"I've always been a great people watcher," he says. "If I can't talk to them, I make up stories in my mind about them. You know, you're on a train looking out the window at big empty spaces in Nebraska or Wyoming, and you think, what do those people do at night or on weekends when they have time off? They can't walk down to the neighbors', they can't go buy a newspaper or get an ice cream cone. There's no newspaper stand, there's nothing. So I imagine what their lives must be like."
Sixteen years in suburban Pleasanton notwithstanding, Madden is a city kid at heart. He grew up on sidewalks. He was born in Austin, Minn. in 1936, but from the age of five he lived in Daly City, Calif., a working-class appendage on San Francisco's southern edge. His father was an auto mechanic who died at 56 from the lingering effects of an automobile accident. Madden's best friend and constant companion throughout his youth was John Robinson, now the coach of the Los Angeles Rams. Together they hopped freight trains or rode the racks on the back of streetcars headed for San Francisco, 20 minutes away. Sports were their life, but since they never had much money, their equipment came from rummaging through the bins at St. Vincent de Paul or hanging around semipro games hoping for rejects. "I don't remember ever playing with a bat that wasn't taped up or nailed together, or with a ball that had a real cover," Madden once told a friend.
Madden figured out early that college was the key to a better life than his father's, and he and Robinson went together on football scholarships to the University of Oregon, where Madden signed up to be a prelaw major. Robinson finished at Oregon, but Madden, redshirted after a knee operation his first year, moved back to California. "I didn't dislike Oregon," he says, "but I didn't care if I went back. I realized after the first year that I couldn't see myself wearing a suit and tie and sitting in an office all day. Sports had been my whole life, so I switched to education."
After a semester at the College of San Mateo near his home, Madden was recruited by Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, where he played tackle on offense and defense for a team that was 18-2 over two seasons. "I really enjoyed Cal Poly," Madden says. "It was a men's college when I got there, and small, probably less than 5,000. You didn't even have to comb your hair. You just got up and went to class."
After graduating in 1959 with a B.A. in education, Madden joined the Philadelphia Eagles, who had drafted him in the 21st round, but in his first training camp his other knee gave out—for good.
While back at Cal Poly getting his master's in education, Madden married Virginia Fields, who was already teaching and working on a master's in the same field. He says they met at school when he was an undergraduate. "He always says that," says Virginia. "The fact is, we met in a bar in Pismo Beach. But it wasn't as if we hung out in bars. If we hadn't both been there on that one day, we'd probably never have met."
Virginia is the axis around which the Madden household rotates. She has energy, humor and a Californian's nostalgic fondness for old things—furniture, silver, buildings. She also has a fine sense of balance. The first thing a visitor sees on passing through the front door of the Maddens' Pleasanton house is an ornate glass-fronted Victorian cabinet, which is filled top to bottom with footballs, game balls every one.
In the backyard, on a small hillside beyond the swimming pool, is a highway YIELD sign that Ted Hendricks, the Raider linebacker, gave to Madden as a going-away present when he retired.
"Ted stopped at the bar that day," says Virginia, "and he said, 'I'd really like to take John something.' So I said, 'Well, John rarely needs anything, but you know, he's really very sentimental.' So Ted said, 'I know just the thing,' and he ran out. When I came home the YIELD sign was in the kitchen."
"It includes the whole post," says Madden, beaming. "He hit it. Ran into it. Knocked it down."