RETIRING ON YOUR OWN TERMS
“[W]ar is the greatest excitement, the greatest adventure in human life. Just so, in little, football had been an outlet for instinct, and a mock war. The howling crowds were stirred vicariously by the same craving for rush and rivalry, and were exactly like the public in time of war, cheering each its own side.” George Santayana penned those words in 1936 in reference to Oliver Alden, the only fictional hero he ever created. Alden, the title character of Santayana’s philosophical novel, “The Last Puritan,” was a Harvard trained philosopher who happened to have a gift for carrying the football. Santayana was a Harvard professor of philosophy who happened to have a gift for literary expression. At a time when other eminent philosophers were explaining their thoughts in an increasingly obscure fashion about increasingly obscure topics, Santayana wrote about the great questions of philosophy with the utmost of clarity. He was a man of the people, and as such, couldn’t bear to write over anyone’s heads. Whether the topic was football, love, or God, if you could read the English language, you could understand what he was talking about.
This week, we have witnessed the career’s end of a modern-day Santayana. Like his predecessor, John Madden was a man of the people who, in his own way, could be called a philosopher. Like his predecessor, John Madden spoke without pretension and in a manner that was universally understandable. But unlike his predecessor, Madden didn’t concentrate his attention primarily on the “great questions.” His mind was devoted instead to that commonest of activities: enjoying professional football.
For Santayana, football was a “mock war,” … a “craving for rush and rivalry.” For Madden, NFL football remained exactly what it should be – a joyous dance, performed by men with the spirit of boys. Madden was himself an overgrown child who could never leave the playground. But those who observed him realized that he loved something even more than games: other people. It was that affection that made him such a motivational coach and endearing broadcaster. It is also that affection that is causing him to retire at the pinnacle of his profession in order to become a full-time grandfather. Rarely does any public figure say “I’m quitting to spend more time with my family” without eliciting skepticism. In Madden’s case, though, there’s not a football fan alive who doesn’t believe him.
Retiring at the top is old hat to Madden. In the 1970s, he had the highest winning percentage (76%) of any coach with at least 100 wins in the history of the National Football League. It’s a record that stands to this day – probably because nobody else is crazy enough to stand on such a pedestal and not want more. But Madden knew that there were more challenges ahead.
I loved Madden as a coach. In sports, his Raiders were the epitome of cool. They always led the league in penalties. They looked like the residents of Cell Block C. And they had an incredible knack for playing games that went down to the wire, only to win them in dramatic (and often unscrupulous) fashion. But this was just a game, right? So who cares if they figured out ways to bend the rules, such as by intentionally fumbling the ball into the end zone when passing or running with the pigskin proved to be impossible?
The thing I loved most about Coach Madden was the message he clearly gave to his troops: “The night before the game, go ahead and drink like a fish, blow a wad on poker, or sleep with the barmaid of your choice. During the game itself, I’ll expect you to look like hell. And I’ll expect you to make some stupid mistakes. But I’ll also expect you to show up ready to have fun, ready to fight like hell, and ready to win.” This attitude gave rise to the classic expression most often associated with Madden’s old boss, Al Davis: “Just Win, Baby.” Madden personified that attitude as much as anyone.
John Madden’s rag-tag unit won the Super Bowl in January 1977. Two years later, at the tender age of 42, he had retired from coaching, never to return. Then came Act Two.
I knew Madden would be a great announcer when I first heard him call a Raiders game. There was no hint of partisanship in his approach – no “black and silver” tint to his comments. He gave the other team every bit as much attention as the colorful franchise that employed him for over a decade. Madden, you see, knew that he had the dream job: he was being paid handsomely to watch a child’s game and talk about it to millions of listeners. He thoroughly understood his task: to make the game fun to watch for the rabid fan, simple to understand for the novice, and tolerable even to the fans of the losing team. That sounds easy enough, but few others had figured out how to pull it off.
It has been reported that when a fan on the street asked Madden who was going to win a game, he’d always reply that the fan’s team would win. Why? Because nobody really knows who’ll win a game, so he figured he might as well make the fan happy. That was Madden – he loved the players, he loved the fans, and he adored his sport. For him, it was a microcosm of life, and a source of many lessons. If you listen to him closely, you could hear many homespun words of wisdom, the kind we’ve all come to expect from a barber or a bartender. I could easily have seen John Madden in either of those jobs.
Do you want an example of Madden the Philosopher? The one that always comes to my mind dates back to the 1980s, when Madden had perhaps the highest Q-rating (i.e., the number that marketing companies used to measure a celebrity’s familiarity and appeal) in the United States. I was a first-year attorney working for the Federal Communications Commission, and had the job of serving as the “Keyworker” for my officer’s Combined Federal Charities campaign. At the beginning of the campaign, we had a meeting in which Keyworkers viewed a Madden-narrated video hyping the importance of giving to charity. Madden explained that “There are three types of people in the world. Those who make things happen. Those who watch things happen. And those whose never know what the hell is happening.” He urged us Keyworkers to join the ranks of the first group, and I took that as a call to arms. The video motivated me to go office-to-office, pleading with senior attorneys and economists to truly devote themselves to the campaign. Little did I know that, customarily, the job of Keyworker is taken as a perfunctory task consisting of dropping a brief note in people’s mailboxes explaining to them how and why they should make a donation. I must have looked like quite a childish fool to the people I pitched. Then again, I bet I raised a whole lot more money than the typical Keyworker. And that of course was Madden’s goal: Just Win, Baby!
Bertrand Russell once said of Spinoza that he was “The most noble and lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme.” For me, Madden the Announcer will never be in the same league as Howard Cosell, and Madden the Coach will never be in the same league as Vince Lombardy. But damned if he wasn’t the most lovable Announcer AND the most lovable Coach that the game of football has known. He leaves his sport as recognizable as ever, for not only has he been announcing Super Bowls with regularity but his video game is the top selling sports video game in history. If you enjoy football, whether you’re eight, forty-eight, or eighty … you know the name of John Madden. And you’ve come to love him. Almost as much as he loves you.
Enjoy your retirement, big fellow. You’ve earned it.