Clear the tracks for Big John

Nov. 17, 1980
Nov. 17, 1980

Table of Contents
Nov. 17, 1980

Them Dawgs
David Thompson
College Football
Pro Basketball

Clear the tracks for Big John

Fear of flying has put the one-man show of ex-Coach John Madden on the rails

As the witching hour nears, the Southwest Limited is winding through the black, desolate canyons of the Sierra Nevadas. In the darkened club car, the shadowy tableau suggests an Agatha Christie thriller in the making: a bartender nodding off in the corner; a bearded man fidgeting like an assassin on the lam; an elderly gent with the frozen smile of a kindly grandfather—or a mad bomber; and a blonde in a slouch hat who could pass for the young Ingrid Bergman on a spy mission. A forbidding night full of mystery and dark portent.

This is an article from the Nov. 17, 1980 issue Original Layout

Suddenly, the door of the club car hisses open. The clackety-clack of the rails is heard, a chill gust sweeps through the car and there, looming in the doorway like an ax murderer, is a giant, hulking figure that lumbers forward and collapses into a seat. The bartender, adjusting his white jacket, approaches. "A Lite beer from Miller," says the incredible hulk.

As the bartender turns, the hulk stops him with a low growl: "Did you know that Lite beer has a third less calories than your regular beer?" The bartender nods nervously, then jumps as the hulk slams his huge fist down on the table. "And that Lite beer tastes fantastic and doesn't fill me up?"

Leaping to his feet, the hulk waves his arms wildly. "There are a lot of other beers out there," he roars. "But for my money I say why buy anything else!"

Terrified, the bartender backs off. Then, ever so slowly, his expression changes from disbelief to a knowing grin. "If I didn't know better," he says, "I'd say you were that coach fella, John Madden, the one who does those beer commercials on TV. But that's impossible, right?"

"Right," says the hulk, slumping back into his seat, subdued now. "What would John Madden be doing on a train?"

Creating a little mischief, as usual. For the past three months, in fact, the former coach of the Oakland Raiders has been riding trains across the length and breadth of the land, covering NFL games for CBS-TV and delivering impromptu versions of his famous commercials at the first pop of a six-pack. Last month alone, Madden logged more than 20,000 rail miles, including one 21-day trek through more cities and landscapes than most Americans see in a lifetime. Recently, after a brief sojourn at his ranch home in Pleasanton, Calif., the peripatetic Madden was off again.

WEDNESDAY: Up at 6 a.m., Madden says goodby to his sons, Michael, 17, and Joey, 15, and drives to the Oakland train station with his wife, Virginia. He boards the Coast Starlight and, like a soldier off to a far-flung war, says grandly, "So long, I don't know when I'll be back."

Madden arrives in Los Angeles at 7:20 p.m. Enthroned like a maharaja on a baggage cart, he is driven to the boarding platform of the Southwest Limited for a journey to Kansas City and a game between the Chiefs and the Detroit Lions. Ducking into the dining car, Madden greets a "writer-type person" and immediately tells him to ditch the jacket and tie in favor of Madden's "Amtrak away uniform": polo shirt, corduroys and sneakers.

The writer type has one question: Why the train? "I have this phobia about being locked up in plane cabins," Madden explains. "I was able to suppress it when I was with the Raiders because we always flew charter and I was able to walk around a lot. But when I started flying commercial last year, the feeling of panic got to be unbearable."

Claustrophobia? "I think so; I'm not too crazy about elevators or going through tunnels, either. Finally, it got so bad on a one-stop flight from Tampa to San Francisco last year that I got off in Houston, checked into a motel and took a train out the next day. I loved it so much I haven't been on a plane since."

A passing waiter, patting a case of Lite beer he is hauling to the refrigerator, winks at Madden. "I'm not a big drinker," Madden says, "but Lite sales do go up when I'm around."

Later, while autographing beer cans in the club car, Madden allows there is no escaping the recognition. "There aren't too many big fat redheaded guys around like me. But you meet some great people on trains, and I enjoy talking football with them because it gives me a chance to find out what people want to hear from an announcer. I know one phrase they won't hear from me—'skill positions.' What are the poor slobs who block? Unskilled?"

