Claustrophobia? "I think so; I'm not too crazy about elevators or going through tunnels, either. Finally, it got so bad on a one-stop flight from Tampa to San Francisco last year that I got off in Houston, checked into a motel and took a train out the next day. I loved it so much I haven't been on a plane since."
A passing waiter, patting a case of Lite beer he is hauling to the refrigerator, winks at Madden. "I'm not a big drinker," Madden says, "but Lite sales do go up when I'm around."
Later, while autographing beer cans in the club car, Madden allows there is no escaping the recognition. "There aren't too many big fat redheaded guys around like me. But you meet some great people on trains, and I enjoy talking football with them because it gives me a chance to find out what people want to hear from an announcer. I know one phrase they won't hear from me—'skill positions.' What are the poor slobs who block? Unskilled?"
Madden, off for his customary stroll through the train before retiring, muses, "I've always wanted to slow down and, like Steinbeck says in Travels With Charley, 'get to see and know our land.' And now I'm doing it. There isn't a train I wouldn't take. No matter where it's going."
THURSDAY: Madden spends the morning in his bedroom boning up on his game research. "With no phones or other distractions," he says, "I get a lot more done on the train than at home." At lunch he orders a hamburger and, in deference to an "Amtrak diet" that has trimmed 50 pounds off his 6'4" frame, cottage cheese. "I weigh 240 now and can pour on as much of this Tabasco sauce as I want," he says, alluding to the bleeding ulcer that caused him to retire from coaching in 1978 with one Super Bowl title, a 103-32-7 record and a .763 winning percentage that is unmatched by any coach with 10 or more seasons in the NFL.
When not hopping off to buy newspapers or do stretching exercises in some desert way-stop, Madden speaks glowingly about the romance of the rails, about seeing the Great Salt Flats illuminated by lightning, collecting recipes for red beans and rice from Mexican passengers, holding a portable radio to the window to pick up NFL Monday night games. Listening to railroad buffs discussing the new 150-mph turbotrains, he nervously asks, "They don't leave the track, do they?"
As Madden predicted, passengers who were strangers a few hundred miles back are now chummily addressing one another by their first names. The assassin turns out to be a Santa Fe brakeman, who proudly poses for a snapshot with "Big John." The mad bomber is a square-dance caller who, prodded by a foot-stomping, hand-clapping Madden, lets loose with a mean do-si-do spiel. And Ingrid the spy is an aspiring rock singer who doubles as score-keeper for the parlor games Madden is fond of organizing.
At one point, while watching the surging rivers and painted mesas slipping by, Madden says happily, "I don't know what state we're in, what time it is, or even what day it is. Give me a train any day."
Late that night, to demonstrate the freedom of train travel, Madden gets off in La Junta, Colo., strides into a dim, cowpoke saloon hard by the tracks and orders the inevitable. "You know," he all but shouts at the bartender, "I'm not the same crazy coach who used to roam the sidelines." Boom! He slams his fist on the bar. "I've learned to relax!" The bartender, reaching under the bar as if to pick up a club or possibly a shotgun, does a double take and points at the TV screen. With one mighty quaff, Madden finishes his beer and disappears into the night, leaving the bartender still pointing.
FRIDAY: Looking as rumpled as a mail sack, Madden detrains in Kansas City at 7:20 a.m. "Isn't this great!" he exclaims. "It's just like camping out."