Friday, April 17, 2009

John Madden -- Legend and Pitchman

Say what you want about John Madden, who announced his retirement after over 30 years as a broadcaster on Thursday, but he was successful at everything he did.

As a coach, he won the Super Bowl with the Raiders in 1979. As a broadcaster, Madden called NFL games on all four major networks (CBS, FOX, ABC and NBC) and won 16 Emmy awards. His videogame series in conjunction with EA Sports is among the most successful and highest-selling franchises in the industry -- has been since the early 1990s. Then there's the gluttony of personal endorsements, ranging from Outback Steakhouse to ACE Hardware to "Boom! Tough-actin' Tinactin!"

Oh, and his distinctive voice led to the rise of comedian Frank Caliendo's career, whether Madden liked it or not. How do you think Caliendo feels today? Probably about as good as Madden felt when Brett Favre retired -- both times.

It may be true that Madden lost a bit the last couple years, when he worked with Al Michaels on Monday Night Football and again when NBC began broadcasting Sunday night games. But for so many years, the combination of Madden and play-by-play man Pat Summerall was the standard in the nidustry -- so much so, FOX gave Madden $8 million a year when they took the NFL from CBS in the mid-1990s.

Madden had a style that spoke to the masses, particularly in his prime. He broke down the game in a way that didn't seem condescending; he made football accessible for the masses, which was why everyone loved him so much. Analysts today, for all their knowledge and insight, can't match Madden's obvious love for the game and his ability to connect with the everyday person, the one who will probably never see the inside of an NFL huddle.

His act grew tired in recent years, Madden's insight giving way to statements of the obvious and cheeky sound effects. But his contributions changed the way we watch football on TV, and was a large reason he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. Cris Collinsworth might be a worthy and competent analyst who deserves to share the Sunday Night booth with Al Michaels, but the NFL this year just won't feel the same without Madden.

No analyst -- not Phil Simms, not Ron Jaworski, not Troy Aikman -- can match the knowledge and passion Madden had for the game of football. Even in his later years, that passion was evident, and Madden didn't walk away from broadcasting because he grew tired of it or didn't enjoy it anymore -- he just knew it was time.

I heard a caller on the radio yesterday describe Madden as the "Dick Vitale of the NFL." I can think of no more appropriate description, because both men have been ambassadors for their respective sports for years, and when many sports fans think of those games, they'll more than likely think of those two figures.

Did the death of legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas last week, who like Madden was 73, have anything to do with the decision? Probably. Madden's travel schedule was hectic, since he refused to fly, and he wasn't getting any younger in spite of good health. Madden even skipped a game last season due to travel reasons, and he cited on Thursday the desire to spend time with family, because his five grandchidren were getting old enough to notice when he was gone.

Regardless of any of that, Madden is one of the reasons professional football is where it is today. Whether it's his work in the booth or the fact that an entire generation knows him for a wildly popular videogame, Madden's work practically speaks for itself.

Which for a broadcaster, is all you can ever ask.

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