Editor’s Note: Terence Moore is an Atlanta-based national sports columnist and commentator. He’s a CNN sports contributor and a visiting professor of journalism at Miami University in Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @TMooresports and subscribe to his YouTube channel. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Football legend John Madden died unexpectedly Tuesday morning at the age of 85. When I heard the news, my mind flashed back to the early 1980s when I began covering the Oakland Raiders (now the Las Vegas Raiders) for The San Francisco Examiner. That was two years after Madden ended his decade coaching the team. All I knew of John Earl Madden back then was the guy on TV with the easy smile, jumbo-sized eyebrows and folksy ways. He was that cartoon character in the flesh yelling, “Boom!” out of nowhere during nationally televised NFL games.
There was another Madden, though. Whenever I huddled with the slew of players, coaches and executives that he left behind in Oakland, they described somebody so intense that he could fuel a rocket ship past Mars when he exploded.
They said Madden often exploded.
Once, during a Raiders practice in 1980, a representative of legendary Raiders owner Al Davis spent a couple of minutes screaming at me before the whole team over something I wrote. Later, that same team executive told me just above a whisper, “Better be glad John Madden isn’t still around. He would have kicked your ass.”
Madden was a prolific (and volatile) NFL head coach, a charismatic broadcaster, an accomplished pitchman and a best-selling author. He also helped produce a few video games during his spare time – the wildly popular Madden NFL Football – while he rode his custom-made bus, The Madden Cruiser, from coast to coast. He was terrified of flying, but he turned his fear into a Madden thing, and Madden things always rocked.
Nobody in the sports world was bigger than this Northern California guy. For one, he was just big. At 6-foot-4, he looked like an offensive and defensive lineman – which he was during the late 1950s at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California.
But it was Madden’s time on the sidelines instead of in the huddle that made him the larger-than-life legend he was. Not only did he produce the NFL’s all-time best winning percentage among coaches who had more than 100 career victories (.759 with a 103-32-7 record), he led the Raiders to seven American Football Conference title games and a Super Bowl victory following the 1976 season. He regularly took those Oakland rosters of misfits and castoffs to victory with flair.
Exhibit A: Several of Madden’s miracles with the Raiders had their own names for the ages. There was “Ghost to the Post,” and “Sea of Hands.” But perhaps no victory was more spectacular than “The Holy Roller,” in which Madden pushed his team past the Chargers 21-20 in San Diego on September 10, 1978, after Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler’s fumble was guided into the end zone and recovered by teammate Dave Casper for a game-winning touchdown.
Raiders announcer Bill King described it all, right down to Madden going nuts after the play.
“The ball, flipped forward, is loose! A wild scramble, 2 seconds on the clock! Casper grabbing the ball! It is ruled a fumble! Casper has recovered in the end zone! The Oakland Raiders have scored on the most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play! Madden is on the field. He wants to know if it’s real. They said yes, get your big butt out of here! He does!”
Not surprisingly, Madden had ulcer issues. He announced after the Raiders missed the playoffs following the 1978 season that he was retiring at 42, but instead of leaving the football world he became an NFL analyst. From 1979 to 2009, he spent his broadcasting time winning 16 Emmy Awards while covering 11 Super Bowls for four different networks. He also became a salesman for everything from Miller Lite to Ace Hardware stores.
If that wasn’t a full enough career, Madden wrote three books during the 1980s with New York Times columnist Dave Anderson – “Hey, Wait a Minute (I Wrote a Book!)”; “One Knee Equals Two Feet: And Everything Else You Need to Know About Football”; and “One Size Doesn’t Fit All.”
Those Madden things were fueled by his overwhelming charisma that dominated the room. I know. I attended more than a few of his always-packed sessions with the media at the site of Super Bowls. He was never boring, but you wouldn’t expect anything less.
He was John Madden.