Sometimes, I wonder why things don’t feel the way they used to feel. What is it about getting older that makes that happen? I think of myself now, I’m in high school, and it’s a Sunday, late in the afternoon, and I’m on the floor in front of our 25-inch color console television, and maybe the Cardinals are playing the Cowboys, so maybe the background is Cowboys Stadium with its giant hole in the roof so that the field is covered in fading sunshine and growing shadows.
There was a different color to CBS and NBC football games then — did you notice that? NBC games seemed to have these bold and bright colors, the yellows of the sun and the greens of the grass and the browns of the dirt and the gold of the Steelers and the silver of the Raiders. And CBS? Different. Those colors were subdued somehow, made more serious, as if the director had put an Instagram filter over the game, maybe the Reyes filter or Perpetua. Those colors gave CBS football games a graver and more consequential feel, I always thought.
Then again, maybe all that was in my imagination — sort of the way kids can taste different flavors in different colored M&Ms.
Of course, Pat Summerall and John Madden are calling the game. It wasn’t a truly important game unless Summerall and Madden were on the call. NBC had its own star team of Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen, and they were grand, but Summerall and Madden were something else entirely.
In the hours after his death this week, there have been countless efforts to do justice to his enormous life as brilliant and animated football coach (and the one who best fought off the ravings of Al Davis), as game-changing television announcer, as iconic video game symbol, as wall-crashing beer pitchman, as tough-actin’-Tinactin poet laureate, as pop culture icon, as bus-riding man of the people, as best-selling author, as humble soul who tried always to treat people well.
I’d like to talk for a moment about how Madden made me feel.
We like to have fun here at Joe Blogs. Baseball. Football. Tennis. Chess. Family. Basketball. Music. Infomercials. Movies. Olympics. Hockey. Nonsense. Magic. In short, it’s an adventure. I hope you’ll come along.
That Cardinals-Cowboys game — or maybe it was Bears-Vikings or 49ers-Saints, who can really remember? — meant everything. Why? Well, there were several reasons. It was the last game of the weekend, and that meant the end was nigh.
My friend, the brilliant Gary Gulman, does a great bit about something I’ve written on before: The terror of the “60 Minutes” ticking clock opening. That ticking was the official sound signifying that the weekend was ending and soon there would be school and tests and unfinished homework assignments and real life.
I didn’t just hate the “60 Minutes” opening, I hated every little warning that time was almost up — I hated when Summerall, if a game was running late, would say “For those tuning in for “60 Minutes,” it will be shown in its entirety immediately after the game ends, except on the West Coast where it will be seen at its regular time.” I even hated when they would put up the names of director Sandy Grossman and producer Bob Stenner — that too meant the game was almost over.
I cannot begin to describe how desperately I wanted that last game to go on forever.
John Madden was in the middle of that. He was unlike any announcer on television. He was funny. He was excited. He was booming. But he was teaching too — he constantly showed us football things we didn’t know. This is called a stunt, see how the nose tackle goes to the right, and then the defensive end loops around behind him and BOOM there he goes, right to the quarterback …
He was an original. Television didn’t necessarily come naturally to him — Bob Costas remembers doing Madden’s audition game in 1979, 49ers-Rams, Los Angeles Coliseum, and in that game Madden was nervous and a bit stiff and unsure of the best way to describe the action — but from the start he had that bounce, that exuberance, and that was what made him different. He just couldn’t believe his good luck.
“Wow wow wow,” was how he began his Pro Football Hall of Fame speech. And that was how he broadcast games too, full of life, full of love. Sure, he went overboard — the impressionist Frank Calliendo made an entire career out of Madden and his over-the-top love for Brett Favre. But that was a good thing. Madden was unafraid to have the time of his life whether talking about turducken or Gatorade jugs or just messing around with the telestrator, which he reimagined the way Bill Watterson reimagined the Sunday comic strip format.
And I think of that anxious kid watching the last NFL game of the weekend and how much Madden’s voice meant to me. Every exclamation, every breakdown, every distraction, every BOOM, every observation felt like a gift, as if John Madden were saying directly to me, “Look, I know tomorrow will come too soon, but let’s go ahead and enjoy this game right here. I mean, look at Tony Dorsett run the ball! Isn’t that great? It’s like ballet or something! … Look at Mike Singletary’s eyes! That’s a football player right there. … Look at Joe Montana just working over the defense. Watch how quickly he makes a decision … Can you believe that?”
Those feelings have faded and faded and faded as the years go along until they’re barely there at all. Announcers these days leave me pretty cold, generally. I can appreciate the better ones, admire the ones who make keen observations, enjoy the few who really do seem to be having a great time.
But none are Madden. And, to be fair, none ever could be Madden — he was one of a kind … and he came along when I needed him most.