Four days after Sept. 11 John Madden left New York City for San Francisco in his customized Madden Cruiser superbus. His agents had asked him if he wouldn't mind giving a friendly ride to another of their clients who—like the Fox football announcer—was a Bay Area resident marooned in New York. So it came to pass that John Madden set out across America with Peggy Fleming.
The former figure skater and the ex-Raiders coach—sequined pixie and pigskin swami—strolled the streets of Omaha. "We did a little shopping, we found a nice restaurant," says Madden, who enjoys joints with laminated menus. ("There's a place we like to go in Van Horn, Texas, called Chuy's," he says, and you can almost see the egg yolk plugged between the tines of his fork.)
Madden has seen nearly all of America, and nearly all of America has seen Madden. To say that he's an American fixture may literally be true, for Madden is unlikely ever to leave the continent, and has been since he stepped off a flight in Houston on Nov. 25, 1979, vowing never again to board an airplane. "It's claustrophobia," he says, "not fear of flying."
But he's also an American fixture in the larger sense: Chances are Madden was in your living room on Thanksgiving Day and will be again at this Sunday's NFC Championship Game and on Super Bowl Sunday. He has, with partner Pat Summerall, provided the sound track to Sunday afternoons in autumn for 21 years. His Q rating—a Madison Avenue measuring stick that conflates fame and popularity—is equal to Muhammad Ali's. And his bus is every bit as beloved as he is.
" Mike Tyson is the only person who ever asked me how fast the thing can go," says Madden. "I told him, I don't know, you know, we're not drag-racing 18-wheelers across Montana."
Beyond that fact it is difficult to telestrate his travels. Madden is at once a resident of New York Cit (where he keeps an apartment), Bay Area (same house he had while coaching the Raiders) and Chicago (his regular suite in a Loop hotel), dividing the country into thirds. He is every bit as manic as he appears on TV—his sentences running on un-punctuated for minutes before slamming, abruptly, into the brick wall of an exclamation mark—and his sidekick in the booth serves as a sedative. "I'm no smoothy," says Madden. "I tend to be a little up and down, and Pat's just the opposite, easy, always upbeat. We've never had a cross word in 21 years, and that's because of him. I had the same thing in Oakland with Kenny Stabler: I was all over the board, and he was so calm and confident, he balanced me out. It's made my life a hell of a lot better, to have had two people like that."
Summerall is expected to retire after the Super Bowl, but the soon-to-be-66-year-old Madden will drive on into eternity. He could hardly do otherwise. Madden maintains an odd, crossover street cred with eight-year-olds and pro athletes alike, who have annually made his Madden NFL one of the world's best-selling home video games. ("I'm not a good player," says Madden. "Anybody could beat me.") However, updating the game keeps him connected to football in the long, cold winter of the off-season. Ask Madden what he does after the Super Bowl—does he breathe a sigh of relief?—and he says, in fluent Madden-ese, "No, you don't go 'Whew!' You go 'Jiminy Christmas, there's no place I'd rather be than in those arenas doing those games,' and you know, after the season I don't know what the hell happens."
The strongest expletives in the Madden lexicon are shoot, jiminy Christmas, gosh, doggone it and heck, which occasionally intensifies into hell. Heck, the other week he sat in the lobby of his Chicago hotel and talked coaching for two hours with Isiah Thomas, whose Pacers were in town to play the Bulls. And—gosh—the week after that, Don Nelson invited him to a Mavericks shootaround in Chicago. "Shoot," says Madden, "how often do you get invited to an NBA practice? And doggone it, I couldn't go."
Likewise, he regrets that the weather wasn't worse in Green Bay for the NFC wild-card game two weeks ago. Madden looked wistfully from the booth before the Packers-Niners game and said, "I wish it would snow." A visitor—commissioner Paul Tagliabue—sighed and said, "You know, I wish it would too."
Beyond that, Madden has no regrets. "Hey, no heavy liftin' here," he says. "This is my life, and I'm the luckiest guy in the world to go from coaching to broadcasting football." As if summoned by a stagehand, snow begins to fall outside his hotel window in Chicago. "Hell," says Madden, "you couldn't dream up a better deal than this.