Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated

Coast-to-coast commuter John Madden liked what he saw as he rolled across America in his suite on wheels

By Peter King
June 30, 2015

This week The MMQB is running a few stories by Peter King from the pages of Sports Illustrated. This story originally appeared in the Nov. 26, 1990 issue.

When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.... I fear the disease is incurable.

—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

John Madden, 54, has a job most of us would love to have. He sleeps as late as he wants and wears whatever clothes he wants almost every day of his life. He eats what he wants, when he wants. He has to be somewhere, with a tie on, for only three hours a week. He makes much more than a million dollars a year. To do this job, he crisscrosses the U.S. six months a year in the greatest bus you've ever seen. It is a hotel suite on wheels.

Madden, the CBS-TV color analyst who along with Pat Summerall forms the preeminent NFL broadcast team, is a big, friendly, surprisingly tranquil lug of a guy who sees his country as few other Americans do—from the ground floor. “People used to say to me, ‘It must be great coaching and traveling and seeing all the things you do,’ ” says Madden, who piloted the Oakland Raiders for 10 years (1969 to '78) and to a Super Bowl championship. “Well, I'd get on the airplane, and then I'd get off the airplane, get on a bus and go to the hotel. Then the stadium, then the airplane again. I thought I'd traveled all over, but I hadn't seen anything. You've got to be on the ground to see things.”

Madden is not talking about sightseeing. He's talking about being a witness to America—the land, the people, the lifestyles, the thoughts and the emotions that make up a society. He loved stopping at the Tastee-Freez in Sidney, Neb. (pop. 5,834), a few years ago to watch Monday Night Football on a small black-and-white TV, with a group of townspeople that included the coach and players of the local high school basketball team. He discovered great Mexican food in Van Horn, Texas (pop. 2,772), at a restaurant called Chuy's (pronounced CHEW-ees).

One fall he was walking through a Green Bay neighborhood and stopped to watch someone rake leaves; being a California guy, he had never raked leaves. While spending four days in Longboat Key, Fla. (pop. 8,000), between assignments last season, he was drawn every day to the Gulf Coast shoreline, where he watched the fishermen. You have to move around, overland, to see these things.

There have been circumstances in all of our lives that have placed us where we are today. There are reasons that Madden tours America on a bus. Twenty-eight years ago, as a myopic head coach at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif., he read Travels with Charley, Steinbeck's rediscovery of America, and vowed one day to see the country. Madden tired of coaching after the '78 season and took a flier on a TV analyst gig with CBS in '79. Three attacks of claustrophobia while traveling to assignments forced Madden off airplanes and onto trains.

However, the Amtrak schedules weren't always convenient. The TV gig turned into a second career, one that has increased his wealth and fame more than he ever expected, and in '87 Greyhound offered to customize a bus for Madden and supply him with drivers for three years in return for promotional and speaking appearances. After three years, the bus would be his. It's now known as the Walker Advantage Muffler Madden Cruiser (a new sponsor, to cover expenses, you know), and Madden is one happy claustrophobic.

Sometime after dawn of every morning spent on the bus, while Madden sleeps soundly on a queen-sized, ultrafirm bed in the rear third of the vehicle, the driver stops to pick up a USA Today and whatever local paper is available. When Madden awakens, he picks up the intercom phone, calls one of his two drivers and asks, “Where are we?” And Dave Hahn or Willie Yarbrough might say, “In the middle of the Sierras, just past Reno,” or, “Below Cleveland, almost into Pennsylvania.”

Madden moves forward to the codriver's seat, puts his feet—in untied shoes, with no socks—on the railing near the windshield and digests the sports sections of the papers. During the day he eats, reads, talks and, for at least three or four hours, while sucking on an unlit Macanudo cigar, just peers through the front windshield and the huge side picture windows as America rolls past. He spends some time going over press releases and newspaper clippings about the teams playing in the game he'll be working that Sunday. Often he'll pick up the cellular phone and call his agent, Sandy Montag, in New York, or his wife, Virginia, in Blackhawk, Calif., or the coach of one of the teams in Sunday's game. At night he stops for dinner somewhere; rarely is it planned. Back on the bus he switches on one of his two 20-inch color TVs and pops a game tape into the VCR. He might watch two. Because it's his life, and he can do what he wants.

