The phrase “once in a generation” seems to be tossed too often, far more often than it should be in sports, but when it came to John Madden, this couldn’t even begin to sum up what he represented. Madden passed away unexpectedly on Tuesday but left a lasting legacy unlike any we’ve ever seen.
John Madden, the man, has meant something different to each generation of football fans since the 1970s. As head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Madden helped build the team that brought Al Davis the first of three Lombardi trophies in 1977 and the first Super Bowl championship to the San Francisco Bay Area. Madden still has the highest win percentage of any coach in the modern NFL era at .759 with a 103-42-7 record.
After retiring from coaching, Madden moved into broadcasting and was eventually paired alongside Pat Summerall. The duo became one of the most iconic broadcast teams in the booth during the 80s and 90s. I can still remember some of their calls during Cowboys, Packers, and 49ers games during the mid-90s. The duo of Madden and Summerall had such great chemistry on-air that even some of their more bizarre moments are legendary to this day. Like the eight-legged turkey and turducken on Thanksgiving. Madden made those segments fun and broke down their Thanksgiving meal with the same enthusiasm as he did with plays on the field.
For my generation, Madden’s legacy was cemented by the video game named after him, John Madden Football. Hearing Madden and Summerall’s commentary on a video game in 1993 was the coolest thing at the time. Even though it was only a few phrases early on, they included the most important one, which was BOOM! Looking at Madden now, it’s hard to believe anyone thought the early games were any good, but we loved them.
Madden, the video game, has become an institution unto itself that only those who’ve played the game at some point can understand. Players are even making money now playing the game online against other gamers. Back in the day, before Madden online play really blew up, people would get a group of friends together and play for hours. Unlike a lot of other games, Madden parties could be intense. Most times you may have been playing for nothing more than bragging rights within your group of friends, but it meant so much more when it came to Madden. Nobody wanted to leave a loser.
Every August, the annual Madden release date has almost become like a national holiday for the esports gaming community. The serious gamer can actually make money practicing and perfecting their Madden gaming craft. For this reason, the release date has become important so gamers can get the upper hand on potential opponents. Comedian Frank Caliendo is another person who’s made a few shekels off Madden over the years. Of all the impersonations in Caliendo’s repertoire, his imitation of Madden’s voice and mannerisms are by far the best. I can only imagine how many hours of practice it took Caliendo over several years to nail it the way he did.
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The legacy of John Madden will live on forever. Kids playing the game today and, in the future, will ensure that for however much longer EA Sports wants to keep that franchise going. Every time you watch an NFL game on CBS and Tony Romo diagrams a play on the telestrator, remember that Madden did it first. The identity of the Oakland/LA/Las Vegas Raiders franchise and that hard-nosed football mystique of yesteryear, John Madden, played a major role in implementing that. And let’s not forget the All-Madden team, which meant more to some players than being named NFL All-Pro.
The special that FOX aired on Madden for Christmas couldn’t have been timed any better. The NFL owes much of its success over the past couple of decades to Madden in many ways. He went from coach to broadcaster, became a video game pioneer, and then a popular culture icon. Talk about one hell of a resume. We debate about all-time great players and coaches all the time in sports. Madden’s all-time greatness for what he contributed to football eclipses all of them.