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- American football player and coach
- American football coach
That was the day John Madden first called an NFL game on TV. It’s on YouTube (most of it anyway), and it’s glorious.
The tributes have been rolling in for Madden, who died at the age of 85 on Tuesday morning. Whether you celebrated him as a coach, an announcer, pitch man or video game impresario, Madden’s impact on football is indelible and undeniable.
Watching the Saints-49ers broadcast is fascinating. Although the game pits winless teams — “two of the best 0-3 teams in the league,” Madden says at one point — there are legends and recognizable names all over Candlestick Park that day: Bill Walsh, Joe Montana (holding on only extra points and field goals), O.J. Simpson, Tony Dungy, Archie Manning, Garo Yepremian, Conrad Dobler and more.
It’s great for football junkies and historians. Clearly, for the Madden completists, this video is easily consumed. A few years later, after rotating with different play-by-play men (including legends such as Dick Stockton and Vin Scully), he'd be paired with sidekick Pat Summerall, forming the signature football announcing tandem of the 1980s and beyond.
But this debut performance is not the same Madden we came to embrace in the 1990s, nor the legend in his twilight of the 2000s. It’s a measured, reserved Madden, feeling his way through the call. Even then, his roots as a coach carried over into the booth.
“He’s your type of guy,” play-by-play announcer Frank Glieber said of 49ers QB Steve DeBerg, after Madden explained DeBerg’s toughness in playing through a broken wrist — in the preseason, no less. There wasn’t an All-Madden Team yet in 1979, but it’s as if Glieber had planted the tiniest of seeds for the future in that moment.
There were hints of foreshadowing throughout the broadcast. Glimpses of the future. Bits and pieces that would later mushroom into one of the celebrated voices in sports.
If you watched Fox’s “All Madden” documentary, which dropped last week (and no doubt will be re-aired plenty this week), you know that Madden initially scoffed at the idea of being a TV guy. Imagine that. There’s hesitation at times in his calls, but like his famous first post-coaching beer commercial, Madden can rein in the calm and reserved for only so long.
We coasted through the two-plus hour video, noting some nuggets along the way.
‘A little cement mixed in’ — 12:08 mark
Saints Pro Bowl running back Chuck Muncie has a nice gain up the middle, with Glieber calling the run “12 yards and a cloud of dust” as Muncie rumbles through the Candlestick infield, retrofitted for football. (Remember that, fans of a certain age?)
Madden, without skipping a beat, says, “That’s a real cloud of dust, with a little cement mixed in.”
We’re chalking this up to Madden giving his former cross-Bay rivals some guff, or their field anyway. Although Madden’s Raiders also played in a baseball-football hybrid stadium with an infield near midfield.
There would be more of these barbs throughout the broadcast. Just Madden breaking in new material.
Bill Walsh’s hair — 20:28
“There’s Bill Walsh,” Glieber said during a lull in the action, likely trying to coax out some bombast from Madden. “Why is it he looks so distinguished, and you never looked that neat on the sidelines?”
Madden — whose fashion style was once compared to an unmade bed — doesn’t skip a beat.
“I think the silver hair and the bald spot do it,” he said. “The silver hair, bald spot and the glasses. See, I didn’t have any of those things. Maybe a little bald spot, but I didn’t have the silver hair or the glasses.
“The other thing, he’s probably a lot better looking and a lot thinner.”
Glieber mentions that Madden could have gotten glasses.
“I don’t know if I could have gotten that thin or that gray, though,” Madden said.
Even in his broadcasting debut, the self-deprecation and silver tongue were on point.
Infield dirt and Stickum — 26:49
They brought on a guest down on the sideline, former NFL linebacker Skip Vanderbundt, who had played for both the 49ers and Saints.
Madden asks him about the new grass surface at Candlestick (believe it or not, they used Astroturf from 1970 to 1978), and Vanderbundt agrees with the coach that the new stuff, infield dirt and all, is better than the fake carpet they used to use.
“If we’d have done this a few years earlier, we’d have had a few more guys here who wouldn’t have ended their career when they had,” Vanderbundt said.
Then Vanderbundt reveals a secret: They used to try to throw Madden’s former receiver with the Raiders, Fred Biletnikoff, down on the Oakland Coliseum infield dirt “with all that Stickum he used to have on his hands,” Vanderbundt said.
Madden rolls with it and leans into the joke.
“And you thought he’d never be able to get back up, he’d be stuck there, right?” Madden jokes.
Elsewhere, Madden’s old team got smoked — 37:19
Right before the start of the second half, Glieber rolls through scores elsewhere in the NFL. When he gets to Madden’s former Raiders team, which lost earlier in the day by four TDs to the Chiefs, Glieber said, “I’ll let you comment on this one.”
Madden starts off by deadpanning it: “Kansas City 35, Oakland 7.”
