I got a lucky break early in my sophomore year at Sports Illustrated, 1990. John Madden agreed to let me ride with him on his bus, his Hyatt suite on wheels, from his home in the East Bay near Oakland to his apartment at the Dakota in New York City. Three thousand miles. He had already won five sports Emmys as the best color analyst in sports, already was the game’s biggest commercial pitchman, already had hosted Saturday Night Live, and he was in his 10th season alongside Pat Summerall as the top CBS NFL team.
This is the story I wrote for SI. I did have quite a few conversations (and one more bus trip with him) with him as his fame got mega, but this was the best time I spent with him. When you’re together for 55 hours, captive in a comfy silver tube, it tends to promote interesting conversation. With Madden’s death the other day, I’ve been thinking a lot about those three days on the bus—and, of course, all the things we didn’t talk about.
We set out from his home around noon on a fall Tuesday and I was told the ground rules: Don’t whine about the temperature; Madden liked it cold, around 60, and if you couldn’t hack it, put a coat on. There were 50-ounce bottles of spring water on the bus; if you opened one, you had to finish it—no putting it down to clutter tables or the floor. And don’t ever keep the drivers and Madden waiting after a road stop.
I violated the water bottle rule before we were out of California. I put one, capped and half-drunk, on a table while using the restroom in mid-bus. Madden was not pleased. “Don’t you listen?” he said. Lesson learned.
In retrospect, 31 years later, it’s easy to see why he was great at three things in life: football coaching (a Hall of Famer after only 10 seasons, retiring at 42), broadcasting (acknowledged as likely the best color analyst in American sports history), and video-game innovation with the Madden game, which has grossed more than $7 billion. Who’s great at three things? I mean, not just good, but truly difference-making? How many people die and it’s no exaggeration to say they were among the best to ever do it at three things? That’s the greatness of the big man.
When the trip ended, one of my friends at the magazine asked me what Madden was like.
“He’s curious,” I said.
In the middle of Nebraska one brilliant afternoon on I-80, Madden said to driver Willie Yarbrough: “Hey Willie. Pull over.” Madden noticed a field of bright red/purple wildflowers. He grabbed “Wildflowers Across America” from a drawer, got out, and walked toward the flowers, leafing through the softcover book. His aha moment came after eight or 10 minutes. Spotted Knapweed! “I’m gonna tell millions of readers in Sports Illustrated that you love wildflowers, and your reputation will be ruined!” I said to him. He loved it. But that was him.
He loved football and could see on tape the microscopic coaching points that he’d use on TV; I was up with him till 1:30 in Wyoming (first) and western Iowa (second) prepping for Cowboys-Giants that Sunday at the Meadowlands. Those nights, and the long stretch through Pennsylvania near the end, were the times we’d talk.
I didn’t do a lot of interviewing on the trip. There was a lot more conversing. He was well-read. I took two or three pages of notes early on about his love of John Steinbeck, particularly his book “Travels with Charley.” Steinbeck wrote about a 1960 road trip around America with his standard poodle Charley, and once Madden read that, well, he just had to do it at some point in his life. People sometime talk about claustrophobia as something crippling and horrible, and for Madden the football coach, it was. But as he said before we stopped for dinner in Elko, Nev., on the first night: “If the claustrophobia thing didn’t happen, I wouldn’t know what this country is, or what these people are like. I would have been like everybody else: run, run, run. Airport, airport, airport. Hotel, hotel, hotel. City, city, city. I wouldn’t have found time to see things like I see them now.”
And he was so grateful for that. On our second day, which wound on I-80 through Utah and Wyoming (mostly at night), just above Colorado, then all 455 miles from western Nebraska to the Iowa border, we were watching Giants-Dolphins gametape from the previous Sunday. Out of the blue, with untied sneakers propped up on the edge of a table he said: “We really saw a lot of stuff today, didn’t we? Think of all the things we saw that we wouldn’t see on a plane.”
Deer, antelope, rabbits, Wildflowers Across America, spotted knapweed, a weird llama that looked like it was on steroids, a fun steakhouse in Kearney, Neb., called Grandpa’s, and a nice family he met in Kearney, the Kerry Kimple clan, who told Madden what Nebraska life was like. Four or five times on the trip, Madden marveled at how the people in Kearney loved living there, and the people in cities loved living there. “It makes you feel better about America,” he said. “The thing works.”
He thought all people who wanted to work in public life should see the country like this. He was maniacal about it. After taking the trip, I agreed wholeheartedly. Today in particular. That was Madden. He wasn’t a political person. But he opened his eyes. He was an observer of the human condition, and he liked what he saw.
I did too, and I’m grateful he took me along for the ride.