What follows is an account of his most recent coast-to-coast trip, from his house outside Oakland to his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The Madden Cruiser left the East Bay area at noon on Wednesday, Sept. 26. It pulled in front of Madden's New York City apartment building at 10 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28. I was on the bus with Hahn and Yarbrough, who split the nearly nonstop run into shifts; Madden's 25-year-old son, Joe, who is traveling with his dad this fall; and Madden's California neighbor, David Liskin, who was taking the long way to see family in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. The trip took 55 hours and covered 3,016 miles, but who's counting? Not Madden.

* * *

DAY 1 BLACKHAWK, CALIF., TO THE NEVADA-UTAH BORDER

We know so little of our own geography. Why, Maine extends northward almost to the mouth of the St. Lawrence, and its upper border is perhaps a hundred miles north of Quebec. And another thing I had conveniently forgotten was how incredibly huge America is.

—Travels with Charley

On the bus's digital temperature gauge, the outdoor reading is 79 degrees and the indoor reading is 59 degrees. No wonder Madden used to stalk the sidelines in shirtsleeves in December. The rules of the bus are made clear: “Don't wait for anyone, finish any bottle of water you start, drink right out of the bottle, and never take I-80 in or out of New York—there's always construction.” Madden doesn't like the clutter of plastic bottles. One problem: The bottles each hold 50 ounces of water.

Soon the Madden Cruiser headed into the web of California freeways, turning onto I-580 and then onto I-205 in the San Joaquin Valley, where endless fields of vegetables were being irrigated. South of Stockton the bus picked up I-5, the freeway to Sacramento, which would connect with I-80, the highway Hahn and Yarbrough would drive for 53 hours. “Now, you don't think,” Madden said, an hour from his front door. “You've got to turn off your brain for 50 hours.”

Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated

On the right side, about mid-bus, is a table with two bench seats, and Madden, five deep slugs into his first bottle of water, sat on the bench facing the front. To his right were miles of fields. Straight ahead was road. He was the tour guide, and he relished the role. A passenger found out soon enough that one of Madden's favorite topics is America. He talked about its wide-open spaces with the same fervor he uses for a chalkboard description of a Lawrence Taylor sack. He is loquacious and engaging, but he doesn't burst through walls—as he was portrayed in the famous Lite beer commercials—and he doesn't wave his arms. That is Madden shtick. Madison Avenue Madden. This is the real Madden. On the whole trip, I counted only two booms, no whaps and no significant rise in his voice. You know, as in, “SeeTaylorcominginpastLacheyandBOOM!HelevelsBynerand-WHAP! Rypien'sdown!”

“If anything will impress you as you go across the country, it's how much space there is,” he said. “This country, you'd think it was crowded, but you cross it, go for hours, and not see anything. You realize the only places that are truly congested are the big cities. Between congestions are just wide-open spaces. There's a hell of a lot more wide-open spaces than congested cities.

“That's why I've always said that before someone can be a congressman or a senator or president or vice-president, the person should ride across this country. Not drive, because you can't see when you drive. You have to ride, either like this or on a train. If you fly into Washington from New York, or from San Francisco or L.A. or Chicago, how the hell do you know? If a person can't see the country, how the hell can he represent it?”

He sounded like a father taking his seven-year-old son to see the Chicago Cubs play at Wrigley Field for the first time. “Wait until you see it all,” he said.

Ninety miles outside of Reno, I asked the tour guide, “How did you get so interested in seeing the country?”

“Travels with Charley influenced me a lot,” Madden said. “I always wanted to travel, because I'd never seen anything. He was a great storyteller, John Steinbeck. I read everything of his. What happened was, my wife was taking this class for her master's or something. It was a literature course, and she had to study an author. She picked Steinbeck. One of the things she had to do was go up to Monterey, where Cannery Row was, and I did the stuff with her. She'd read the books, and they were just lying around, so I'd read them. The Monterey Peninsula, Cannery Row, is still my favorite place in the whole world.

