I am writing this and even my fingers are sad.
I am not ready to let go, to accept what we all have to face. I am so angry. I am so angry that I want to slap reality. Tuesday I screamed while reading the news. One of those screams yelled from one of those stupid horror movies. Guttural, the kind of sound that emerges from the depths of disbelief. Luckily I was on a trail and all I was afraid of were ducks.
I miss you, John Madden. I miss that belly, that one-cup seeker mask, that wardrobe you must find under a bridge. I especially miss electricity. Some people walk into a room and take all the energy out of it. You walked into a room, down a sideline, into the cabin, and filled the place with it. . .you. John, you were everywhere. You were the atmosphere. You still are.
John, I’m in pain and I’m not supposed to admit it. I’m a man and the men are cool, runners on a tough stage, impervious to what you think is the most common human failure – emotion. Be difficult. Build a wall. Be a man. Make this skin armor.
In 1978 John showed me the opposite. On a plane.
I was then a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, my second year on the beat Raider. Back then, writers were still traveling with the teams they were covering. The coaches took to the front of the plane. Then the writers. The players filled the rest of the seats.
The team was returning from a road game when a Raider employee stepped down the aisle. “John wants to see you.” I showed my chest. Me? Yes. I walked past all the media eyes in the training area. The writers did not go. The writers haven’t gone anywhere. We knew our place and did not move from our seats like obedient puppies.
John patted the empty seat next to him for me to sit down.
John has sworn to me to keep it a secret.
âI am retiring after this season. I can no longer train.
I laughed. John was 42 years old. He was in the prime of his life. Never had a losing season.
Then I saw his hands. There was sweat on them. The fists were partially clenched. John saw my gaze.
“Airplanes. I hate airplanes. I really have a hard time flying. I hate it. I can’t do it anymore.
I didn’t say a word. He was a man who stood up to Al Davis, the human buzz saw, the ego stunner, who proudly displayed and used a large confrontational megaphone. Still, John stood up to Al. John was not intimidated.
But stealing The Friendly Skies? Were not friendly with John. John could handle Kenny Stabler and John Matuszak and Jack Tatum. He would let the boys be boys, let them roar like bulls in the Bamboo Room in Santa Rosa. But dealing with the turbulence of clear air?
If John couldn’t see him, he couldn’t reason with him. It was that easy for him. Years have passed and more information has come out, on bowel disorders and more.
On that flight in 1978, John became what I see so few sports nowadays. Vulnerability. When he announced his retirement on January 4, 1979, John did what he could only do: be himself.
There was a laundry basket overturned on the sidelines. He ran on the sidelines as if trying to catch a train, as opposed to an official who needed to be properly briefed. He didn’t care about his weight, never bothered to defend it, decidedly happy to be himself no matter how he presented himself. He never hid his emotions, his thoughts, his opinions. For the next 30 years on television, John was the NFL, he really was. John never wasted his time or the viewers saying things like, “The corner of the room bit into the fade and only solid security was alert to make the tackle and prevent touchdown.”
Instead, John would say, âWow! Troy Polamalu really fucked this guy up! “
People would look at John and count the number of times he would say with panache, âBOOM! And with each BOOM, John has sunk deeper into the American psyche. John was the America of our dreams: tasty, funny, shameless. Saying what he meant, saying it without hesitation or fear, isn’t that what we would all like to do?
To be so real, so authentic, to say what he is? To our bosses. To the people who wronged us, who deceived us, who broke our hearts.
The NFL owes it to John. John made the league interesting, even for those new to horseshoe football. People say John could have entered the Hall of Fame as a coach. They also say he could have done Canton just on his 30 years as a broadcaster. But they missed a third category: John could have been the one who brought the game to every household.
John did for the NFL what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did for the NBA. John did it for the people.
And he did it without ever pointing a finger at himself, even while others were doing it. Frank Caliendo has become a world famous impersonator making Madden maybe even better than Madden. John initially hated Caliendo’s act. Then his grandchildren came up to him and said, âGrandpa, this guy is really funny. It makes you feel good. So John looked, laughed, and became a fan.
We only have the videos and imitations of Caliendo left. America frankly feels naked because haven’t we been brought to its knees enough in 2021. The virus, of course, has taken so many of us but, like another really rotten egg in that basket, Henry adds. Aaron and Don Shula and Tom Seaver and Tommy Lasorda and Elgin Baylor and so many others in sports.
More than the rest, and that says a lot, The loss of John Madden is the loss of joy, unrestrained joy. John was just happy to be here, unpretentious, and we were happy to be with him. It was Every Guy who loved his beer and we loved the gestures.
I’m not ready to let John go, and I may never be able to. I know that I am not alone. I’m still angry, always wanna scream, always want someone to tell me this is a cruel joke and reality must be slapped for doing it. John was one of us. I will hug her memory and hope it helps me sleep tonight.
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