The Madden Impact
Four people whose lives were changed in different ways by Madden:
Helping make football a world sport
Arlo White, Premier League play-by-play voice, NBC Sports
“There was an NFL explosion in England in the early eighties, and I was a 10-year-old broadcasting nerd growing up in Leicester. At first, a one-hour show weekly is all we had, and John Madden was the voice of the game of the week. When you heard his voice, you knew that game was big. I devoured it, everything he was saying. He changed the direction of people’s sporting lives over here. And I am in the job I am doing now largely because of the influence he had on me at a young age.
“It’s interesting—now we’ve got that same kind of evangelical role with soccer in the U.S. that John had with football in England. I was about to do a Man City game a couple of years ago and I put out on Twitter, Where are you watching the game? I got back: on a tractor in Montana … watching the sun rise in Honolulu … just in from a night out in New York City. It dawned on me what sort of responsibility we have when I hear that, and when I hear people say, ‘You have been the soundtrack of my youth.’ Or I might get a note from a parent saying it’s how they bond with their kids now. So much of that is what John did with us in England years ago.”
Getting more women interested in football
Colleen Wolfe, NFL Network host
“I just remember John Madden being such a part of our Sundays growing up in Horsham, Pa. We would turn on the TV and he would be on it and I would listen. I am a little difficult to nail down in terms of attention. He always got my attention. He was this super-fun character, almost like a SNL Matt Foley guy talking about football. But he could’ve been talking about anything—the weather, local news—and I would’ve found it interesting and smart.
Even just sitting in the Madden Cruiser made me giddy. (He didn’t let me drive.) Rest In Peace to the legend John Madden pic.twitter.com/kct0fKDw9H
— Colleen Wolfe (@ColleenWolfe) December 29, 2021
“I think it’s completely fair to say he got so many women into football. That’s how it all started for me. My dad was working, and it was more my mom and I sitting around watching the games. John Madden was a big part of those moments with my mom and me.
“My journey, where I ended up, I think, makes it really interesting. The fact that he played such a big role in it, I just owe him so much. I never even truly got to know him or anything. But I feel like I did know him. That was the magic of John Madden for so many people, and I know for so many women like me.”
Influence from childhood to adulthood
Erik Burkhardt, NFL player agent
“I seriously don’t believe I would be an NFL agent without John Madden’s impact. I was going through a very tough time as a kid in San Antonio in 1993 and ‘94. My parents had gone through an ugly divorce, my dad was raising us, and my two brothers and I were completely lost. Then, ‘from Santa,’ which my dad later told us was through the church, we got a Sega Genesis for Christmas. The only problem was it came with only one video game, which none of us were into. So I took the public bus to a Walmart where I literally shoplifted the new Madden 93 or 94 video game. My older brother is the most straight-laced human on the planet so when he found out I stole the game we went back and he paid for it with his lawn-mowing money.
“The Madden game was a total game-changer. It was all things to us: baby-sitter, competition-driver, and counselor in that when we played it all of our daily difficulties went away. We drew tournament brackets, kept scores of games and stats. For me, it was the beginning of my fascination with rosters, NFL personnel, understanding schemes and play-calling.
“I was certified as an NFL agent in 2005 but after a couple of years I was dead broke with $150,000 in student loans eating away at me. It’s brutally competitive to be an agent. So I was driving by the team hotel in Dallas a day or two before a Cowboys game and I saw Madden’s bus outside. I simply wanted to meet him. I waited in the lobby. And waited. Finally he walked through and I shook his hand and told him how the game changed my childhood. I told him I was an NFL agent and he gave me the cliche line about ‘doing what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ I got chills the other night when he said the exact same line in his documentary.
“This sounds cheesy, but I promise you that interaction kept me going in the business. Hearing that from a true legend like him when everybody else in my life was trying to talk me into going ‘into something profitable’ like practicing law full time was huge for me.”
Burkhardt, 41, represents Kyler Murray, Kliff Kingsbury and Bradley Chubb among others.
Teaching the game to young players through the “Madden” game
Micah Parsons, linebacker/defensive end, Dallas
“I grew up playing his video game in Pennsylvania. It just meant a lot to me. It allowed me to have a real understanding of the game—how different formations worked, how route concepts worked, knowing where every player should be, how to beat zone coverage, where the weaknesses were in certain coverages. I was able to really understand football from playing Madden. As I progressed in football, so much of it for me was instinct, but I learned so much about the techniques and the schemes from the game. It’s helped me all through football.
“I’m mourning the loss of John. I’m a football player, but lots of people should mourn him. Everybody can learn something from Madden—YouTubers, musicians, people in different businesses.
“I never met him, but if I had, I probably would have asked him if I could be on the cover one day. And I would ask him, ‘Why’d you love the game so much? What else did you love?’ Everyone has a why. He seemed like such an interesting person.”
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column