A Steelers Fan Salutes John Madden: He Was “What the Game of Football is All About”

My boomer brethren in Steelers Nation will blanch at this, but at one point in my youth, I thought that John Madden had been a player or coach for the Steelers.

John Madden, Joe Greene, Super Bowl XIV Press Conference

John Madden interviews Joe Greene before Super Bowl XIV. Photo Credit: Anonymous/AP via the Virginian-Pilot

John Madden, NFL Hall of Famer, former Oakland Raiders head coach, CBS, FOX, ABC and NBC broadcaster and video game entrepreneur passed away on Sunday, December 28th. Here we honor his memory and his life’s work.

Born 4 months before the Immaculate Reception, my understanding of the concept of “Steelers Rival” was the Houston Oilers. My introduction to John Madden came from watching games on CBS. So instead of being associated with the arch-rival evil Oakland Raiders, to me John Madden was simply to “Voice of the NFL.”

  • And what a voice he had.

For 22 years John Madden commentated in tandem with Pat Summerall and together they embodied the absolute best in sports television broadcasting. Summerall with his deep baritone did the play-by-play, while Madden handled the color commentary, with an emphasis on color.

Listening to Summerall, it was easy to imagine him narrating a documentary on say, the Gettysburg Address or the D-Day landings or some other hinge-of-history moment. Listening to Madden, it was easy to imagine him chowing down with truckers at a highway greasy spoon somewhere west of the Mississippi.

  • You wouldn’t think such a pairing would work, but it did – to perfection no less.

Football is a complex sport. As Andy Russell once observed, success or failure in football often comes down to subtle shifts in angles and alignments that are often lost on even the most educated fans.

Russell is right which speaks precisely to John Madden’s genius. John Madden had the ability break down the complexities of any given play and explain them to the average viewer. And he could do it in the space of about 20 seconds. He did it hundreds of times each weekend for 3 decades.

But if Madden had an uncanny gift for explaining the science of the angles and alignments of football, he was never a football nerd. Far from it. He knew that the game’s art lay in the elegance that grew from overpowering your opponent in the trenches.

And that’s what Madden loved the most, the big guys, the offensive lineman, the tight ends and the fullbacks . I can remember one 49ers game in the late 80’s where Madden remarked, that if someone came down from Mars and asked to see a football player, you’d show him 49ers fullback Tom Rathman.

And I suppose that love for the working-class, blue collar ethos of the game is what led me as a naive grade schooler to assume he’d been associated with the Steelers, an assumption riddled with irony…

John Madden and the Steelers

John Madden stared down Chuck Noll during all of the franchises’ epic games in the 70’s, from the Immaculate Reception, to the 1974 AFC Championship, to the 1975 rematch at Three Rivers Stadium, and to the AFC Championship loss in 1976 suffered in the absence of both Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. When John Madden retired in 1977, his record coaching against Chuck Noll and the Steelers was 6-5, a mark any of his contemporaries would have envied.

  • Yet after that, Madden seldom crossed paths with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

According to Steel City Star, during their 22-year run at CBS, Madden and Summerall never called a Steelers game. At FOX they only called three, the Steelers 1994 and 1997 opening day blowout losses to the Cowboys and the 1996 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

That shows you just how fundamental John Madden was to the game, given that my football attention is almost singularly focused on the Steelers.

John Madden did of course called Super Bowl XL and later Super Bowl XLIII, famously assuring viewers after Ben Roethlisberger’s hookup with Santonio Holmes that he got both feet in bounds, had control of the football and, most importantly, scored a touchdown.

But by that point, he was already a Living Legend and one who’d found yet another way to grow his footprint on the game on the field

John Madden Football

Without a doubt the best Christmas present I ever got as an adolescent was one that came for Christmas of 1989 – John Madden Football for the Apple II. As mentioned many here many times, although both of my parents are Pittsburghers to the core, neither are into sports.

John Madden Football, John Madden Football IBM PC 286

Without a doubt, the BEST Christmas present I EVER got as a kid.

My big brother handled that part of my education early on, but by the mid-80’s he was off to college. So I was on my own. Watching shows like NFL PrimeTime and reading the Washington Post sports page helped.

  • But John Madden Football really opened my eyes.

Before Madden , words like “slot,” “stunt,” “weakside,” “sweep,” and “nickleback” were little more than noise uttered between the cacophony of plays. Playing John Madden Football did more than breathe life into those terms – it added a new dimension to the game. Suddenly I could not only recognize formations in real time, but I understood why coaches were making their choices. .

How many hours did I spend playing John Madden Football on the Apple IIc my parents got me to help with school work?

  • Far, far too many to count.

I do know that I played it enough to prove that the Steelers of the 70’s could whip the tails off of the 49ers of the 80’s. I played enough to build my own All Time Steelers team featuring a QB depth chart of Terry Bradshaw, Bubby Brister and Bobby Layne throwing to Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Louis Lipps, with Joe Greene and Ernie Stautner playing in front of Mel Blount, Rod Woodson and Dwayne Woodruff (apologies to Jack Butler for my youthful ignorance.)

Obituary after obituary for John Madden tells of how generations of fans learned the game by playing John Madden. I can vouch that this is a global phenomenon. Countless Argentine football fans, when asked how they learned the game before the days of NFL GamePass and/or free illegal game streaming sites, would simply respond, “Madden.”

Indeed, when asked to explain the opening scene of Friday Night Lights, the one featuring Frank Winchel’s grandmother quizzing him on his playbook, I went to the book case and showed my wife the playbook that came with John Madden Football back in 1989.

What the Game of Football is All About

John Madden brought the game of football into people’s living rooms in ways few have done before or since. One anecdote suffices.

On opening day 1993 CBS carried the Bears vs the Giants as a national telecast. As the game came down to the wire, and the opposing teams lined up at the goal line for one final play, I told my roommates, “Watch. Madden is going to tell us ‘This is what the game of football is all about.’” 10 seconds later, as if he’d been listening to me, Madden declared, “This is what the game of football is all about!”

  • How fitting. Because John Madden himself is what the game of football is all about.

Thank you, John, for your contributions to the game we all love. I’m sure you and Summerall are already calling games together again now that you’re both on the other side.

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