Appreciation: ‘Skinny guys don’t care about food’ — John Madden’s greatest gifts were humor, warmth

Raiders coach John Madden is pictured on the sidelines.
John Madden, shown on the sideline in 1978, became the youngest coach in AFL history when Raiders owner Al Davis promoted him from linebackers coach to head coach in 1969.
(Associated Press)

John Madden was so much more than a Super Bowl-winning coach, legendary broadcaster and someone who built a video-game empire.

He was a regular guy.

“What made him so popular was that he was so genuine and so accessible,” said Al Michaels, who worked in the ABC and NBC broadcast booths with Madden for seven years. “In traveling around the country, John had a great connection with city folk, rural folk, with farmers, with people out there doing the grunt work. He just had this great way of connecting to people and appealing to people.”

It was one of the most endearing things about Madden, who died Tuesday morning at 85. As enormous as he was in the football world, he was disarmingly unimpressed with himself and looked to connect with people on an entirely human level.


I had the extreme pleasure and honor of getting to know him over the last 20 years. Although I wouldn’t say we were close — I’m sure a thousand people were closer to him — John always made me feel as if I were in the inner circle.

We hadn’t actually spoken to each other in more than a year — his hearing and voice were fading — but would exchange brief texts, sometimes about Cal Poly, his alma mater, where my daughter is enrolled. His observations often arrived out of the blue.

NFL star John Madden, who reached the top of his profession in coaching, announcing and video games, died unexpectedly Tuesday morning at age 85.

Dec. 28, 2021

“Peyton should be the next commissioner”

“Cal Poly got a win last night !!”

On Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen: “He is an animal!!!”

On Tennessee running back Derrick Henry: “Henry is a one man gang!”

On Titans coach Mike Vrabel: “Vrabel does more with less!!”

Mundane texts from anyone else. These, I now want to frame.

There are more poignant memories, too, especially the heartbreaking one of talking to him on the day legendary Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler died, with Madden speaking in short bursts as if to keep his emotions corralled.

“I’ve always said if I had to win a game, I’d want him as a quarterback,” he said of Stabler in a faint and trembling voice. “When this happens, you just think of all the great times, the wins, the Super Bowl. He was such a big part of that. More than that, he was always a happy guy, always full of life. He enjoyed life.”

Raiders head coach John Madden is carried from the field by his players.
Raiders head coach John Madden is carried from the field by his players after his team defeated the Minnesota Vikings 32-14 at Super Bowl Xl in Pasadena on Jan. 9, 1977.
(Associated Press)

No one enjoyed life more than Madden. He was a fount of funny stories and Jerry Seinfeld-type observations about human behavior. Some were his own, some he collected from others.


For instance, once during a “Monday Night Football” production meeting in Philadelphia, an assistant went out for food and brought back about 20 flimsy and almost inedible cheesesteaks.

“You know what your mistake was?” Madden said, turning to producer Fred Gaudelli. “You sent a skinny guy out to get food. Skinny guys don’t care about food.”

Once, in a Fox production meeting, producer Bob Stenner noted that men who get heavier over the years tend to tie their shoelaces more toward the outside of their feet because they have a tough time bending over and centering the knot.

“Well, John was a big guy,” said Troy Aikman, who was next to Madden in the meeting. “So I’m sitting there and kind of looking at John out of the side of my eye. John wore that Spyglass hat and always kind of kept his head down.

“As Stenner’s telling us this, I kid you not, John’s shoelaces were on the side of his shoes. And he looks back up, and he knows that I’m looking at him, and I just started laughing. I think that’s the first time John ever heard that, and he probably took that and ran with it.”

Sure enough, Madden added that observation to his repertoire. He had a million of those.

Madden wasn’t afraid to poke fun, either at himself or the friends around him.

John Madden, right, with Fox broadcast partner Pat Summerall before Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans.
John Madden, right, with Fox broadcast partner Pat Summerall before Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans.
(Ric Feld / Associated Press)

“If you had product in your hair — somehow he knew about product and knew it was called that — he’d give you a hard time for hours,” Gaudelli said. “Like, `Hey, you’ve got product! Got some product today?’ He was on top of everything about you. He just knew. He was always checking you out.”

It’s a wonderful thing, really, that Madden was around long enough to see the masterpiece of a documentary Fox did on him. That was a true blessing.

“I called Eric Shanks, the head of Fox Sports and one of John’s longtime protégés, just to tell him how wonderful it was, the timing so that John was able to see this,” said Dick Ebersol, former chairman of NBC Sports.

“Eric put together this wonderful, loving tribute. It was a gift on John’s way to heaven.”

Gaudelli had an advance copy of the documentary and texted Madden about it last Friday, the night before it aired. As it happens, Christmas Eve also was Virginia’s and John’s wedding anniversary.

“Merry Christmas, Fred,” Madden wrote. “Please wish everybody a merry Christmas from me.”

We all knew that he was going to leave us some day. Some day came too soon.