For most people under 30 or so, the name “Madden” is synonymous with the long-running NFL video game series. But John Madden was, and is, much more than a brand. There’s a reason Madden developer Electronic Arts signed a blockbuster contract to retain the rights to the decorated coach and broadcaster’s name.
Madden earned his valuable reputation with an incredible decade-long run as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. After that, he reinvented himself as a charming football commentator who drew fans into broadcasts even if they weren’t invested in the teams involved.
Today, at 83, he continues to make irregular radio appearances. Here’s how Madden became one of the most important figures in the history of American sports.
John Madden’s short time as an NFL player
Madden began his life in football as a high school star in the early 1950s. He had a short run with the College of San Mateo before a scholarship offer lured him to the University of Oregon.
A foreboding knee injury dashed this plan, sending the young athlete back to San Mateo where he started. Madden’s shaky recovery made him bounce between teams in the area, until he finally got back into fighting shape playing with Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
His performance there caught the eye of the Philadelphia Eagles, and the team drafted him in 1958. Unfortunately, Madden’s knee injuries flared up before he played a single game at the pro level. He remained determined to focus on football nonetheless.
How Madden became a sports legend with the Oakland Raiders
Most coaches’ stories begin similarly: A decent if unremarkable player is forced to learn the game on a granular level because their raw physicality can’t bail them out. Madden’s path was slightly different, however. He was a great player on the field yet never managed to play in an NFL game.
Madden’s attempt to rehab his knee and play for the Eagles didn’t pan out. But he took full advantage of access to the organization. With a degree in teaching, Madden was fascinated by the process of coaches reviewing game film and translating the intelligence to players.
He leveraged this into a string of college-level coaching jobs. Eventually, the Oakland Raiders noted Madden’s ingenious work with college defenses and offered him a job coaching linebackers.
Madden parlayed his unique teacher-by-way-of-football skill set into a head coaching job with the Raiders. He had 10 storied years with the team from 1969-1978, including a Super Bowl win in 1977. Although he never had a losing season, he missed the playoffs in his last season with Oakland. Madden decided his time leading the Raiders was complete. His career regular-season winning percentage as head coach was .763.
Madden, the broadcasting legend
Madden was one of the best head coaches in the history of the game. For the generation that grew up with football in the ’60s and ’70s, his name was synonymous with the sport. For the next generation, however, Madden was synonymous with broadcasting.
From his NFL retirement all the way up to 2009, Madden was the face of the NFL on TV. He worked with CBS, Fox, ABC, and finally NBC. Along the way he commanded a peak salary of $8 million a year, unprecedented for play-by-play work at the time.
Madden was a smart coach with a noted ability to translate complex plays to his players in accessible ways. As an announcer, he was notable more for being jovial, speaking off-the-cuff, and coining catchphrases. Madden was someone between a trenchant analyst and a winking clown in the booth. It made his run as a broadcaster so iconic that it eclipsed his place as a head coach in the zeitgeist.
Today, the 83-year-old is in semi-retirement. Madden continues to appear on a radio call-in show irregularly, because he just can’t stay away from the game. He is a decorated head coach, a legendary broadcaster, and the face of the most popular sports video game around. And he’s still out there to this day.