JOHN MADDEN, MR. BIG : He Never Flies, Hates to Wear Socks and Won’t Bet on Football. He’s Made a Fortune Being Himself.

<i> David Chamberlain, a Denver-based writer, has appeared in Harper's, Rolling Stone, Outside and Sport. </i>

IT IS EARLY EVENING ON a Tuesday in mid-December, and John Madden is aboard a train that, after the usual phantom starts and inexplicable delays, has finally pulled out of Chicago. Unable to fly because of claustrophobia, Madden has just spent two days in Amtrak-imposed limbo, since no direct passenger rail service exists between Denver, site of his previous assignment, and Dallas, where he is headed now to cover his final game of the regular football season.

Already, with the train less than an hour out of the station, Madden’s overnight to Dallas is shaping up as a hectic odyssey into his own celebrity. The club car, to which he customarily repairs early in his journeys, is not the sort of thing that puts one in mind of the golden age of railroads. It’s more a rolling concession stand, where passengers wait in a long line at a window for microwaved food and drinks in plastic cups. As the line lengthens past Madden’s seat and word of his presence spreads through the train, people begin to approach.

“Boom!” a man ventures, borrowing Madden’s favorite word for describing violent football collisions.


“Whap!” Madden returns without hesitation.

Many people address Madden this way, using his own mannerisms and commercials--even his phobias--as an entree: remorseless variations on Miller Lite’s “less filling / tastes great” duality; observations that Madden really doesn’t fly, does he; promptings for him to exit by the door and not through the wall, as he often does in his beer commercials. Madden, of course, has heard it all before, but he manages a fresh reply for almost everyone, unrehearsed and funny-at-the-time stuff very much like his television commentary. And, of course, he talks football, keeping it simple, his manner closer to that of aggrieved fan than of knowledgeable coach. “The Bears should have started running the ball earlier,” he complains to a succession of visitors, referring to a game he’d watched on TV the night before. “Keep it on the ground,” he says at last, achieving a nice synthesis of football and phobia.

A woman walks up and asks, “Are you going out to do the Rams game?”

“No,” Madden answers, “I’m going to do Dallas.”

“Well,” the woman says knowingly, “don’t do it like Debbie did it.”

John Madden, for once, has no reply.

TODAY, MADDEN’S ODDBALL itinerary of professional football games will bring him to this season’s final destination: the Rose Bowl. There he will provide color commentary for CBS’ coverage of Super Bowl XXI. It will be a nostalgic anniversary: It was 10 years ago at the Rose Bowl that Madden, in a constant state of sideline agitation--waving his great cut-of-meat arms, tearing his thick fingers through his ungovernable hair, ceaselessly haranguing the officials--coached the Oakland Raiders to a 32-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. He has since broadcast the Super Bowl, but today will be the first time he has done it from this special locale. “That was the greatest day in my football life, in that stadium,” he says. “I’ll never forget any part of it. I can relate every second of that day. It was a beautiful day. I mean it was a perfect football day, like an autumn day. It was clear and kinda cool, and the Rose Bowl, you know, has grass .” John Madden, in football as in all other things, is a partisan of the bona fide.

The winning of Super Bowl XI secured for Madden such fame as a football coach can expect. But it wasn’t until a year or two after he retired at the end of the 1978 season--at 42, ulcerated and afflicted by what was not then called burnout--that his fame began to compound itself into celebrity, a process that has advanced to the point where he seems something more: a force of nature whose every trait is seen as part of an indivisible phenomenon.

Madden is now the best color commentator in football, for which CBS pays him in the neighborhood of $1 million a year; a ubiquitous television pitchman for--listing only his current accounts--beer (Miller Lite), hotels (Ramada Inn), cameras (Canon), and motor oil (Exxon); the author of two best-selling books in the last three years; a resident of the celebrity-favored Dakota in Manhattan as well as his longtime home in Pleasanton, southeast of Oakland; the father of sons who attend Harvard and Brown; a man who can’t venture into public without attracting the attention of huge numbers of people who regard him with a mixture of awe and affection.

As Madden sits in the club car on the train out of Chicago, his 6-foot-4, 270-pound body overwhelms a space designed for two persons. He’s wearing a blue, button-down cotton shirt imperfectly tucked into his tan pants, and unlaced sneakers under which there are no socks--his invariable way of dressing. Except for two huge diamond rings--one commemorating his Super Bowl triumph, the other his feat of winning more than 100 (actually 103) regular-season games in 10 years of professional coaching--and a large cigar, never lit, but wetly masticated and frequently brandished, he looks like an overage, outsized preppy.

