I met Madden twice, once when I was about 10 years old and once this year at the Super Bowl. The first time, my dad had taken me to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Madden was there shooting a TV special. People crowded around him asking for autographs and pictures, and Madden obliged them all. But then he did something far beyond just signing autographs, something I really can't imagine any other person of Madden's stature ever doing: He invited us aboard the Madden Cruiser.
Dozens of fans hopped on the bus, checked out the kitchen and the bedroom and the TVs and VCRs that he had on board, and Madden couldn't have been more welcoming. Remember, the bus is Madden's home for half the year. How many celebrities do you think invite complete strangers into their homes? But that was Madden, the regular guy who was happy to be surrounded by other regular guys.
At this year's Super Bowl I was there as a reporter, and I interviewed Madden about the game. And although I remember thinking that he looked his age (he turned 73 last week), I also remember thinking that he was just as sharp in his analysis as ever, and just as passionate about the game as ever.
It's those two experiences that I thought of first when I heard the news that Madden was retiring, and those two experiences combined with 30 years of viewing are the reasons I don't consider what Michaels said about Madden to be any kind of hyperbole. Here's what Michaels said Friday on ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning:
"I don't think there's been a more important figure in the history of the National Football League. I know people will say, 'What are you talking about? There was George Halas and Paul Brown.' And of course, the pioneers, you can't discount what someone like George Halas brought to the game on so many levels. Paul Brown, the great innovations, through they years to the contemporary coaches, the modern-day coaches, Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh, etc.I'm going to miss him, too. Madden was an American original.
"But when you combine all of the aspects, when you take a look at John's career as a coach: He still has the highest winning percentage of any coach who coached a minimum of 10 years. He has a Super Bowl ring. He could have coached as long as Don Shula. But what he's meant to the game over the past three decades as a communicator, not just a broadcaster, but as somebody who could make people more interested in the game, more excited about the game. He brought far more entertainment value to the game than anybody I can think of. Then you throw in the video game as well, maybe the best-selling of all-time, which John was really hands-on with, and how many fans that made.
"Here's a guy who just cuts across every demographic. It's too much of a cliche, I think, to call him an everyman. Yes, John was able to relate to every man, but John was also one of the most intelligent, book smart human beings I've ever been around. And a man who I think was a great observer. In a world where there was a lot of self-absorption, John was just content to sit in a lobby or sit in a restaurant and have dinner with a group of people and observe and listen to everything everybody else had to say. He was a curious man and of course everybody knows that he traveled across the country and was in contact with the kinds of folks you just don't get to see when you make a 3,000-mile round trip in an airplane. So John, in his own way, was a renaissance man. And I'll tell you one thing on a personal level: I'm going to miss him like crazy."