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Commentary: John Madden's sweet ride

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  • Bob Greene: John Madden's retiring as a broadcaster but keeping his bus
  • He says football expert had the ultimate perk for traveling the country
  • Greene: Highway becomes your best friend as you discover America block by block
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By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose current book is "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

Bob Greene says John Madden has had a great perk: seeing America on his own bus.

Bob Greene says John Madden has had a great perk: seeing America on his own bus.

(CNN) -- You've undoubtedly heard that John Madden has left the football broadcast booth. What you may not have heard is that he's not leaving his bus.

"It's been such a great ride," Madden said as he announced his retirement.

But the truly great ride -- the one he will not relinquish -- wasn't his long career as a National Football League broadcaster.

The best ride was the literal one.

Madden's aversion to flying in airplanes led him to perhaps the grandest business perk in all of American life: He was given his own bus, with his own professional drivers. He crisscrossed the country, on his way from one big game to another, on what came to be known as the Maddencruiser, the cost of which eventually was underwritten by corporate sponsorship.

Now. . .you may think that being stuck in a bus for days and nights on end must be a lousy way to lead a life.

Not when you're the only passenger -- you, or whatever buddies and colleagues you choose to invite along. Not when there's food and drink onboard, and television sets with DVD players at the ready, and plenty of room to stretch out and observe the country as it passes by.

And those amenities leave out the most beautiful lure of all. Let President Obama explain it.

He did, inadvertently, the other week. He wasn't talking about Madden -- he was talking about plans for a new high-speed rail system. These were the president's words:

"No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes [at the metal detector]. . . . "

That's the gift Madden gave himself, by working out the bus deal -- the gift of avoiding the endless headaches of travel the rest of the world has to endure. Departure time? Whenever he wants. Flight cancellations? No such thing. Cramped seats? Nope. Security lines? There are none.

It can make for a pretty peaceful life. A football game to see every week, the country winding gloriously out ahead of you between stadiums, your main decision boiling down to how to chop up the miles, where to eat and where to sleep and where to stop for a few hours just to talk to people. . . .

There is a hotel on the west coast of Florida where I have stayed quite often, and during football season Madden would sometimes stay there too. If there had been a game in, say, Miami, and the next one was in Dallas, he might ask his bus driver to stop for the night at this place, which features outlying cottages on the Gulf of Mexico.

Talk about a guy who seemed tranquil -- I know his on-air image was always sort of loud and animated, but I'd see Madden having a serenely silent and unhurried meal by himself in the restaurant, leisurely flipping through the sports pages; I'd see him in the little sandwich shop/deli in the morning, a quiet and amiable fellow standing in line with everyone else, waiting to pay for his breakfast pastries; I'd see him, on departure day, strolling blissfully toward his bus, an overnight bag in his hand, having decided that this was the time that he'd like to roll out. . . .

Who would ever have thought that a fantasy life could revolve around something as seemingly mundane as a bus? But in a chaotic and confused world, full of noise and anger and deadlines, the allure of cruising in splendid solitude through the country, seeing America mile by mile, the journey itself being the ultimate victory. . . .

Madden is the grand champion of bus riders, the winner of the lifetime achievement award. And for those who thought that Madden must have felt trapped on that bus for all these years, the truth -- I can promise you this -- is that rolling through the country that way is the opposite of being trapped.

The highway begins to feel like a best friend; as well as you may have thought you knew America before, you begin to understand it in ways you never even considered. Block by block, town by town, state by state, you appreciate anew: There are still so many things to see.

So I wasn't surprised when Madden, after declaring that the football life he is leaving had been a great ride, said that, by the way, he's keeping the bus. When he travels, that's how he will do it, with or without a corporate sponsor, even now that there will be no game waiting on the other end.

And of course, after all these years there is a certain remarkable aura that has formed around the man and that bus of his. At the place in Florida where he would sometimes stay, I was coming back from dinner one night and saw two local police squad cars on the property. This was highly unusual; the town was a quiet dot on the map.

I asked the police officers if there had been a crime committed.

They appeared a little sheepish. They exchanged glances, as if deciding whether to tell me their real reason for being there.

Finally one of them laughed, and said:

"We just wanted to look at John Madden."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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