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'Hey, Wait A Minute! I Want To Talk'
Sarah Pileggi
September 01, 1983
John Madden has burst upon the American scene as few others in sport, but contrary to his bull-in-a-beer-ad image, he loves nothing more than good quiet conversation, and his skill as a communicator is the key to his success both as a football coach and as a broadcaster
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September 01, 1983

'hey, Wait A Minute! I Want To Talk'

John Madden has burst upon the American scene as few others in sport, but contrary to his bull-in-a-beer-ad image, he loves nothing more than good quiet conversation, and his skill as a communicator is the key to his success both as a football coach and as a broadcaster

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Madden liked TV from the first day he took to the air with NFL football in the fall of 1979. No sooner was he airborne, however, than he found it necessary to ground himself, literally. "I had flown all my life," he says. "I was never a good flyer, but I flew. I was normal. But with the Raiders I was always on a charter where I could get up and walk around. With CBS I was taking commercial flights and it was different. After a game in Milwaukee the first year I had a morning flight to San Francisco. It was a beautiful day. Not a ripple. I was having breakfast on the plane and I started getting the feeling I had to get out. I stood up and went to the bathroom. When I got home I went to a doctor. He said there was nothing wrong except a sinus and inner-ear infection. So I took antibiotics for that, but the next flight it happened again. I thought that maybe the antibiotics hadn't worked. The third time, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I was flying from Tampa to San Francisco with a change in Houston. The minute the stewardess closed the door the feeling came over me again. I sat through it, but I was miserable. I got off in Houston, got a hotel room, and the next day I took a train home. My alternatives were: one, quit doing what I was doing, which I didn't want to do; two, find an alternative way to travel; or three, seek professional help to get cured. But the first time I took the train I loved it, so it wasn't necessary to get cured. I know what it is—claustrophobia—but I still don't know why it came on." So, as Madden became CBS's No. 1 analyst, he also became Amtrak's No. 1 customer.

It isn't always easy these days to be a train traveler. During the NFL playoffs this year, for instance, Madden and his broadcast partner, Pat Summerall, were assigned the Dallas-Green Bay game in Dallas one weekend and the Washington-Dallas game in Washington the next. For Summerall it was a matter of a two-hour plane trip from Dallas to his home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where he relaxed for several days before catching another short flight to Washington. Madden's schedule, on the other hand, required a 10-hour drive from Dallas to Meridian, Miss. on Monday—Meridian is the closest city to Dallas on a direct Amtrak route to Washington—a 24-hour train ride to D.C. on Tuesday and Wednesday, and three days in a Washington hotel room.

But Madden's train routine has its own kind of efficiency. He uses the daylight hours on the train to prepare for the next weekend's game, reading and making notes in the privacy of his compartment while all America rolls by outside his window. "Time isn't important on a train," he says. "You go to bed when you get tired and get up when you wake up. Bob Oates of the L.A. Times took a train trip with me. He's a sunup, sundown type, one of those guys who's the first in line for breakfast. He couldn't figure out the schedule." Oates wrote of the experience, "Nutritionally, Amtrak is an Indianapolis coffee shop with canned vegetables."

For Madden, an Amtrak train is an office without telephones and a social club with a constantly shifting membership. He likes it. He rises late, eats a combination breakfast and lunch in the dining car, returns to his compartment to read and make notes, takes a late-afternoon nap, returns to the dining car for dinner and then spends as many hours schmoozing in the club car as the company and his wakefulness warrant. For reading on his trips Madden favors autobiographies, by everyone from George Steinbrenner to "that opera guy—what's his name?—Pavarotti." Recently he was reading Patty Hearst's Every Secret Thing. "To be interesting," he says, "an autobiography has to be telling a story within the story about the author. The first part of the Hearst book is about her young life before the kidnapping. That's boring. 'I got a bicycle and my mother wouldn't let me ride it down on El Camino Real and my girl friends did.' You know. Then finally, when she gets kidnapped by the SLA, it gets good. Then it's a story. That's an amazing story."

As many opinions as Madden has already, he is constantly collecting data to form more. No human contact is too brief for Madden to mine it for insight. On that trip between the playoff games in Dallas and Washington, a thin, shy black man in his 30s drove Madden from the Meridian airport, where he had turned in his rented car, to the Meridian railroad depot, where he was to catch Amtrak's Crescent for the trip to Washington. Madden, who still has the frugal instincts of a schoolteacher, was lugging a six-pack of Lite beer that a restaurant owner in Jackson had given him the night before. "Do you like Lite beer?" Madden asked the driver.

"Yes," said the driver, smiling. He had met Madden a few weeks earlier going the other way.

"Everything you ever wanted and less," said Madden. "I got a six-pack for you. Can't have one till you're through work, though." Madden set the six-pack on the floor and continued.

"How have things been in Meridian since I last saw you?"

"It got cold. My car's in the shop."

"How do you get to work?"

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