“If the claustrophobia thing didn't happen, I wouldn't know what this country is, or what these people are like. I would have been like everybody else: run, run, run. Airport, airport, airport. Hotel, hotel, hotel. City, city, city. I wouldn't have found time to see things like I see them now.”

The bus was climbing into the Sierras, and the temperature outside had dropped to 66 degrees. “John Robinson and I were coaching together [with the Raiders in 1975] before he went to USC, and we used to ride to work together,” said Madden. “He once said to me, ‘You've changed. It's like you live in a tunnel. You don't have any idea what's going on in the world.’ It was true. He thought I'd lost my sense of humor, my inquisitiveness. It got so I knew nothing other than football and the Raiders. I'm not criticizing that in myself; it's part of the job. You focus in so much, and you miss life.”

In Nevada the bus sliced through mountains that were a mile and a half high. Yucca plants and paintbrush shrubs were the only things growing here, and Madden saw a solitary ranch about 500 yards off to the right. It consisted of a small house, two trailers, some farm machinery and about 600 head of cattle.

“What do they do at night?” he said, nodding toward the ranch. “No malls. No movies. No TV, it looks like. No neighbors. Where do they get groceries? If there's anything I'd really like to do, I'd like to pull into a place like that, knock on the door and say to the guy, ‘What do you do? How do you live? God, I go to movies, restaurants, ball games, plays, the gas station, the market. You don't do any of those things. What do you do?’ ”

At about 5:30 p.m., he adjourned to his bedroom for a nap. When he returned an hour later, the sun was setting and the bus was passing through low clouds on a mountain pass. A voice on the CB piped up. “Breaker, breaker one-nine,” a trucker said. “Is that the John Madden bus?”

“Affirmative,” said Hahn.

“What game's he doing this weekend?”

“Giants-Cowboys in New York.”

“Holy cow! That's a long way! Well, I enjoy listening to him.”

We stopped for dinner in Elko, Nev., at a Red Lion Inn with a mini casino and sports book in the lobby. Madden walked through the casino, stopping at the sports book. The guy behind the counter was thrilled to see him. He started grilling Madden about who was going to win Sunday's games, and Madden, who doesn't gamble, kept telling the guy that he didn't know, that whatever he said would be only a guess—and he meant it.

“How can people bet on this stuff?” Madden would say later. “Nobody knows how these games are going to go.”

Elko County is wider than Connecticut, and the town of Elko is the only place for 100 miles in either direction that has anything resembling shopping or something to do. It was 9:30 p.m., and Madden wanted to walk before eating. A shopping center was nearby, but most of the stores had already closed. The doughnut shop was still abuzz, and in the beauty shop a woman in a white uniform painted one last set of nails. Madden laughed. “God, are these things popular or what?” he said. “Every town in America has a nail shop, and somebody is always in 'em.”

After Madden made a run through the Red Lion salad bar, the bus headed off into the night, and he broke out the tape of the Dallas-Washington game from the previous week. At 2 a.m., somewhere in the Great Salt Lake Desert, he turned off the TV and went to bed.

* * *

DAY 2 GREAT SALT LAKE DESERT TO OMAHA

I discovered that I did not know my own country.... I knew the changes only from books and newspapers.

—Travels with Charley

At 6 a.m., Madden was still sleeping, but the sun was coming up over southern Wyoming. We had slept through Utah. Now the eastern horizon was slightly pink with wispy clouds. It was as if the horizon were a stage and the curtain was opening an inch a minute, revealing a work of art. “We see those things,” Hahn said from the driver's seat, “but unless you mention them to me and Willie, they kind of go right by us. Now that you mention it, it's incredible, isn't it?”

We were near Rawlins, Wyo., more than a mile high, traversing the Rocky Mountains. But aside from a truck stop every 40 miles or so, nothing was out here except hills and rocks and mountains, which is why the surroundings are so pretty and so desolate at the same time. Through Bitter Creek, Table Rock, Wamsutter. So wide open. We had just left Sweetwater County. Delaware and Rhode Island together could fit in Sweetwater County. Delaware and Rhode Island have a combined population of 1.7 million. Sweetwater County has 42,347.

Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated

In the morning light Hahn pointed to antelope, 50 yards from the road, eating brush. Soon we saw deer and jackrabbits. Yarbrough woke up—drivers and guests slept on fold-out beds and shelves with mattresses—and went to the front of the bus in time to see a pack of wild horses grazing half a mile off the side of the road. “I remember John bringing a producer from New York on the trip once,” Yarbrough said. “He'd lived in New York all his life. He gets out in this part of the country, and he says, ‘Man, there's sky all over the place.’ We got a good laugh out of that.”

After a 9:15 a.m. stop in Laramie, Wyo., so Madden could use a pay phone to do his daily five-minute spot for KSFO radio in San Francisco, he took his seat on the padded bench as the bus passed through the southeastern edge of Wyoming and headed for Nebraska. “Have you ever heard of whiteout?” Madden said. “Whiteout happens around here in the winter. It snows, and it blows so hard you can't see. Everything is white. If it's too bad, you can't drive.” The Madden Cruiser was caught in a whiteout once. Hahn drove two miles an hour until he got through it.

We passed some tepees on a hill by the side of the road. “We're coming up to Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, now,” Madden said. “That's where the missile silos are. Once we were coming through and stopped at a 7-Eleven or something, and we see all these things—not cars, I don't know what you'd call 'em.”

“Armored personnel carriers?” someone said.

“Yeah, yeah. Well, [the troops] didn't come out of doors. They came out of holes in the roof of the carriers, and they climbed down on the side. And they go into the 7-Eleven for coffee. I was worried. I thought some gray-haired guy should be sitting at the controls, but these were just kids eating nachos in the morning in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming.” Off to the right were the silos, built into the ground, with a lot of fence around them.

After another hour or so, we hit the cornfields of Nebraska. “We had to stop in Beaver Crossing, Nebraska [pop. 480] once, to use the phone for the radio show,” Madden said. “It's near Lincoln. Some guy comes across the street from a gas station and introduces himself. Roger Hannon. He was the mayor, and it was his gas station. The next thing I know, we're in front of city hall, and the people start coming out, and they want to see the bus. One woman brought me a rhubarb pie. I didn't even know what rhubarb pie was, but it was great. The whole town came out. There were only about 10 of them, but they were the whole town. I remember asking them, ‘What do houses sell for here?’ They said the last house that sold was right down on the corner—three bedrooms, three baths, a picket fence, for $8,000.”

Two days after Madden's visit to Beaver Crossing, the Omaha World-Herald ran a story on page 3 with the headline: MADDEN STOPS TO USE THE PHONE.

“Sometimes I just like to break up the trip, and Omaha's kind of halfway [across the country],” Madden said. “So I stayed in Omaha one night, and we went to see the minor league baseball team play. Anyway, they have a raffle for a case of pork and beans. It's the seventh inning, and everybody's excited. They pick the winner, and the guy's sitting right behind home plate. His name is Elmer something, and he's jumping up and down. To him it was like a trip to Hawaii or a new car or something. It was just a case of pork and beans. That was great.”

He read all the press clips and news releases sent to him by the Cowboys, and then he looked out the window some more. When we saw some red wildflowers by the side of the road, Joe fetched a coffee-table book, Wildflowers Across America, to identify them. The book had been a gift from Joe to his father. How many former NFL coaches would be caught with a copy of Wildflowers Across America in the drawer next to the Giants media guide? Joe found the wildflower in the book: spotted knapweed.

In Brady, Neb., we saw the strangest sight of the trip. We pulled off the highway, emptied out of the bus and looked with the same fascination we would have if we had seen a UFO. It was an animal farm, with a long ranch-style house and a grazing pen that was home to one gray burro, two dozen deer, five dwarf ponies, five llamas, one crossbred deer-llama and several crossbred animals that resembled llamas with very thick necks.

“He looks like he's on steroids,” Madden said of one thick-necked llama-lookalike. There were no signs, no explanation of what this farm was for. A man staring at us from the picture window of the house wouldn't come out to answer our questions.

Madden still hadn't gotten over the weird animals when we stopped for dinner at Grandpa's Steakhouse in Kearney, Neb. He asked a woman who had come to our table for his autograph if she knew why the animal farm was there. “I just think he has them for personal pleasure,” she said.

