Football wasn’t something I paid attention to in the 60s on any level: professional, college or my own high school. I was either playing music with my band, furiously practicing my instrument to improve my chops, or seeing live performances at the great San Francisco venues of the era. Football was played by people with short hair who looked liked they supported the Vietnam War. Ugh!
John Madden became Head Coach of the Oakland Raiders in 1969, a decision Raiders owner Al Davis deserves credit for. Some pothead friends of mine started telling me the Raiders were different, a maverick bunch of misfits with a cool tough post-hippie look and playing a bold brand of football that was fun to watch. The key was turning down the television sound and listening to the unique radio announcer Bill King, who had a frantic style that made the game a delight. I went over to my pals’ place a couple times, and was hooked. We’d get high on gold buds and dig the Raiders. Cool!
Madden was frequently featured on screen arguing calls, waving his arms emotionally, and generally being demonstrative. The camera loved him. So began my interest in the Raider franchise, that 1970 season, when old man George Blanda, then in his 40s, won a number of clutch games for the Raiders, either throwing as a quarterback or, incredibly, booting it as a kicker. Bill King famously yelled after yet another Blanda winning effort that Blanda was now “elected King of the world!” Madden would be hopping up and down on the sidelines in celebration. It was a glorious time to be a Raiders fan.
The Raiders in that early 70s era were the only NFL team I was aware of to allow long hair and facial hair, and projected an aura of wacky invincibility that Madden presided over with his amiable grin. They had been to Super Bowl 2 back in the 60s, with Madden then a Raiders Assistant Coach, before it was even called the Super Bowl, but it wasn’t until the 1976 season that Madden and his team returned to it. I happened to be living in Oakland then, near the Berkeley border, and watched the Raider games with growing pride and enjoyment as they bulldozed their way to the championship contest.
Walking down the street during a Raiders game, you’d hear people in numerous houses yelling all at at the same time, creating an amazing psychological effect. It didn’t matter who you were or what you did. You were a Raider fan, dammit! When they won their first Super Bowl in Pasadena that January day in 1977, and Madden was hoisted by the players on their shoulders, it was the peak and my neighborhood went berserk. We all rushed out into the street and capered with joy. Somebody opened a fire hydrant down the street where, despite the bitter cold temperature, I saw an addled fan strip off his shirt and stand in the jet of water screaming at the top of his lungs. It was mass insanity in every direction.
Madden left the Raiders in 1979. He had never suffered a losing season as Raiders Head Coach. He began a new career as football broadcaster and commercial pitchman, at which he excelled. I always loved seeing him because of my glowing memories of his work with his old team, but he was good stuff whether you had seen those games or not. Madden was, in brief, tremendously entertaining. Just hearing him doing tv commentary or seeing him bursting through fake walls in commercials selling beer put me in a good mood. He was honored with numerous broadcasting awards. Then he became an icon’s icon with his runaway hit football video game ‘Madden NFL’ which has sold billions of dollars. It’s a video game empire so vast that for many younger gamers, Madden’s previous stellar accomplishments are irrelevant.
But not to me. In later years, Madden would broadcast a five minute segment on San Francisco news radio station KCBS, featuring Madden goofing with the announcers on topics like bocce ball or the current top sports news. The old cliche of being able to read the phone book onstage and make it entertaining applies to John Madden. His humorous charisma was overwhelming. Those radio segments are some of my favorite memories of the guy, hearing him casually chat with that quirky fun voice, and still Raiders’ Coach in my mind, but now elevated to living legend.
In the 80s I had a career going as a radio broadcaster and covered the then L.A. Raiders during their Super Bowl season of 1983, often spending hours at the Raiders’ El Segundo headquarters and practice facilities. Madden was gone, but his presence was somehow there, a lingering good vibe. I always hoped he’d drop in and visit his old team in their new incarnation, but if he did I missed him. I wanted to thank him for all those great 70s Raiders memories, but I never had the chance. Damn.
Madden transcended his coaching years to become not just an icon and legend, but an institution, a personality so brilliant, successful and somehow oddly comforting that he puts the current era of NFL coaches to shame. He died December 28, 2021 at age 85, active to the end. What a fabulous run. So thanks, Coach. Thanks.
It can be said of John Madden it can truly be said: we shall not see his like again.
Kyle K. Mann
December 29, 2021