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John Madden: Gridiron Godfather

Last Updated: December 29, 2021

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally ran on Nov 25. John Madden passed away on Dec. 28 at the age of 85.

The injury that ended John Madden’s pro career before it could start paved the way for him to become a legendary coach, broadcaster, and video game personality.

Today, the name John Madden lives on through EA Sports’ Madden football video games. But the man behind the franchise is a legendary coach and commentator who is both a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. His career will be remembered on Christmas Day with the premiere of the documentary All Madden on CBS. 

And on this Thanksgiving Day, Boardroom takes a look at John Madden’s life on the field, off the field, in the booth, and across generations of video game consoles. 

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Madden the Coach

Madden’s pro playing career was over before it started. After the Philadelphia Eagles drafted him in 1958, he suffered a career-ending knee injury that prevented him from ever seeing the field. But as he rehabbed his knee, Madden watched film with quarterback Norm Van Bocklin, who taught Madden the details of the plays he was seeing. Madden soon entered the coaching world, holding two jobs at Allan Hancock College (1960-63) and San Diego State (1964-66) before making his way back to the NFL.

His first pro position was as a linebackers coach under Al Davis. Madden eventually took the reins of the Raiders’ coaching staff in 1969. His Oakland team was a powerhouse in the NFL — the squad never had a losing record. Still, he struggled to reach the mountain top of winning a Super Bowl. Until 1976, Madden’s Raiders were 0-4 in AFC championship games. The losing streak finally ended that season when the Raiders beat the Vikings in Super Bowl XI. The following season, Oakland lost in the AFC championship game to Denver and the year after that, Madden announced his retirement after Oakland failed to reach the playoffs. 

Madden is still the Raiders’ winningest coach and is the only Raiders coach with 100 wins. 

Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

America’s Color Commentator

Upon retiring, Madden immediately jumped into broadcasting. Though he eventually worked for FOX, ABC and NBC, his career began with CBS.

“I think John’s coaching experience obviously helped a great deal,” says Bob Stenner, on the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame’s website. Stenner produced Madden’s telecasts during his years at CBS and Fox. “As a coach, he provided a different perspective and new way of bringing the game to the viewer. John totally changed the way we did things.”

Stenner expanded on that second point, going into detail about how Madden changed the broadcast game.

“Before John, we didn’t look at a lot of game tape, and we would mostly just talk to the PR people before games. But John prepared in a totally different and new way. We would watch hours of tape together before every game. And he would sit with coaches and coordinators and go over every single player on the flip card — whether they were first-string or third-string.”

In Madden’s time with CBS, he won eight Emmy Awards for Outstanding Sports Personality. 

The first time Madden jumped ship was in 1994 when he went to FOX. His deal paid him $2 million annually for four years. When the contract expired, he and Fox extended the deal another five years. His stellar broadcasting continued, and he won four Emmys in eight years, bringing his total to 12. 

Madden left FOX in 2002 for ABC to handle Monday Night Football alongside Al Michaels. This deal brought his salary to a reported $5 million a year. Madden stayed with ABC for four years, earning one Emmy during that time. 

He finished his broadcasting career at NBC, where he won three more Emmys for Outstanding Sports Personality – Sports Event Analyst. Madden’s final broadcasting appearance came on Feb. 1, 2009 when the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Arizona Cardinals. He announced his retirement two months later in April.

The Godfather of Sports Video Games

Outside of broadcasting, Madden’s legacy lives through EA Sports’ football video game franchise. Talk centered around creating the game began in 1984 between Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts (EA), Hawkins’ right-hand man Joe Ybarra and Madden. Initially Hawkins planned for the game to have seven players on each side, but Madden halted at the idea. As he put it, “if it’s not 11 on 11, it’s not real football.”

It took four years to develop the first Madden game, in large part because of a lawsuit in which game developer Bethesda that attempted to sue EA for over $7 million. The case was eventually handled privately out of court. The first Madden game debuted in 1988, and since then, 34 editions have hit the shelves, never missing a year.

As of 2013, the Madden franchise has generated $4 billion in revenue for EA. John Madden agreed to a $150 million deal to use his name and likeness, and he also earns royalties from sales of the game. However, he missed out on potential millions by not buying EA’s stock when it first went public. Madden later said it was “the dumbest thing [he] ever did in [his] life.”

But given the impact he’s had on gaming that’s since become utterly synonymous with sports simulations, this one-of-a-kind Hall of Famer gets a free pass on that one.

About The Author
Randall Williams
Randall Williams
Randall Williams is a Staff Writer covering sports business and music for Boardroom. Before joining the team, he previously worked for Sportico, Andscape and Bloomberg. His byline has also been syndicated in the Boston Globe and Time Magazine. Williams' notable profile features he has written include NFL Executive VP Troy Vincent, Dreamville co-founder Ibrahim Hamad, BMX biker Nigel Sylvester and both Shedeur and Shilo Sanders. Randall, a graduate of "The Real HU" - Hampton University - is most proud of scooping Howard University joining Jordan Brand nearly three months before the official announcement.