Madden, off for his customary stroll through the train before retiring, muses, "I've always wanted to slow down and, like Steinbeck says in Travels With Charley, 'get to see and know our land.' And now I'm doing it. There isn't a train I wouldn't take. No matter where it's going."

THURSDAY: Madden spends the morning in his bedroom boning up on his game research. "With no phones or other distractions," he says, "I get a lot more done on the train than at home." At lunch he orders a hamburger and, in deference to an "Amtrak diet" that has trimmed 50 pounds off his 6'4" frame, cottage cheese. "I weigh 240 now and can pour on as much of this Tabasco sauce as I want," he says, alluding to the bleeding ulcer that caused him to retire from coaching in 1978 with one Super Bowl title, a 103-32-7 record and a .763 winning percentage that is unmatched by any coach with 10 or more seasons in the NFL.

When not hopping off to buy newspapers or do stretching exercises in some desert way-stop, Madden speaks glowingly about the romance of the rails, about seeing the Great Salt Flats illuminated by lightning, collecting recipes for red beans and rice from Mexican passengers, holding a portable radio to the window to pick up NFL Monday night games. Listening to railroad buffs discussing the new 150-mph turbotrains, he nervously asks, "They don't leave the track, do they?"

As Madden predicted, passengers who were strangers a few hundred miles back are now chummily addressing one another by their first names. The assassin turns out to be a Santa Fe brakeman, who proudly poses for a snapshot with "Big John." The mad bomber is a square-dance caller who, prodded by a foot-stomping, hand-clapping Madden, lets loose with a mean do-si-do spiel. And Ingrid the spy is an aspiring rock singer who doubles as score-keeper for the parlor games Madden is fond of organizing.

At one point, while watching the surging rivers and painted mesas slipping by, Madden says happily, "I don't know what state we're in, what time it is, or even what day it is. Give me a train any day."

Late that night, to demonstrate the freedom of train travel, Madden gets off in La Junta, Colo., strides into a dim, cowpoke saloon hard by the tracks and orders the inevitable. "You know," he all but shouts at the bartender, "I'm not the same crazy coach who used to roam the sidelines." Boom! He slams his fist on the bar. "I've learned to relax!" The bartender, reaching under the bar as if to pick up a club or possibly a shotgun, does a double take and points at the TV screen. With one mighty quaff, Madden finishes his beer and disappears into the night, leaving the bartender still pointing.

FRIDAY: Looking as rumpled as a mail sack, Madden detrains in Kansas City at 7:20 a.m. "Isn't this great!" he exclaims. "It's just like camping out."

While Madden is checking in at the Hyatt Regency, someone on an upper balcony shouts, "Hey, Miller Lite!" Without looking up, Madden startles the receptionist by bellowing back, "Everything you've always wanted in a beer and less!" Then he sprawls out on a nearby sofa for an hour or so of "lobbying," watching the flow of guests with the discerning eye of a house dick. Inspired, he jumps up and does an elaborate imitation of the "suit types" rushing to make their planes, muttering "What time's your flight?" and "Had your Bloody Mary yet?"

All the Madden moves are in evidence: the point, a wagging, accusatory jab; the touchdown, a rapid pumping of both hands overhead; the explosion, a smashing of right fist into left palm; the boogie, a series of uppercuts with fingers wiggling and hips swaying; and the double sweep, a backward swing with both arms that has been known to fell potted palms and an occasional passerby. Madden pleads, "I'm just an emotional guy who likes to talk with his hands, that's all."

Later, while discussing the intricacies of third-down-and-short situations in a Polynesian restaurant, Madden is on his feet again, inadvertently swatting the Chinese lanterns hanging overhead. "When you see an official jump into a pileup and he's doing this," he says, flapping his arms like an enraged stork, "it means I don't know what happened.' That's when another guy in a striped shirt runs out to spot the ball. If he does it with his left foot, you miss the first down by inches. If he uses his right, you make it. It's the left-footers that give you ulcers."

Looking on, CBS producer Jim Silman says admiringly, "John has added a new dimension to broadcasting. He bridges the gap between the too-technical and the too-entertaining."

Madden's play-by-play partner, Gary Bender, allows that he half believes Madden's theory that every man is born to wear a certain number. "Take Art Still, the Chiefs' defensive end," Madden says. "He's too tall to be a 67. Put an 83 on him and he'll be All-Pro. I'm a 74, slow but dedicated."

