John Madden is considered one of the most influential football minds in history. He has coached NFL teams, created television shows and now writes books about his life as a coach. His latest book “The Last Hurrah” was released on May 4th, 2019 with its final chapter being published weeks later on July 4th, just days before Madden held a public celebration at Golden Gate park to commemorate the end of an era for San Francisco Giants fans.,
John Madden, the former coach of the Oakland Raiders and NFL legend, has passed away. He was a man who brought football to America in its infancy and became one of the most influential people in sports history.
ON CHRISTMAS DAY, AT 2 p.m., John Madden assembled his closest relatives and friends around his television. “All Madden,” a documentary about him and his incredible life, was premiering on Fox, and he wanted to see it with the people he cared about the most.
Many of the individuals in the room, including Madden’s wife, Virginia, and sons, Joe and Mike, had made enormous sacrifices over the years as Madden ascended to fame as a Hall of Fame coach, commentator, and esports pioneer. He’d frequently admit that he’d missed out on more of his sons’ childhoods than he’d ever desired. He’d tell his pals, “Virginia reared the kids.”
His family, on the other hand, had invested heavily in Madden’s success, and this documentary served as a fitting conclusion to their journey. They were proud of him, and Madden treated his profession as if it belonged to them as well.
His wife and sons, their wives, and his grandchildren gathered around him in the Madden TV room as he slid into his huge recliner and watched the movie. They had no clue that it would be the final occasion they shared with their beloved dad for the majority of them.
What a period that was. The story of Madden’s incredible life unfolds over 90 minutes, beginning with the injured lineman who washed out as a pro football player, went on to become a coaching legend, stunned the world by walking away 10 years later, and then stunned the world even more by becoming sports’ most famous broadcaster and video game luminary. (The documentary will debut on Fox at 8 p.m. on December 30 and will also be available on ESPN+.)
For many in the room, it was a meta moment. Much of the documentary revolves on a July shoot with Madden at his home studio, where he sat in a chair and watched film of his family and football legends praising him. Madden’s loved ones then watched him watch himself as he viewed the completed result on Christmas. He had a wide grin on his face on TV. The grin was much greater in the room.
When the movie concluded, Madden asked everyone in the room, including the youngsters, what they thought.
The first person remarked, “I liked it.”
“It was fantastic,” the second individual stated.
And so on, all the way around the room. It was a unanimous decision. After everyone had spoken, it was Madden’s time. Everyone sat and waited. Madden’s hearing deteriorated in his latter years, affecting his booming voice. As a result, he carefully picked his words and then worked hard to get them out.
Madden eventually said, “I enjoyed it, too.” “And we were able to share it with each other.”
He and Virginia celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary the following day, Dec. 26.
He was gone two days later. John Madden was 85 years old when he died.
Family and friends shed a few tears over the following 48 hours, but the Christmas Day showing brought a lot of smiles. John Madden had selected the best moment to say goodbye, as he did practically every time in his life.
Madden, who coached the Raiders for ten seasons from 1969 to 1978 and won a Super Bowl, was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. David Richard/AP Photo
John Madden wanted to be renowned as a coach above all else. He asked that Hall of Fame voters judge him only on his coaching abilities, rather than his “other things,” as he referred to his second, third, and fourth life as a pioneering broadcaster, product pitchman, and esports pioneer. He constantly maintained, “I’m a coach and a teacher, period.”
As a 32-year-old, he was chosen Raiders coach in 1969. At the time, Madden’s hire was shocking, but as an assistant on John Rauch’s Raiders staff, he was revered and respected by a wild, old-school group. Madden’s ability to periodically weaponize his physical height served him well in the locker room — and subsequently in the booth. He was a huge guy, maybe 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, with a commanding voice. He was a boisterous, hard-driving character who laughed a lot more than he shouted… but when he did yell, beware. He could grasp his squad by the face mask when he needed to, much like he could later delve into the ebb and flow of games as a broadcaster.
Madden heard some statements from linebacker Phil Villapiano in the papers during his first year as Raiders coach. In a preseason game, the Raiders faced the 49ers, and Villapiano told the newspaper, “Who gives a damn about the 49ers? More than anything, I’m concerned about arranging our team’s air hockey competition.”
Madden stormed out of his office and screamed in front of the whole crew at Villapiano. “Who do you think you are, anyway? This is the highest level in football. That is the last time I want to hear such nonsense.”