“Well. About that,” he says, beginning a not-very-eager exploration of his phenomenonhood. “You don’t think about it. To me, that’s something that other people think and ask you about, but you don’t ever think about it yourself. If you were going to think about it, when would you do it?” A relentless student of other people’s lives, he manages to sound deeply perplexed at the possibility of analyzing his own fame. “Would I sit here now and think about it? I go home; I don’t think about it. I’m working with the guys, I don’t think about it. I swear. I never think I’m any different from what I ever was.”

Well, but what Madden was was a kid brought up poor in blue-collar Daly City--just south of San Francisco--the son of an auto mechanic; a football player at modestly esteemed Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; a 21st-round Philadelphia Eagles draft choice whose career was ended by a rookie camp knee injury. Even during his run as coach of the Raiders, there was a great, if unjust, tendency to credit his immense success to the team’s managing general partner, Al Davis. What Madden has become is evident on the train as he signs autographs on napkins, menus, tickets and, inevitably, cans of Miller Lite. A middle-aged couple approaches with two of the latter.

“They better be Miller,” he says in a friendly growl.

“We wouldn’t have it any other way,” the man assures him. “Make one out to Leon and one out to Shirley.”

And, of course, there is a good deal of picture taking. Madden poses with people who, in order to fit into the picture, must crowd close to him and grab on, giving him the appearance of a fullback being gang-tackled. He gives no indication that these are importunities to be endured. Instead he says, “It takes about three times as long to explain to someone why you won’t give them an autograph as it does to actually give them an autograph.” For their part, his admirers seldom flash the hostility and envy that often underlie fan-star encounters.

Madden’s response sometimes goes beyond good-humored tolerance. Earlier in the day, he and a CBS crew had gone to Soldier Field in Chicago to shoot “stand-ups” for a year-in-review program. There, he was greeted with special enthusiasm by the grounds crew--young men, mostly black, who looked as though life had denied them much. They were especially quick and inventive at playing off his commercials and quirks, and he enjoyed himself even more than usual. The young men were surprised when they found themselves featured in a scene involving the Soldier Field tarpaulin. But it was Madden--without show, in a kind of side-of-the-mouth instruction to the TV crew--who made sure that the men knew when they could expect to see themselves on national television. “These are great guys,” Madden observed. “Very sharp. They don’t look like they have very much.” Then a final accolade: “Geez, they must have given up lunch to do this.”

ALTHOUGH MADDENinsists that he doesn’t think about his fame, his assessment of his celebrity status is on target: It hasn’t made him any different from what he ever was. He has been able to remain himself because he knows people like him more for his personal foibles than for his professional excellence. “I never professed to be perfect,” he says. “I do something wrong or something stupid, I laugh at myself.”

Indeed, a large part of Madden’s prominence is the result of self-mockery. His post-coaching career took off when, in a TV ad for Miller Lite, he parodied his colossal sideline rants, starting out with calm assurances that he was a new man, but gradually working himself into a frenzy, waving his arms, raising his voice to tirade pitch and finally bursting through a wall--bursting, as it turned out, upon the scene. Later, when he signed on with CBS in 1979, his reputation as a man with a special style--a real original--was given a huge boost when it was discovered that a phobia forced him, his unremitting coast-to-coast obligations notwithstanding, to abandon air travel in favor of trains.

“I’m not afraid of flying, I just fear I’m going to die,” Madden says, refusing as usual to dissemble. “I think I’m"--surprising choice of words for a football coach--"vulnerable. I admit it. I don’t fly . I got claustrophobia . I don’t go in high buildings. I don’t do those things. I’m just myself, whatever that is.”

It was never a case of Madden’s trying to make something out of his quirks. It took a good deal of talking by his agent to convince him, first, that he ought to become a pitchman for beer, and second, that he should give color commentary a shot. When he was coaching, he used to ask the networks to forgo showing his sideline antics in favor of concentrating on the game. Despite the fact that it was that very behavior that won him most of the fame he now enjoys, he still seems to wish that the cameras had never caught him emoting.

Later, out of embarrassment, Madden didn’t even tell CBS that he was riding trains from assignment to assignment until he’d worked for the network for a while. (He had never liked air travel, but it wasn’t until the early ‘80s that he found it so intolerable that he swore it off forever.) People would ask whether they could pick him up at the airport, and he would mysteriously decline. He would be asked how his flight was, and, not wanting to lie, would say something about his trip having been fine, thanks. Finally, seeking relief from such labors of secrecy, he confessed, unwittingly supplying new material to support the growing Madden legend.

Even his trademark way of dressing, which in another man might seem a studied slobbishness, is deeply rooted in claustrophobia and the consequent desire to, well, burst out. “Even when I was a little kid I hated to dress up,” he says. “I hated to put on regular shoes. I wanted to play all the time. I hate to wear any kind of coat or sweater. I’ve never liked hot. I’ve never liked to be warm. (Madden is famous for having braved cold-weather football in warm-weather garments; climatologically, his hotel rooms and train compartments resemble walk-in freezers.) People always say ‘nice and warm’ or ‘warm and comfortable.’ Warm has never been comfortable to me. I never heard anyone else say, you know, ‘I want to be cold and comfortable.’ I never want to be warm. I hate to be warm.”

