I AM NOT John Madden’s daughter.
My name is Madden, and it’s true that I grew up on the gridiron. My father was a college and professional football coach, and our family dressed in team colors of purple and white, cardinal and gold, orange and white. Family vacations often included detours to empty stadiums. “Look alive, kids,” Dad would say. “That’s where the Kansas City Chiefs play!” We moved every three or four years, my father forever seeking “the opportunity to win.” He was usually either hired or fired just in time for Christmas.
Understandably, folks hear the word “football” and the name “Madden” and make an assumption. After all, John Madden is one of the biggest brand names in football, with unparalleled success as a professional head coach, a 25-year broadcast career, books and video games. He’s touched many lives. People pull me aside and confide in me about how much my “father” means to them. But the much-adored John Madden has two sons, no daughters.
His kids must have a good story, but it’s not my story.
I was a reluctant football daughter. My brothers played football; my sister was a cheerleader. I took novels to games. When I complained about football dominating our lives, my mother said: “Football is our bread and butter, missy, so no complaining. Whiners vacuum!”
Each inevitable moving day, I played the high-drama card and begged not to leave my friends. My father’s response was: “Get in the car! You want to stay in the same town your whole life? You want me clocking in every day at 5 o’clock like some banker, helping with homework? Holy crap, what kind of life is that? Get in the car!” Think “The Great Santini” with a whistle.
But when I was 8 and read about Helen Keller, I worked myself into full-blown panics, convinced that darkness was imminent. It was my dad who calmed my fears. One night, while he taught us to play 21, I burst into tears (yet again) over Helen Keller. Fed up, he shouted: “Holy crap, nobody’s going blind in this house! And you know why? Because I said so! Now get with the program!” Suddenly I felt this tremendous sense of relief. If he said it, then it was true.
The John Madden thing happened to me again a few weeks ago, as I was preparing to speak at a luncheon. Several women approached me to say how much they enjoyed watching my father on television. One said her son was so jealous that she was having lunch with John Madden’s daughter.
Before I could reply, she asked, “How come it’s not on your website? If I were John Madden’s daughter, I would tell everyone.” I said, “Because I am not John Madden’s daughter.” She started laughing: “Oh no, really? Because everybody here thinks you are.”
My father started coaching at Father Lopez High School in Florida, where he met and married my mother and had the team schedule printed on their wedding napkins. He was hired as a graduate assistant with the Mississippi State Bulldogs and, after a year, moved to Morehead State, where the “coacheswives” (coacheswives was one word to my little sister) had to go to the local bowling alley, the only place with decent radio reception, to listen to the games. He went on to coach for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons -- including the season Brian Piccolo led the nation in rushing -- and the Iowa State Cyclones, Kansas State Wildcats, University of Pittsburgh Panthers and University of Tennessee Volunteers. He spent eight years in the pros, as special teams coach for the Detroit Lions, on the defensive staff of the Atlanta Falcons and with the San Diego Chargers, back on special teams.
John Madden, who has the highest winning percentage in pro football (.750), never coached for those teams. For most of his career, my father was assistant head coach and defensive secondary coach under the legendary Johnny Majors. He coached with him on three teams that they took to five bowl games. In 1976, the season that my father’s team, the Pitt Panthers, won the NCAA national championship, John Madden’s Oakland Raiders won the Super Bowl.
OVER THANKSGIVING, I asked my father if he had ever met John Madden. He had. “We met in D.C. at the Touchdown Club at their annual banquet in 1977. There was an American Football Assn. coaches’ directory, and I said to John Madden, ‘I always wondered who that Madden was behind me.’ And he said, ‘And I always wondered who that Madden was in front of me.’ We laughed about it, and that was that.”
My father never felt overshadowed; he was too busy trying to win football games. But I certainly have in my own career as a writer. A decade ago, I wrote a book called “Offsides” about growing up “a freak” on the gridiron. Many bookstore managers assumed that I was John Madden’s daughter, including one who advertised it in the store’s monthly newsletter.
During my book tour that fall, cardboard cutouts of John Madden promoting his “Hey, I’m Talking Pro Football” dominated bookstores -- an unforeseen coincidence -- while stacks of “Offsides” languished, unsold, despite nice reviews. More than a few friends said: “Just lie. Get the book sales.”
I lied only once. I was at Books-A-Million in Knoxville, Tenn., and an elderly woman working at the store showed me a pedometer attached to her belt to count how many miles she clocked each day at the gigantic warehouse of books. Then she took me by the hand and said with tears in her eyes: “You don’t know how happy you’ve made me by coming here today. I have followed your father’s career my whole life. I love your father so much. It means the world meeting you.” She started to cry. What could I say? I hugged her and said, “Thank you very much.”
A friend said, “Hey, John Madden could be your honorary father.” But I don’t need an honorary father. Mine was never famous. He never became a head coach, his lifelong dream.
But he was still a great coach.
The year my father left coaching, my maternal grandfather, ill with Alzheimer’s, moved in with my parents. My father became his caregiver because my mom was teaching choral music full time. He would coach my 91-year-old grandfather and say: “Boss, we need to get you on a workout program. Build up your muscles, work on your strength and endurance.” He also had to give my grandfather showers, and my grandfather would say to my mother: “That man over there gives a fine shower. Scrubs you up and down clean as a whistle. Has he ever given you a shower? He gives a fine shower.” And my dad would say, “Glad to do it, boss.”
Now my father coaches his grandchildren. He buys the right kind of basketball shoes for my daughter, and he pitches baseballs to my son. Lately, he’s been attending football reunions at Wake Forest, Iowa State and Pitt. My mother goes too and reconnects with the coacheswives. She says his former players, men now in their 50s, come up to him and say, “Hey Coach, you changed my life.”
I am not John Madden’s daughter. My father is Joe Madden.