When I first heard the news yesterday that John Madden is retiring, my first reaction was that it was at least ten years too late. My Madden hating began in 1995, when he and Pat Summerall were the number one broadcast team for Fox’s NFL broadcasts; week in and week out, it seemed like they did nothing but announce Cowboys games and praise Aikman, Smith, Switzer, et. al. ( That was a bitter pill to swallow for a Giants fan suffering through the Dave Brown era.) In the last few seasons, his admiration of Brett Favre became the subject of much parody.
But the man is retiring, which gives us a chance to look back on his whole career. When an athlete retires, he is usually judged not by his final seasons but by how he played the game. Through this perspective, there was a lot I liked about Madden. As an analyst, Madden was capable of explaining plays without insulting his viewers’ intelligence. He was worth watching because of his colorful descriptions and didn’t use the crutch of controversial or inflammatory statements. He was the de facto national voice of football for three decades, calling the premiere games on Sunday afternoons, Monday nights, and Sunday nights.
As a baseball fan, I notice that many football commentators feel the need to bash baseball and other sports. Madden didn’t. He talked freely and frequently about how much he enjoyed watching playoff baseball games, and his comments indicated a depth of knowledge about that sport, as well. This appreciation of organized competition always made me think of Madden as more than just a football announcer; he was a fan of sports in general. (Long-time Tampa Bay Devil Rays fan Dick Vitale falls into this category as well.)
Of course, Madden will always be known for his signature phrase: “BOOM!” It kind of makes him sound like a stereotypical, meat headed jock. But that act belies an understanding of the changing markets of media consumption that he rarely gets credit for: remember, Madden was in on the ground floor for the video game boom. Now, his annual Madden Football title is as iconic as his broadcast – and not because he simply signed his name to endorse a product.
Indicative of his work ethic and care for his own good name, Madden was highly involved in the title from its inception as a computer game for the Apple II in 1988. He refused to endorse an early concept that would have reduced the number of players per side in order to accomodate 1980s computer capabilities. In one interview, Madden told a story about watching his son and a friend play an early version of the game and noticing that it was far too easy to convert long fourth down plays. To improve the realism, the flaw was corrected. This hard work probably has much to do with the long-term success of the game.
Incidentally, each year’s version of Madden has a new wrinkle – he doesn’t simply re-release last year’s game with a new cover. The 2009 version has a feature that automatically compensates for skill differences in players. As he did on the air, Madden is making football accessible through his games.
As the face of football, you might expect a lot of hoopla surrounding his ride into the sunset. Madden didn’t oblige, retiring quickly and relatively quietly. Like his commentary, it was direct, straightforward, and classy. Sports and sports broadcasting could use more voices like that, even if they spend too much time fawning over the Cowboys and Brett Favre. And, because there are some times when analysis can be boiled down to a simple BOOM:
(I’ll be perfectly honest… I just included this clip because the idea of Pepper Johnson laying out Randall Cunningham makes me happy.)