Madden and Bender spend the rest of the afternoon watching a Chiefs workout, interviewing coaches and studying films. Then, after persuading Art Still to put in for a new number, Madden roams Arrowhead Stadium for impressions he can weave into his game commentary. "These locker rooms are too pretty," he decrees. "They need some dirty socks and old jocks thrown around. Guys get in here and they don't want to go out on the field. Don't laugh. The Chiefs used to be tough in their old run-down stadium. Then they moved here in 1972 and haven't been in the playoffs since."

One of the players huddling around Madden says that the Raiders have the worst visitors' locker room in the league. "Yeah, we planned it that way," Madden says. "Once, when they hired some exterminators for the rats that live in there, I told them, 'Don't get rid of 'em, feed 'em.' Then I tell Hank Stram not to worry about the rats, which he will, of course.

"What's this?" Madden says, kicking a box of Hershey bars the Lions have ordered for halftime. "Hell, all we used to do was smoke and drink coffee. And when we heard Biletnikoff throwing up, we knew it was time to go out on the field again."

Gesturing at the "motivational slogans" on the walls, Madden adds, "I never believed in pep talks. Once, though, in desperation, I invented an inspirational saying that made absolutely no sense—'Don't worry about the horse being blind, just load up the wagon'—and the amazing thing was that John Matuszak understood it."

SUNDAY: Madden arrives at the stadium three hours before kickoff. Passing a cheerleader, he says, "They're taking over the game. They've got locker rooms, draft choices and everything. Mary Sue there most probably went in the first round. Good hands."

As game time nears, Madden chats on his headset with CBS director Bob Fish-man about the possibility of getting a shot of the luxurious glassed-in box belonging to Lamar Hunt, the Chiefs' owner. Madden explains that he would like to work in a line about how Lamar's 4-year-old son is learning how to count: "One million, two million...."

Madden checks the Chiefs' lineup and recoils at the name of Frank Manumaleuga, the Samoan linebacker. "That guy's never going to get a mention unless he changes his name," Madden says. "No way I can pronounce that."

When the cameras go on, Bender fluidly sets the scene and Madden adds, "I led the league in boos here." Then, stripping off his jacket and standing up, Madden delivers his commentary while doing the boogie and double sweep with such verve that he periodically knocks over his chair, spills coffee and becomes entangled in the cords of his headset. Somehow, with Bender instinctively ducking under Madden's jabs and roundhouse swipes, the pair melds in a dialogue that is lively, insightful and wry. When Bender notes that the Lions' Billy Sims looks tired, Madden adds, "Yes, but it's a good tired, the kind that allows him to lose his anxiety and run on pure instinct."

After a clipping penalty, Madden says, "I always told my guys if you can read the names on their backs, don't block them because it'll be a clip." Bender: "You mean all of your players could read?" Madden: "Well, later I changed that and said they shouldn't block if they could seethe names."

Madden's most compelling asset as an analyst is that he communicates his excitement. This is especially evident when, with the score tied 10-10 going into the final quarter, he begins pointing out individual accomplishments by enthusiastically adding sound effects—boom! wham!—and pawing and poking the images of the players on the TV monitor in front of him. Up to a point. After one spectacular tackle by Manumaleuga, Bender slyly asks Madden if he saw who made the play. "Frank," he says.

MONDAY: It is past midnight and a steady rain is falling as Madden drags through the deserted Kansas City station en route to his next game in Seattle. Out on the platform, he stands in the rain long enough to tell the writer type, "On second thought, you may be a No. 6 moving up to a 98, a training-camp walk-on who surprises people. Keep trying."

Madden disappears into the club car and, as the train lurches and begins to roll, he can be seen through the steamy windows, wildly waving his arms at the bartender. The roar is muffled but still audible: "Lite beer from Miller! Tastes fantastic! Less filling!"

ILLUSTRATIONJOHN HUEHNERGARTHAs fellow passengers have learned, Medden's TV beer commercials are hardly an actILLUSTRATIONJOHN HUEHNERGARTHMadden's exuberance in lobbies knows no out-of-bounds.ILLUSTRATIONJOHN HUEHNERGARTHWould Madden tell Hank Stram there was a rat in his dressing room? you're darn right.