The Mechanic’s Son Who Became a Football Legend

Quarterback Daryle Lamonica #3 of the Oakland Raiders talks with head coach John Madden on the sidelines during an NFL football game circa 1970 at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California. Lamonica played for the Raiders from 1967-74. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Source Getty

Why you should care

Because all the arm-waving enthusiasm in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have your sh*t down cold.

For a time, it was hard to imagine a Super Bowl without John Madden. The 78-year-old retired NFL legend may not be calling Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday, but between winning one as a coach and working 11 Super Bowl broadcasts, including one for all four major television networks, few individuals have played a larger role in pro football’s crowning glory — or in the sport itself.

But before his colorful commentary, 16 Sports Emmy awards, seven division titles and eponymous video game brand, the NFL Hall of Famer was a zealous student of the game. More than anything else, it was Madden’s insatiable drive to learn football inside and out that launched the lumbering icon from a part-time assistant at a junior college to the youngest head coach in the NFL and beyond.

The son of an auto mechanic, John Earl Madden grew up in Daly City, California. In Madden: A Biography, the late sportswriter Bryan Burwell describes how the young Madden and his friend John Robinson — later an NFL head coach himself — would jump on moving freight trains to watch Stanford, Cal or the San Francisco 49ers play football. 

The 6-foot-4-inch, 200-plus-pound Madden was a star lineman in high school with one dream: playing professional football. But the barrel-chested tackle, who arrived at the University of Oregon with two bags of belongings, struggled to fit in with his wealthier peers and the pre-law program he’d chosen. He eventually ended up back in his home state, playing for California Polytechnic State University before getting drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958. The dream had come true for the red-haired rookie, but it ended abruptly when he suffered a severe knee injury.

Madden implemented three simple rules: “Be on time, pay attention and play like hell when I tell you to.”

Madden spent most of his first and only year as an NFL player in the Eagles’ training room, loitering in the room where star quarterback Norm Van Brocklin watched game film. “Hey, Red,” Van Brocklin beckoned one day. “Come up here and watch it with me.” The rookie soaked up the veteran’s vast knowledge, learning each player’s responsibilities on the field, how to recognize opposing defenses and coverages — and how to pick them apart.

Realizing his playing days were over, the 24-year-old Madden left the Eagles’ training room and returned to the field as an assistant coach at Allan Hancock College. Within two years, he was head coach, and then defensive coordinator at San Diego State. There the intense but disheveled young coach would learn from future NFL coach and offensive genius Don Coryell, and attract the attention of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, who hired him as his linebackers coach in 1967 for a team that would go 13-1 and make the Super Bowl. Just two years later, Madden, 32, was handed the head coaching reins and put in charge of a talented but rambunctious squad.

Up through the late 1960s, the NFL was mostly “Old Testament football,” as Burwell calls it, under authoritarian coaches like Green Bay’s legendary Vince Lombardi. Madden knew a strict approach would never work with his band of renegade Raiders, so he dispensed with dress codes and implemented three simple rules: “Be on time, pay attention and play like hell when I tell you to.” Coach Madden, as John Maxymuk, author of NFL Head Coaches, tells OZY, “was a master psychologist able to get the best out of his free-spirited players while keeping everything simple.”

AFC Championship, Oakland Raiders QB Ken Stabler (12) with coach John Madden during game vs Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland, CA

Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler with coach John Madden during the AFC Championship in 1976.

Madden’s “badass” Raiders teams of the 1970s — including such flamboyant characters as Ted Hendricks, Gene Upshaw, Fred Biletnikoff and quarterback Kenny Stabler (who tacked underwear to his wall to mark his many sexual conquests) — not only had a swagger that pissed off opponents and entranced television audiences, they also did whatever necessary to gain an advantage on the field and live up to Davis’ motto: “Just win, baby!” And win they did: In Madden’s 10 years at the helm, the Raiders won one Super Bowl and made the postseason eight of 10 years, racking up a regular season record of 103-32-7 and handing their coach one of the highest winning percentages in history.

But Madden’s intense pursuit of the game took a physical and personal toll on him, and at the age of 42 he resigned, citing family, stress and a stomach ulcer. “I’m not terribly proud of this,” Madden later admitted, “but shit, I didn’t even know how old my kids were.” It was also likely, says Burwell, that Madden’s acute fear of flying played a part, and when he next rose to prominence as an announcer, Madden would criss-cross the nation in a “tricked-out” Greyhound bus called the Madden Cruiser, which he still uses to attend Raiders games and serve on the NFL’s Player Safety Advisory Panel.

It may take a whole lot longer to travel by bus, but Madden has never been afraid to put in the hours when it comes to football. And in the public imagination, he will always remain, as Sean Mitchell wrote in Los Angeles Times Magazine, “the big-footed American hero of the interstate, the blue-collar pope of professional football.”


OZYTrue Stories

The intimate, the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising — the human.