Thursday April 16th, 2009

I learned the secret of John Madden's success in a little diner -- more like a Big Boy-type restaurant -- in Elko, Nev., just off Interstate 80 in the fall of 1990. Understand that Elko, like all of the middling towns in Nevada, I suppose, has a gambling operation. And in the back of this little place where the locals and just-passin'-through travelers were having dinner one Tuesday night in November, in walked Madden, the larger-than-life television voice of the National Football League.

Madden was taking his bus cross-country from the Bay Area to New York for a Giants game that weekend, and this restaurant was the dinner stop seven hours into the trip. Well, there was a bit of a hubbub, and a few knowing nods Madden's way, and when he'd finished eating, a fellow came up to him and introduced himself. Said he was from Wisconsin, and asked, "Who do you like in the Packers-Lions game this weekend?''

"Packers,'' Madden said, and he threw out a few generic, friendly reasons why.

A few minutes later, just before Madden climbed aboard the bus to continue the trip east, a few more fans approached, said hello, and conversed. One fellow asked about the very same game that weekend, Lions-Packers, and Madden asked where he was from. "Ann Arbor,'' the man said.

"I like the Lions,'' he said.

I did a double-take.

"Hey,'' he said when we got on the bus, "I don't know who's going to win these games. No one does. Why not make these people feel good about their teams and about the game Sunday? And the truth is, I think both teams can win.''

Madden, who retired this morning, spent his life making us feel good about the biggest game in America, week after week, year after year. It's a shame he's retiring, because he's still very definitely on his game -- and I don't say that just because his employer, NBC, also employs me.

Watching a DVD copy of NBC's Super Bowl XLIII telecast a week after the game to see the amazing Ben Roethlisberger-led drive over and over, I noticed that Madden's zeal was still there, as were the knowledgeable tidbits that were his trademark over the years. After Roethlisberger's winning touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes, Madden raised his voice a few octaves higher than I'd heard it in a while and said, "Unbelievable!''

I remarked to NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol after watching the game, "Madden got so excited on that last drive.'' Ebersol knew. That's why he'd hired Madden in the first place three years ago, even when some in the business were telling him to develop his own star announcing team instead of Al Michaels and Madden. There will be time for that, Ebersol said. But he wanted the best in the business, and that's what he got in Madden and Michaels.

Madden's legacy is enormous. When the Hall of Fame voters (I am one) selected him to enshrinement two years ago, I remember thinking how hard it was to pigeonhole Madden's impact on the game. He could go in on his coaching career alone; his 10-year record, with a Super Bowl victory, will survive as one of the best of all-time. Who wins 76 percent of the games he coaches during the regular season? No one. Not Lombardi, not Walsh, not Belichick, not Noll.

Madden's a Hall of Famer on his post-career impact alone, I believe. He'll not only go down as the best colorman of all time, but I think his video game is responsible for making kids who might have turned to soccer or skateboarding turn into football fans. Madden didn't invent the game, but his shtick and his persona helped make it the most popular game in America.

In our lifetime, who has done three things at an iconic level? I can't think of another person alive, other than Madden, who has.

One more thing: you can take it to the bank that Madden was not pushed out. I've got some inside knowledge on this I cannot share in detail, but I can tell you with absolute certainty the network not only was planning for Madden to return and for Cris Collinsworth to stay in the Sunday night studio, but also was hoping for Madden to stay into the future. So if you hear anything about Madden being pushed out, you can be sure it's a lie.

Madden will be missed, but we've seen too many people who die too young, who likely would have wanted a few years to do what they wanted, when they wanted. Good for Madden. Bad for us.

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