And although it may be a bit much to suggest that Madden became a coach as a result of claustrophobia, his choice of vocation did have everything to do with bursting out. “You get caught up in that thing: ‘What do you want to be?’ So I said ‘lawyer.’ Then I started looking at these guys, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to dress up.’ I could see myself arguing some big case, but I couldn’t see myself sitting in an office in a suit and tie. Then in my freshman year in college I said, ‘This is full of crap. I’m kidding myself. All my life has been play .’ ”

It’s this sort of personal history that makes it easy to believe Madden when he says of his recent success: “I didn’t plan it. I think it’s just one of those things that you just play and let happen. I think if you do plan it, it doesn’t work. I don’t think you could. How do you know what’s going to happen?” Madden, not surprisingly, refuses to watch videotape of himself. “I was doing a game, and doink just came out. That’s not a word. But if I listened to it and analyzed it, I would change it, and then you’re a phony. What I do is react. I don’t plan.”

The only thing wrong with that explanation is that it fails to acknowledge Madden’s seriousness of purpose. He’s known in the color-commentary business as an exceptionally hard worker, using his long train rides to digest mountains of football boilerplate. But, typically, he downplays his preparation, insisting that by now he just “absorbs” the material, much in the way that he only “reacts” to what he sees on the field; he insists that his Super Bowl preparation will consist mostly of “throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks.”

But what really sets Madden apart from other color commentators is his gift for observation. As a coach, he says, he could watch a play and, even at ground level, know what all 22 players on the field were doing--an ability that’s only been enhanced by his elevation to the broadcast booth. Madden, though, is first an observer of people and then of football. He likes to sit in hotel lobbies and speculate about the people who pass: What’s the story on that couple? Is the woman the man’s wife, daughter, mistress? He answers his own inquisitiveness by, he says, “making up scenarios” about those he observes.

Madden used to have a favorite lunch spot in San Francisco’s North Beach, just across the street from a porn house. “You could always see the people walking in and walking out. You could tell from experience who was going to go in and who was going to walk by. If a guy was going in, he would come in close to the wall.” At this point, you suspect that if Madden had the CBS Chalkboard handy, he would not hesitate to use it. “He would take the tight corner and walk right against the storefronts, and then always before he’d go in, he’d take a look to the left--you know, like running a pass pattern and faking--and then go in. If someone made a wide turn, walking in the middle of the sidewalk outside, they wouldn’t go in. And then coming out, it was the same thing: They would walk real tight to the buildings and not spend a lot of time. And then they’d slow down, just like they were a normal guy. I watched for a year and got to where I could damn near pick every one.”

If Madden’s explorations don’t yield answers, he owns up to his bafflement. “Everybody says, ‘I’d like to grow up with my kids,’ ” he notes, “but that’s overrated. When I quit the Raiders, I said, ‘I’m going to spend this year with my family.’ (In his “Hey, Wait a Minute (I Wrote a Book!),” he relates that he was so preoccupied with coaching that he believed his older son, who was approaching 16 when Madden left the Raiders, was only 12.) So, I go home and, hell, my kids are in school . They never came home. It’s not as if I could go sit in the classroom with them. They come home at night and they do their homework and then they go to bed . My wife is independent and she was gone. So I’m sitting home by myself. But how do you spend time with a teen-age kid? I swear to God, I couldn’t figure it out. I mean it’s kind of sacrilegious talking about it, I guess, but I don’t know how to do it . So I looked at my neighbors--I really felt guilty--and they didn’t do it. They were home every night and weekends with their kids gone.”

On the train, Madden’s curiosity--obviously a good way to deflect attention from himself--often takes the form of a keen inquiry into the lives of his fellow passengers. His conversations, although friendly, are not bland how-dos. They’re grittier exchanges in which Madden, fond of playing the devil’s advocate, tries to discover something about the lives of the people he encounters. Let a group board the train in Whitefish, Mont., for instance, and Madden will want a full accounting of what causes people to live in this remote town near the Canadian border. “I mean, what if everybody lived in Whitefish, Montana?” he asks, calling on his sometimes eccentric but always inexorable logic. “Who would live in Washington, D.C.? Who would go to Wall Street?”

Whatever nostalgia Madden will feel when he returns to the Rose Bowl today, announcing the Super Bowl will understandably be a lot less satisfying than coaching in it was. “In coaching, you win or you lose. That’s it. If you win, that’s a great damn feeling, and if you lose, that’s the worst damn feeling. You cover a game, you don’t have that high of winning or the low of losing. You’re right in the middle.” He makes “the middle” sound like a desert of non-feeling.