It was a startling moment for the Raiders under their new coach, and Madden subsequently admitted to Villapiano that he was irritated by the air hockey statements and the team’s inconsistent work ethic that August. But he’d been waiting for the proper moment to impose himself as a young coach, and Villapiano had written it out for him on the top page of the sports section that day.
Villapiano recalls, “We all adored John.” “When he did have to raise his voice, which wasn’t often, he did it with great force. It instantly silenced you, and he knew when to use it.”
The finale of the air hockey tale is one of Villapiano’s favorites since it shows Madden’s ability to read rooms so well. The Raiders struggled through the preseason the next year, working their tails off but bickering amongst themselves and having no pleasure at all in August. Villapiano was summoned to Madden’s office, where he was told, “What’s the status of the air hockey tournament? This group is in desperate need of it.”
Madden went on to have a phenomenal 10-year career with the Raiders, where he was a member of a team that ultimately had 12 future Hall of Famers walking the halls. Every day, Madden could deal with Raiders owner Al Davis and coach an experienced locker room full of hard-nosed, often penalized Raiders.
But, as witnessed in a sad sequence from the documentary in which Madden and Davis jointly announced his retirement at the age of 42, the pressure from both sides finally caught up with him. He’d finally pushed the Raiders over the hump in 1976, when they won their first Super Bowl following a long run of postseason failures. Players, on the other hand, were continuously concerned about him as the seasons progressed, with his enormous physique inflating every November and December due to the strain of Just Win, Baby. “By the end of the year, he’d be up to 350 pounds, just pounding down Maalox for his stomach,” Villapiano adds. “We adored him, but we worried a lot about him.”
Madden had reached the end of his career by 1979. However, at the time (40), he was the youngest coach to ever win a Super Bowl and had a 103-32-7 record, which is still the greatest winning percentage (75.9%) of any coach who has won 100 games. Bob Stenner, a great TV producer and close friend, adds, “He may have been more proud of that number than anything else he achieved in life.” “People forget that John was one of the NFL’s sharpest and most successful coaches, and he retired at the appropriate moment.”
Virginia pulled the boys out of school to attend the press conference announcing his retirement. Madden and his whole family sobbed twice, once before and once after he declared to the world that he would never coach again. Madden adds, “I gave it all I had.” “I’m sorry, but I don’t have any more. It’s tough to get up after ten years and announce your retirement. I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere. I’m no longer coaching football, and I’m never going to coach again.”
And he didn’t do it.
Getty Images/Al Messerschmidt
AFTER A FEW YEARS, Madden was given the opportunity to try his hand at broadcasting and fell in love with it right away. He possessed an instinctive ability to traverse the time between plays without trampling on his play-by-play partner in a manner that befuddled even the brightest, most charismatic ex-players and coaches.
“New broadcasters frequently attempt to say too much,” says Stenner, who over the course of his 50-year network career produced eight Super Bowls and earned 11 Emmys. “Then you work with them, and they go in the other direction, becoming too abrupt and choppy. John has always had an unusual ability to say the right words at the right moment, which is much more difficult than most people think.”
He finally found himself in the company of seasoned quarterback Pat Summerall, who was the perfect quarterback to throw the ball off to Madden. Summerall’s calm, succinct voice would remark something like, “What do you know about pulling guards, John?” and then he’d move out of the lane to allow Madden to finish the play. Every play, every Sunday for 22 years, they executed a 20-second dance back and forth in a manner that may never be duplicated.
By the mid-1980s, Madden had established himself as the king of commercials, pushing everything from Tinactin and Miller Lite to Ace Hardware and Outback Steakhouse. Despite this, he turned down many more commercials than he accepted. Richie Zyontz, a longtime friend and TV producer, adds, “It probably doesn’t look like it, but John was scrupulous about his endorsements.” “He made a lot of commercials, but if you pay attention, you’ll find that they were all terrific commercials. He wouldn’t simply sign something with his name on it.”
That’s one of the main reasons why the original Madden Football game was released in 1988 rather than 1984. Trip Hawkins, the creator of EA Sports, had the idea to produce a video game with Madden as the star in 1984, and met with him when he was still going across the nation by train (the Madden Cruiser didn’t come out until later that decade). Madden was enthralled by the concept, agreeing with Hawkins that football could, would, and should be taught via a fantastic video game.
When they were getting close to a contract, Hawkins told Madden that he wasn’t convinced the technology for a complete 11-on-11 game was ready yet. He recommended lowering several linemen so they could fit 14 players on the screen in a 7-on-7 game.
