John Madden would be the first to dispute this, but I'm the one writing the column: He's a broadcaster who became as big as the sport he covered.
Maybe even bigger.
That isn't easy to say when you're talking about the NFL, which is pretty much the biggest sports entity of them all. But Madden managed to transcend being someone who simply talked about what was going on between the plays. He became much more than a familiar voice and face that was always there to explain what had happened, what would happen next and what was happening on the perimeter.
You want to know why Madden was on equal footing with the NFL? Because after NBC announced Madden's retirement from the Sunday Night Football booth, my e-mail inbox began filling up with reaction to the news from NFL and broadcast dignitaries throughout the country. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and people from two of Madden's former employers (FOX Sports and ABC/ESPN) all weighed in, as did Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid and San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary.
The story was treated with far greater reverence than is normally afforded the end of a longtime career behind a microphone because of the realization that there won't be another like the one Madden enjoyed for 30 years.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had this to say about John Madden's retirement:
"There is one thing football fans have agreed on for decades: They all love John Madden. ... He had an incredible talent for explaining the game in an unpretentious way that made it more understandable and fun.
"John's respect and passion for the game always stood out. He was the ultimate football fan who also happened to be an extraordinarily talented coach and broadcaster."
He was the brand within the brand. There was the NFL game on the field and then there was the Madden perspective, never to be confused with that of any other color analyst in the league or other sports for that matter.
"John has no peer," Pat Summerall, Madden's broadcast partner for 21 years, once told me. "Nobody works like he does. Nobody sees the game like he does. Nobody is as good as he is."
Phil Simms, a longtime NFL broadcaster himself, told me that he "never -- and I mean NEVER! -- turned a TV on one, single time in my life because I wanted to hear what a particular announcer had to say about the game."
I consider Simms to be one of the very best color analysts in the game. I hold his football opinions in high regard. But I don't agree with him on this one.
People did tune in to hear what Madden had to say. I won't say it was the only reason or even the primary reason. But it was a reason, and a significant one.
You had to listen to what Madden said because it almost always made sense -- even those silly, boom! bang! sound effects he felt compelled to include in his commentary -- and was easy to digest. It came to you in a no-frills package, the type of thing you were comfortable receiving because it felt like being in a discussion with a friend or relative with whom you were watching the game. It was a little rough and unpolished, the way conversations between fans are supposed to be.
It was substance over style.
Madden's video game and commercial endorsements and bestselling books are part of an empire, but they're not the reason that he towered over so many others in the broadcast business after a successful coaching career that was so long ago it is almost treated as a footnote.
The reason was his amazing ability to make doing what he did on TV seem so effortless, so un-broadcast-like. And it's because Madden went through an entire broadcasting career without viewing himself as a broadcaster.
"I'm always going to be a football guy who's an announcer," he once told me. "I will never be an announcer. I will never be a 'television guy.' Never!"
There was an obvious sense of pride behind the words, as if he understood he was pulling off something that so many others in the field hadn't.
In four decades, I've been around and spoken to Madden on numerous occasions. Two stand out above the rest:
In 1980, early in Madden's days as a color analyst for CBS, we were sitting in the lobby of a hotel in St. Louis. At the time, I was covering the Eagles, who were scheduled to face the Cardinals the next day. Madden, who was assigned to the game, got to talking about the tightly wound personality of then-Eagles coach Dick Vermeil. Madden said it reminded him of himself as he neared the end of a 10-year run as coach of the Oakland Raiders.
Madden said he knew it was time to get out of the game when he began to constantly argue with officials "about everything -- before, during and after the game." He saw Vermeil heading in a similar direction. Sure enough, a couple of years later, Vermeil retired, citing "burnout." He, too, went onto broadcasting, but unlike Madden, he returned for a second NFL coaching stint ... and a third after a much shorter retirement. Madden didn't have any less passion about football, but he was able to find satisfaction where Vermeil couldn't -- in just talking about the game and being around those who coached and played it.
My other favorite Madden encounter came in the middle of the 2001 season, his last at FOX before joining Al Michaels on ABC's Monday Night Football. We were in Green Bay, where Madden and Summerall were preparing to broadcast a game between the Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I was there to simultaneously interview the duo for an article in the Super Bowl XXXVI game program.
Summerall arrived first in the conference room at the Radisson Hotel. He had his choice of two large chairs, positioned next to each other in front of a fireplace, and he purposely picked the one that would put him on Madden's left.
"That's how we sit in the booth," Summerall said. "We might as well keep it that way."
Madden showed up a few minutes later, wearing a baseball cap and a jumpsuit. Then he plopped his 6-foot-4, 270-pound frame in the other chair, just as he had countless times in one of the seats of the "Madden Cruiser," the customized bus in which he traveled to all of his games because he hated to fly. Madden and Michaels were a fine team, but no one will ever be more closely identified with Madden than the silky smooth Summerall.
"I can go on and on about something, and he can sum up what the hell I'm trying to say with just one or two words," Madden told me about Summerall at the time. "There were times I remember, and Pat remembers, when we'd be in commercial and I'd still be talking. I'm not the smoothest ride."
"We were doing the opening, so we were using our hand mikes while sitting on the bench -- which would be in front of us during the game -- with our backs to the field," Madden said. "I'm talking, talking, talking. As usual, Pat asks the last question, and the camera pulls in on me while he puts his headset on so he's all ready to go when the game starts. I can see, out of the corner of my eye, that he's just standing there and I don't know why the hell he's just standing there without his headset on.
"Now this is the Super Bowl. This isn't some scrimmage or something. And, as I'm talking, I'm kind of looking at him and wondering, 'What's going on here?' You've got a live mike, so no one can say, 'Hey, you're sitting on his headset!' So everybody in the booth starts pointing, and I'm wondering, 'What the hell are they pointing to my (butt) for? Now I'm finished, and when I stand up, the headset comes flying out."
Added a laughing Summerall, "The headset is all bent out of shape." To which Madden, laughing even harder, responded, "I've been sitting on it. What the hell do you expect?"
What we came to expect from Madden was to have a little bit of fun while learning a little bit more about what we were watching. That separated him from other announcers. That went a long way toward allowing him to become as big as the sport he covered.
Maybe even bigger.