to. “It probably doesn’t seem like it, but John was careful about his endorsements,” says longtime friend and TV producer Richie Zyontz. “He did a lot of ads, but if you watch, you’ll notice they were all good ads. He wouldn’t just put his name on anything.”

That’s a big reason the first Madden Football game was produced in 1988, not 1984. EA Sports founder Trip Hawkins had the idea to make a video game with Madden as its front man in 1984, and met with Madden back when he was still traveling across the country by train (the Madden Cruiser wasn’t born until later that decade). Madden loved the idea and agreed with Hawkins that football could, would and should be taught through a great video game.

But when they were inching toward a deal, Hawkins let Madden know that he wasn’t sure the technology was there yet for a full 11-on-11 game. He suggested maybe dropping some linemen so that they could squeeze 14 players, 7-on-7, on the screen.

“That’s not real football,” Madden said.

“Unfortunately, the technology isn’t there yet to get 22 guys on the screen at the same time,” Hawkins said.

“But that’s not real football,” Madden said again.

“It will take years to get all 22 guys on a screen,” Hawkins said.

“Then it will take years,” Madden replied.

And it did. The first Madden Football game debuted in June 1988, and it has become the most important sports game ever produced. The franchise has sold north of 130 million copies, with more than $4 billion in sales since it debuted. “I’d say he was the right guy, in the right place, at the right time with Madden Football, don’t you think?” Zyontz says.

As the game took off, Madden only solidified his role as perhaps the NFL’s most prized personality — even bigger than the players and teams themselves. He left CBS for Fox in 1994 and helped legitimize the network, negotiating directly with Rupert Murdoch to pull off a shocking new home for him and NFC football.

He’d eventually announce his retirement from broadcasting right after the 2009 season. Madden was 72 years old and still the best in the business, but he was ready to go. The Steelers and Cardinals gave him a memorable walk-off night at Super Bowl XLIII. Santonio Holmes made a brilliant game-winning catch in the back of the end zone, and Madden was there to call it. “Couldn’t have written that any better,” Stenner says.

Madden got many requests to come back over the years. The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch (then at Sports Illustrated) reported about how in 2014, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and “Sunday Night Football” producer Fred Gaudelli took Madden to dinner in San Francisco. They had a big idea: What if Madden came out of retirement and did one final game? They even offered to make sure it was a game near Madden’s home in California.

The pitch was barely in the air before Madden swatted it away. The answer was no. “He’d done everything you could ever do in broadcasting,” Zyontz says. “He didn’t need money or fame or anything like that, and he didn’t have a big enough ego to need one more game. John had made his mark, and he was content with that.”

THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS, Madden texted Zyontz. Zyontz had begun his career as a security guard at CBS, but Madden met him and saw something. He put him on the Madden crew and Zyontz learned TV. He has become one of the most prolific, influential football producers in TV, still working every weekend for Fox in 2021, with eight Super Bowls under his belt.

He also grew into a trusted confidant of Madden’s. One time he called the coach at home during an offseason, and Madden was in the middle of a sentence when he said he had to go to the bathroom. “Here, talk to June,” Madden said, handing the phone to a random friend of Virginia’s who was over at the house.

Zyontz and this mystery woman, June, hit it off and decided maybe they should meet in person sometime. A few years later, they got married at Madden’s house. John Madden was the best man. “Perfect timing,” Zyontz says.

When Zyontz found out Madden had died, he sat down, stunned, and told June. She started crying, and Zyontz moved from stunned to saddened. But over the next few minutes, they both landed in the same spot so many of Madden’s loved ones are right now: They feel like his last days were a beautiful grand goodbye, where he was eulogized while alive, with his family sharing it with him in a way very few people ever get.

Then he celebrated his wedding anniversary with the love of his life, and then he passed away. “It’s sort of divine, don’t you think?” Zyontz says. “I think it was one of the most beautiful moments of John’s life. Everybody got to say how much they cared about him, and he said how much he cared about them, and then he died.”

Zyontz is talking while he searches through his phone. He wants to find his last text message with John. “I have it here somewhere,” he says. “I forget exactly what we said to each other, but I think it’s something I’ll save for the rest of my life.”

After a few seconds, Zyontz lets out a soft, “Oh.”

He’s silent for a few seconds and then he says, “Geez, this is really … it’s really hitting me.”

Madden had texted Zyontz on Dec. 25, right after the documentary aired: “Merry Christmas to you and yours. Thanks for everything you did to make this happen.”

“Wish it could have been even longer, John. Happy anniversary,” Zyontz texted back.

Madden told Zyontz he had loved seeing Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and so many others rave about him and his career. But he had been especially fond of the sections of the documentary where Virginia and the boys had discussed how proud they were of John, of how much the sacrifices were worth it.

Zyontz pauses for a moment before he shares the final text he has from his old friend, John Madden. Then he takes a deep breath and reads it.

“Thanks,” Madden typed. “Everyone says it should have been longer.”

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