Madden Is A Man For One Season: Football

April 17, 2009|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,

Like a carnival barker on the NFL's never-ending boardwalk, I can guess your age if you just tell me what John Madden means to you.

Is he a video game? Good luck with your SATs or LSATs, kid.

Is he a TV pitchman, hawking everything from light beer to drill bits? You're probably considering a second mortgage right now, huh?

Is he a coach, a phenom of the headset set, a man with a Super Bowl ring weighing down one hand? Well, I hope your affairs are in order and your savings haven't completely disappeared.

As for me and others in my generation, Madden was a bit of everything. He was a Sunday teacher who followed us from grade to grade.

"He told me once that he got into coaching because he wanted to be a teacher," said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' top PR guy who's been working with Madden for three decades. (Byrne calls Madden "Coach," by the way.) "That's what he thought he was as a coach - a teacher. And when he got into television, he thought telling the masses about the game was his way of teaching."

We all outgrew Mister Rogers, G.I. Joe, after-school specials, Super Mario Bros. and just about every announcer who called the TV booth his home. But Madden was different.

And even as he walks away from his broadcasting career - in the middle of a lucrative six-year contract - his legacy and his place in football lore will be different, too.

"Growing up, Madden is football. And football is Madden," says Frank Caliendo, the comedian who's cashed plenty of paychecks thanks to his popular Madden impression. "They go together like mashed potatoes and gravy. You say his name, football comes to mind. You say football, and you're picturing his face."

This might be blasphemous to admit, but for me, Madden was a video magnate first and foremost. His voice provided the running commentary for adolescence, talking us through summers, making sure we exercised our fingers on long weekends and ensuring that minimal studying would be accomplished during finals week.

He was a football announcer second. He drew curious squiggles on the Telestrator and taught us the game when we knew nothing. So what if he looked like one of the Golden Girls at times - we all had a bad impersonation and we worshiped what he stood for. With the turduckens and the Madden Cruisers, he was an action figure with props.

"John has always said he's never worked a day in his life," NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said yesterday. "That makes it very hard to retire from something that John has always called recess."

And because he had fun, we had fun.

Even as he became somewhat of a cartoon character these past few years, a degree of reverence was always due. He was one part everyman, one part royalty. He spoke our language, but he did it from an earned podium.

His script came from the pages of comic books - Boom! Crash! Bam! - but it was charming, fitting that even a game that has intoxicated America could be reduced to a series of loud noises, as if someone had tossed a box of kitchenware down the basement stairs.

"You want that, especially when you're younger," Caliendo says. "You want the booms, the whaps, the pows. That makes it more fun. To a lot of people, I think, that makes it football."

Madden's best friend Sandy Montag, his longtime agent from IMG, captured the day's mood succinctly: "The world of football will miss John Madden."

In some regards, saying goodbye to Madden isn't especially tough. The first 5 million "Booms" were great TV; the next 5 million were the forced byproducts of a caricature. He's not the announcer he was just a decade ago, but for me, he was still as entertaining as most network offerings.

Accepting what it means to say goodbye is a bit trickier for a couple of reasons.

First, for Madden: There was an air of sadness on a conference call Thursday with Ebersol. At one point, the NBC Sports chairman caught himself referring to the 73-year-old Madden in the past tense. "He had a touch," Ebersol said. "He has a touch. I don't know why I'm saying it that way ..."

Ebersol says that as people began learning that Madden was leaving the broadcast booth - Madden told Ebersol last week but waited until they could meet face-to-face before making it official - everyone responded first with shock and then with concern for Madden's health. (He's fine, we're assured over and over. Enough times, in fact, that you begin to wonder.)

It's not that we can't imagine football without Madden. Rather it's difficult to imagine Madden without football. He has professed his love for the sport countless times. Here's what he told the Saturday Evening Post two decades ago: "When I did my first game, I immediately realized this was what I wanted to do. You see, I can't live without football. It's been part of my life since I was a little kid."

And for a growing generation of football fans, he has been a part of our lives since we were kids. Which is why saying goodbye to Madden as an announcer feels like we're saying goodbye to a part of our youth, as well.

Madden became an iconic figure. In some ways, he was football.

In other ways, he was bigger.

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