After a pause, Madden said, “Now that’s a real surprise. I really didn’t anticipate that,” before rolling through the Raiders’ annual history of struggling against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
Then he adds, “but I didn’t think it would be anything like that.”
Player safety wasn't a big issue back in the old days — 43:17
Wild play. Manning drops back and fires a bomb to Wes Chandler, who makes a grab downfield in traffic amid three Niners defenders and then turns on the afterburners.
Chandler goes 85 yards and gets all the way down to the San Francisco 2-yard line, but not before he’s slammed to the dirt in what later would be known as a horse-collar tackle — accompanied by a 15-yard penalty. But not then. It was a legal play in 1979, and the rule wouldn’t be added until 2005, in fact.
Madden notes the roughness of the tackle, saying, “You hate to see that” when Chandler is slow to get up.
But on some level you’d think Madden appreciated the physicality. He was, after all, the coach of the Silver and Black, one of the toughest — some said dirtiest — teams of the 1970s.
But years later, once Madden was established as the voice of the NFL, he’d have a far different take on injuries — especially those to the head. This is from 1993:
This was John Madden in 1993 criticizing the NFL’s concussion protocols. RIP John. pic.twitter.com/EdPBXFYVeL
— Allan Walsh (@walsha) December 29, 2021
Our first ‘boom!’ — 1:03:57
By the time Madden became Madden, his patented “boom!” call became internationally known.
But in his maiden broadcast, we have to wait over an hour to get one slipped into a highlight, in detailing a block that sprung Muncie. (If we missed one earlier, please let us know where it happened.)
It’s not the “boom!” we’d come to know, but it’s a little glimpse into Madden tapping into his own lexicon for the call. This is who he is. It surely got amplified the longer he was on TV. But listening to the mid-replay “boom,” you can just close your eyes and picture him saying the same thing to his Raiders players before this while breaking down a play on film.
It’s understated, but this is a pretty historic “boom,” folks.
‘Too soon … yeah, later’ — 1:14:21
Madden’s first broadcast was prone to some technical issues, of course. As they came back from TV midway through the fourth quarter, we hear Madden saying, “Too soon,” followed by “Yeah, later.” That was followed by 30 or more seconds of dead air.
Was he talking to a producer speaking to him in his IFB? Did they know they were live?
More than anything, it was just a fun, awkward moment at the start of the legend’s career on TV.
‘Working my way out toward the pitcher’s mound’ — 1:33:31
The Saints are up six late in the game, and they’re deep in 49ers territory, on the verge of scoring and potentially putting the game out of reach. They show a shot of Walsh, looking concerned.
“Getting a little grayer,” Madden notes, reprising his line from hours earlier. Brilliant.
After the Saints run it inside the 5-yard line, Glieber said of Walsh, “I can just see, if it would have been you on that 49ers sideline, you’d be pacing up and down, that blue shirt would be flapping up and down in the breeze.”
Madden: “... But I wouldn’t be up at midfield (like Walsh). I’d be down there (at) about the (10) yard line, working my way out toward the pitcher’s mound.”
Glieber: “There were no boundaries for you, were there?”
Madden: “No, those officials were happy when I retired.”
It’s just great stuff.
The old Cleveland Browns draw — 1:51:20
At his heart, Madden is a teacher. He was a physical education major at Cal Poly and immediately went into coaching after a knee injury ended his NFL career before it started.
Throughout the broadcast, we hear Madden breaking down route trees, defensive fronts, blocking schemes — pretty innovative stuff for the era. And on this play late in the game, Madden adds a dash of history to go along with his Xs and Os lesson.
The 49ers are down two scores with less than two minutes left, and they surprisingly run the ball. But it’s a pretty decent pickup by running back Wilbur Jackson, and Madden notes the similarity of the play call and design to one that he associated with one of the all-time great runners in league annals.
“That’s an interesting draw,” Madden said. “On that draw, that’s the old Cleveland Browns draw that Paul Brown designed for Jimmy Brown.”
Jimmy Brown is, of course, Hall of Famer Jim Brown. But it’s the kind of recognition and football arcana that we’d come to love about Madden. He was a walking encyclopedia of football, and fresh off his coaching in the league, this stuff was right at the tip of his tongue.
‘You don’t have to watch the end of it’ — 1:58:28
The game is winding down, and the shot cuts to two 49ers fans sitting — and no one else within five rows of them — with pennants covering their faces.
Glieber said, “This is where you bury yourself in the pennant.”
“Right, you just put it right over your eyes, and you don’t have to watch the end of it,” Madden said.
Thankfully for us, we can watch this game — and boy, were we glad we did. Only a legend of Madden’s stature could make an otherwise forgettable game in NFL history so eminently watchable. Just another layer to the man’s NFL greatness.