Which is not to say that Madden won’t enjoy himself enormously this afternoon. He will, for the same reason he says that he will never forsake covering live events for--as speculation sometimes has it--acting. “I’m not into things that are staged or scripted. They tend to bore me. I love the excitement of being there and knowing that you don’t know the outcome. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and I like not knowing.”

Because he relishes the excitement of not knowing , the only people, aside from drunks, whom Madden doesn’t like to encounter are “phonies who want to talk about betting--people who ask about odds or point spreads. I’ve never associated that with the game. I’m not interested in it at all. I think the whole thing is stupid.” He neatly skewers the paranoia and cynicism that often pass for tough, smart-money shrewdness these days: “That personality, that mentality is that everyone’s cheating them, nothing’s right, everything’s crooked. That’s the great thing about sports. I don’t know what’s going to happen. When I tell people this, they say, ‘Aw, come on, who’s gonna win?’ They think you’ve got this stuff inside you and you know who’s going to win.”

As it happens, across the aisle from Madden sits a young man--a skeletal, lank-haired youth with intermittent teeth. He appears to be very drunk and has been eyeing Madden glassily for some time. “Who d’ya think’s gonna win the Super Bowl?” he suddenly blurts.

“I don’t know,” Madden answers. His voice is uncharacteristically flat.

“Aw, hell,” the kid protests.

“See?” Madden says, not all that pleased at having his point so graphically and immediately illustrated.

“Golleee!” the kid exclaims, lodging a final, dim complaint.

It’s not that Madden, who’s been known to get involved in all-night poker games on the train, is morally opposed to gambling. No, what he dislikes about playing the point spread is that it establishes an alternative game to the real game, thereby undermining something that ought to be fun. And Madden is a serious defender of football as play. There’s no contradiction here: Who, after all, is more serious than a child tending his games?

He worries that football players no longer enjoy playing the game; fun is sacrificed to salaries and stardom and is poisoned by a variety of artificial ingredients that include synthetic turf, domed stadiums and coaches who won’t trust the marvelous gifts of their quarterbacks enough to let them call plays.

Madden’s broadcast style bears out his insistence that these sophistications have not cooled his game-day pleasure. He has been rightly praised for his easily comprehensible analysis. But some of his best moments come when he abandons explanation for the zeal of a child at play. Thus Madden, describing a replay of a Washington kick return in the previous week’s game at Denver: “I’ll tell ya. That’s a great return. That guy’s going to make all-Madden for this. There’s no fair catch in this deal. Guy’s only 5 foot 8, just activated for this game. Watch him. I mean he’s a reckless runner. Watch. He jumps! Drives! Twirls! Spins!”

Not knowing what’s going to happen is also what Madden likes best about his train life--when he can get it. The departure from Chicago has been plagued by a series of irritating shutdowns, and the club car has two or three times been cast into darkness. But these are strictly bush-league glitches that do not threaten the neat symmetry of Madden’s train habits: He will stay up until 2 in the morning and then, simply by walking to a different car, abandon the publicness of the club car for the privacy of his sleeping compartment. There, he may read what he unhesitatingly calls “trash.” (He is currently engrossed in the novels of Jackie Collins). Then, he will lapse into a giant’s slumber--10 hours, 12 hours, (“The thing I like about being on trains,” he says, “is that there’s no time .”) rising the next afternoon not long before the scheduled arrival in Dallas.

But last week’s trip was another story. The train, out of New York, came to an abrupt halt near Sing Sing, owing to the escape of several dangerous criminals from the storied lockup. It was an electric train, and the search for the convicts required shutting off the juice from the middle rail; the train was without power for four hours, unable to move or provide its passengers with light, heat or ventilation. The delayed travelers were overtaken by a surly unease, compounded by their fear that the felons might board and pillage. A woman attempted to lead the others in Christmas carols, but they remained sullenly mute. In telling the story, Madden begins to work his arms a little, laughing and excited, and tries a few bars of “White Christmas” to recapture the absurd moment. “Then she proposed a toast to Christmas,” he recalls merrily, “but this bunch of guys who’d been getting drunk started toasting the prisoners instead. There were cheers for the prisoners and then cheers for the troopers who were trying to catch the prisoners.”

Eventually, as the club car began to grow intolerably stuffy, Madden did what any sensible claustrophobe would do: He got the conductor to open one of the between-cars doors to the outside. But the initiative was decried by those who feared a boarding by outlaws. They were mollified only when the cold-loving Madden pressed himself into service as a door, filling the entrance with his barrier of a body.

“Because of my claustrophobia, that prison break should have bothered me,” he observes. “But it didn’t, because I was excited. You didn’t know what was going to happen: Are they going to catch the guys or are the guys going to jump on the train? Where are they, anyway? Not knowing what’s going to happen is the great thing about football, too!”