“That isn’t true football,” Madden said emphatically.
“Unfortunately, the technology to have 22 men on the screen at the same time isn’t there yet,” Hawkins said.
“But it isn’t true football,” Madden said once again.
“Getting all 22 men on a screen will take years,” Hawkins said.
Madden said, “Then it will take years.”
That is exactly what happened. The original Madden Football game was released in June 1988, and it has since gone on to become the most popular sports game ever. Since its inception, the series has sold over 130 million copies and grossed over $4 billion. “With Madden Football, I’d say he was the right man, at the right place, at the right moment, don’t you think?” Zyontz explains.
As the game progressed, Madden cemented his position as the NFL’s most coveted personality, surpassing even the players and teams. In 1994, he departed CBS for Fox, when he helped to legitimize the network by personally negotiating with Rupert Murdoch to secure a stunning new home for him and NFC football.
After the 2009 season, he would announce his retirement from announcing. Madden was 72 years old and still the finest in the industry, but he was nearing the end of his career. At Super Bowl XLIII, the Steelers and Cardinals gave him a spectacular walk-off night. Madden was on hand to call a stunning game-winning grab by Santonio Holmes in the back of the end zone. Stenner remarks, “Couldn’t have written it any better.”
Over the years, Madden has had several requests to return. In 2014, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, and “Sunday Night Football” producer Fred Gaudelli brought Madden to dinner in San Francisco, according to The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch (then at Sports Illustrated). They had a brilliant idea: what if Madden returned from retirement for one more game? They also volunteered to make sure the game was held near Madden’s California home.
Madden smacked the pitch away as it was barely in the air. No, was the response. Zyontz recalls, “He’d done everything you could possibly accomplish in broadcasting.” “He didn’t need money, fame, or anything else, and he didn’t have a large enough ego to require yet another game. John was happy with the fact that he had left his mark.”
Madden texted Zyontz the day after Christmas. Zyontz had started his work as a CBS security guard, but when Madden saw him, he noticed something. He placed him on the Madden team, and Zyontz learned how to watch television. With eight Super Bowls under his belt, he has established himself as one of television’s most prolific and powerful football producers, still working every weekend for Fox in 2021.
He also became one of Madden’s most trusted confidants. When he contacted the coach at home over the offseason, Madden was mid-sentence when he claimed he needed to use the restroom. Madden handed the phone to a random friend of Virginia’s who was around at the home and said, “Talk to June.”
Zyontz and this mysterious lady, June, got along well and agreed to meet up in person. They married at Madden’s home a few years later. The best man was John Madden. “Perfect timing,” says Zyontz.
When Zyontz learned of Madden’s death, he sat startled and informed June. Zyontz went from shocked to devastated when she began weeping. But, over the following few minutes, they both arrived at the same place that so many of Madden’s loved ones are right now: they feel like his last days were a wonderful grand farewell, with his family sharing it with him in a manner that very few people ever do.
He then died away after celebrating his wedding anniversary with the love of his life. “Don’t you think it’s a little divine?” Zyontz explains. “It was, in my opinion, one of John’s most beautiful moments. Everyone had the opportunity to express how much they cared about him, and he had the opportunity to express how much he cared about them, before he died.”
Zyontz is conversing while looking at his phone. He’s looking for his most recent text exchange with John. He adds, “I have it someplace.” “I’m not sure what we said to one other, but it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Zyontz lets out a faint “Oh” after a few seconds.
“Geez, this is really… it’s really hitting me,” he adds after a few seconds of silence.
On Dec. 25, shortly after the documentary aired, Madden texted Zyontz: “Happy Holidays to you and your family. Thank you so much for all you did to make this possible.”
“John, I wish it could have been much longer. Congratulations on your wedding anniversary, “Zyontz responded with a text.
Madden informed Zyontz that watching Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and so many others gushing over him and his work had been a highlight of his career. But he loved the parts of the documentary when Virginia and the boys spoke about how proud they were of John and how much the sacrifices had been worth it.
Zyontz takes a breather before sharing the last text he has from his old pal John Madden. Then he inhales deeply and reads it.
Madden wrote, “Thank you.” “Everyone believes it should have gone on for a little longer.”
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The “john madden last game coached” is the final, beautiful goodbye of NFL legend John Madden. He retired from coaching after the 2000 season, but he remains in the hearts of all football fans everywhere.
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