NFL Bookshelf

Madden: A Biography by Bryan Burwell

John Madden changed how we view football - first as a coach, then as a commentator and most recently as a video games mogul. This excellent biography explains how.

John Madden is one of my football heroes. There are plenty of reasons for that and we’ll come to some of them in a minute. The number one reason, however, is a story in Bryan Burwell’s biography.

Darryl Stingley played wide receiver for the New England Patriots from 1973 to 1978. In an August 1978 preseason game against Madden’s Oakland Raiders he was attempting to make a catch when defensive back Jack Tatum smashed into him. It was the kind of hit – a blow to the neck of a defenceless player – that is outlawed today but at the time it was legal.

Stingley, then 26, was left with two fractured vertebrae in his neck and his spinal cord was compressed, rendering him quadriplegic. After the game Madden went to the hospital and was furious to find that nobody from the Patriots had stayed behind with Stingley. Burwell explains what happened next:

“Madden stormed down the hallway like an enraged bull moose, looking for a telephone. He grabbed the receiver, his thick fingers punching out the telephone number to the charter terminal at the Oakland airport. He was immediately patched through to the cockpit of the New England charter that was already on the tarmac and heading for the runway. When he finally got someone from the team on the phone, Madden unleashed a tirade of profanity. Whatever he said must have worked, because the plane returned to the gate, the door opened and the team’s business manager got off the plane and made his way to the hospital.”

Madden stayed at the hospital that night and later saved Stingley’s life when he noticed one of the hospital machines had stopped working. Stingley was in hospital for two months and Madden visited him every day when he was in Oakland and went to the hospital to see him as soon as he returned from a road trip.

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Of course, that story would have been a footnote to Stingley’s story if it weren’t for the fact that Madden was also an incredibly successful coach. He became head coach of the Raiders in 1969, aged 32, and walked away after the 1978 season that had begun with Stingley’s injury.

In between he won Super Bowl XI, took his team to six AFC Championship Games and won seven division titles. He became the youngest coach to reach 100 career victories and his win percentage ranks second in NFL history, behind Guy Chamberlin, who coached several teams in the 1920s, including the Canton Bulldogs.

Burwell’s book has plenty of stories from Madden’s time as coach of the Raiders, and the raucous, irreverent team that he built there. It also details his youth and how he fell in love with football, as well as his brief playing career; Madden was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958 but a training camp knee injury meant that he never played a down in the NFL. It’s a fascinating read and that period of Madden’s career fills the first two-thirds of the book.

But it wasn’t Madden’s record as a coach that started my admiration of him. Like most of us who grew up watching football in the 1980s, I got to know Madden as a commentator. He’s often remembered for his colourful “Whap!”, “Boom!” style, but that obscures just how good he was at teaching people to watch the game.

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Burwell explains how Madden went from a broadcasting novice, who watched his tapes back and thought “Man, I’m terrible”, to a demanding presence who wanted to improve CBS’s football coverage. “He brought a coach’s work ethic to television,” writes Burwell. “He wanted the entire production team to watch game film and attend practices.”

Having been one of the best coaches in the business, Madden re-shaped the way football was shown on television and helped viewers to understand the game better in the process. But there was one other thing…

To my generation, Madden’s name meant ‘broadcaster’, rather than ‘coach’. For a younger generation, the name Madden will always refer to the video game.

I can’t remember which was the first Madden title I played. I think it was the first one – John Madden Football – but it might have been the follow-up, released in 1992. Either way, it was one of the Sega Megadrive titles and it was a revelation.

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I’ve learned more about football from 25 years of playing Madden than I have from any other source. And that’s no accident. Madden didn’t just stick his name on the box – he helped to create the game and he wanted it to be a teaching tool.

“I invented this game,” he tells Burwell. “It was supposed to be a computer game that would be used to help high school coaches teach and learn football. I wanted to create a computer game that would allow you to put in a play, run it against a defence on a computer and see if it would have success or not.”

The game merits just three pages of the biography, tucked away in the epilogue. It’s a shame because it might end up being the most important part of Madden’s legacy. Nevertheless, it highlights a recurring theme of Madden’s career: he just wants to teach people the game and hopes that they will love it as much as he does.

Madden had to wait longer than his contemporaries for a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame but in time I think it will become clear that he was more deserving than any of them. As great as they were, Chuck Noll, Tom Landry and Don Shula didn’t do as much for the game as Madden has.

This book will help you to understand why Madden is such a giant of the game. And, with stories like the Stingley one, it will convince you that he is a great man too.

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