While we were eating, the Kerry Kimple clan of Kearney collected near the bus, waiting for Madden. “Nebraska loves John Madden,” said Kerry, whose son, Travis, 10, got Madden's autograph. “He's a common-sense, say-what-he-thinks guy.”

Back on the bus, Madden watched the Giants-Dolphins game tape. Around midnight, somewhere just over the line into Iowa, he said, “We really saw a lot of stuff today, didn't we? Think of all the things we saw that we wouldn't see on a plane.”

* * *

DAY 3 COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA, TO NEW YORK CITY

There are customs, attitudes, myths and directions and changes that seem to be part of the structure of America.

—Travels with Charley

From some point just east of Des Moines to a rest stop south of Cleveland—a stretch of 640 miles traveled in 12 hours—Madden slept. He missed the early rush hour in the suburbs south of Chicago. He missed South Bend, Ind., waking the echoes on a brand-new day. He missed the heart of the Rust Belt. He missed most of Ohio, including 19 consecutive American cars passing the bus in the westbound lane in Maumee, a Toledo suburb. He missed the colorful foliage of Sandusky County, Ohio. He missed Liskin, his amiable neighbor, talking about what a great time he had had seeing America.

“I don't want it to end,” Liskin said. “I want it to keep going. I just called my brother in New York. He's an investment banker. His voice was so tense. He told me that with the Iraq situation, the world's going crazy. I told him, ‘Not where I am. Everything seems fine here.’ He told me, ‘Ahhh, you don't understand reality.’ I feel great now, like I just came back from Hawaii.”

At 10 minutes past noon, with the bus pulling into the rest stop near Cleveland, Madden stirred. “Sleep,” Madden said a few miles into Pennsylvania, “is the key to the whole thing. If you finish a trip and drag in like a washrag, it's not going to work. I sleep better on the bus than I do at home, I think. I've been on it so much, it truly is a home.”

We stopped for lunch in Clarion, Pa. (pop. 6,664), and Madden strolled the sidewalks. Two men were sitting on a bench in the center of town when Madden passed. “That's the Ace Hardware guy,” one said.

“No, he's the football announcer,” the other replied.

Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated Bill Frakes/Sports Illustrated

Madden loved the sights, but he likes being invisible, so he doesn't walk the streets in small towns as much as he once did. When we were a few hours outside New York City, he was asked about the states he had slept through. “It seems that Iowa should be the capital of small-town America,” said Madden. “Every town is so nice. Illinois is Chicago to me, Michigan Avenue—one of my favorite cities. Indiana is Notre Dame. Ohio is Youngstown. [San Francisco 49er owner] Eddie DeBartolo's from there, and he's always telling me, ‘Stop by, come and eat, I'll cook for you.’ Pennsylvania, trees. Look at this foliage. I mean, people pay money to take tour buses to see scenes like this.”

We were in a long, deep canyon of red, green, yellow and brown, driving on a ridge just below the Moshannon State Forest in north central Pennsylvania. The trees looked like pom-poms.

Against his better judgment, Madden agreed to break one of his cardinal rules. He told Hahn and Yarbrough they could take I-80 all the way into New York City. Naturally, the highway was under construction in northeastern Pennsylvania, and the bus crawled for two hours. “No more of this __ road, ever, into New York,” said Madden before retiring for a quick nap.

When we reached the congestion of eastern New Jersey, it reminded Madden that he was closing in on his home away from home. He reflected on the trip and the country he had crossed. “I think we're in pretty good shape,” he said. “The thing that's always amazed me is how it works. People who live on farms don't want to live in big cities. People who live in big cities don't want to be farmers. If everyone wanted the same thing, or wanted to live in the same place, the thing would never work. There are people who are as happy as hell living in Kearney, Nebraska, and eating at Grandpa's. There are people who are as happy as hell living in the middle of nowhere.

“Probably above that, what I've learned traveling around is this: People are nice. You go to a big city, and you hear the world is going to hell, but it's not true. Small parts of it are; the whole isn't. Hey, all we have to do is spread out a little bit, because we have a lot of space. You get out there, and it makes you feel better about America. The thing works.”

From start to finish, I found no strangers.... These are my people and this is my country.

—Travels with Charley


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