John Madden loved football. He loved the game and the competition, and he shared that passion with everyone who tuned in for the three decades he was on the air, myself included. But for all his contributions over a legendary career, John was a football coach first.
Those who know him from television — or even from video games — may not remember that John made his name as head coach for the Oakland Raiders, where he coached for 10 seasons before turning in his sun visor and whistle for a sport coat and a microphone. He looked at the game differently from many, bringing the competitive nature of the sport and the quality of the game into focus. A coach’s primary job is to prepare a team — physically, strategically and emotionally — to have the best opportunity to win on a weekly basis, game in and game out. Even after the Raiders, John still looked at football that way.
I first got to know John during my time as an assistant coach with the New York Giants in the 1980s, when he was doing commentary for the networks and would come to Saturday morning practices for production meetings, and then later when I served on the Madden committee that John led. Its official name was the “coaches subcommittee,” but that really didn’t encapsulate what it was. It was John’s committee. The committee recommends to the N.F.L. Competition Committee changes in rules and matters of significance — basically, all things that will help improve the quality of the game. The one thing you could always count on with John was that he would have an opinion about whatever was being discussed. His unceasing focus was the integrity of the game and the safety of the players. And whether he was discussing ways to protect a player’s head or the role of an eighth official, those spirited conversations shaped the field of play for the better.
But when I think of John, it’s deeply personal. I think about the New York Giants’ 2007 regular season and a call I got from him that has become part of football lore.
As we approached the end of that season, our playoff position was secure after beating the Buffalo Bills, and our last game was against the undefeated New England Patriots. There had been a great deal of discussion by media people who didn’t think I should risk playing our starters. The division about whether we rest our players or go all in was real. By Monday night, I decided we would play our starters and we were playing to win. History would not record that we did not do our best. Even though we lost, 38-35, the game proved to me and our team that we could play with the best.
I will never forget walking into my office at 5 a.m. that Sunday after losing, seeing that red light flashing on the phone and listening to the voice mail message that was waiting for me from John. What he said truly exemplifies how he felt about the game. It meant so much to me, I copied it down verbatim.
“Just called to congratulate you and your team for a great effort last night. Not good, but great. I think it is one of the best things to happen to the N.F.L. in the last 10 years, and I don’t know if they all know it, but they should be very grateful to you and your team for what you did. I believe so firmly in this: that there is only one way to play the game, and it is a regular-season game and you go out to win the darn game. I was just so proud being a part of the N.F.L. and what your guys did and the way you did it. You proved that it’s a game and there’s only one way to play the game and you did it. The N.F.L. needed it. We’ve gotten too much of, ‘Well, they’re going to rest their players and don’t need to win, therefore they won’t win.’ Well, that’s not sports and that’s not competition. I’m a little emotional about it. I’m just so proud.”
I replayed it for the coaches and later on in the week for the team because that’s the kind of gravity John’s words carried. That was what football was all about for him — the quality of play, the character of the player and how the game was played. John lived and breathed football. He believed it is the greatest game and devoted his life to ensuring it always would be. John’s call reaffirmed the belief that you do give honor and glory to the Giants and to the N.F.L. by the way you come to play and compete.
When John was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was full of emotion and said: “I believe that the busts talk to each other. I can’t wait for that conversation, I really can’t.
“Vince Lombardi, Knute Rockne, Reggie, Walter Payton, all my ex-players, we’ll be there forever and ever and ever talking about whatever. That’s what I believe. That’s what I think is going to happen, and no one’s ever going to talk me out of that.”
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall on Tuesday after his death, listening to John’s conversation with those greats, with other coaches like Don Shula and Bill Walsh. John was definitely blessed with a unique gift when it came to football, and the impact he had on the game and on all of those who love it will live on for generations.
Tom Coughlin was the two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach of the New York Giants and is the founder of the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation, which provides support for families tackling pediatric cancer.
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