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Busman's Holiday
Peter King
November 26, 1990
Coast-to-coast commuter John Madden likes what he sees as he rolls across America in his suite on wheels
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November 26, 1990

Busman's Holiday

Coast-to-coast commuter John Madden likes what he sees as he rolls across America in his suite on wheels

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When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.... I fear the disease is incurable.
Travels with Charley

John Madden, 54, has a job most of us would love to have. He sleeps as late as he wants and wears whatever clothes he wants almost every day of his life. He eats what he wants, when he wants. He has to be somewhere, with a tie on, for only three hours a week. He makes much more than a million dollars a year. To do this job, he crisscrosses the U.S. six months a year in the greatest bus you've ever seen. It is a hotel suite on wheels.

Madden, the CBS-TV color analyst who along with Pat Summerall forms the preeminent NFL broadcast team, is a big, friendly, surprisingly tranquil lug of a guy who sees his country as few other Americans do—from the ground floor. "People used to say to me, 'It must be great coaching and traveling and seeing all the things you do,' " says Madden, who piloted the Oakland Raiders for 10 years (1969 to '78) and to a Super Bowl championship. "Well, I'd get on the airplane, and then I'd get off the airplane, get on a bus and go to the hotel. Then the stadium, then the airplane again. I thought I'd traveled all over, but I hadn't seen anything. You've got to be on the ground to see things."

Madden is not talking about sightseeing. He's talking about being a witness to America—the land, the people, the life-styles, the thoughts and the emotions that make up a society. He loved stopping at the Tastee-Freez in Sidney, Neb. (pop. 5,834), a few years ago to watch Monday Night Football on a small black-and-white TV, with a group of townspeople that included the coach and players of the local high school basketball team. He discovered great Mexican food in Van Horn, Texas (pop. 2,772), at a restaurant called Chuy's (pronounced CHEW-ees).

One fall he was walking through a Green Bay neighborhood and stopped to watch someone rake leaves; being a California guy, he had never raked leaves. While spending four days in Longboat Key, Fla. (pop. 8,000), between assignments last season, he was drawn every day to the Gulf Coast shoreline, where he watched the fishermen. You have to move around, overland, to see these things.

There have been circumstances in all of our lives that have placed us where we are today. There are reasons that Madden tours America on a bus. Twenty-eight years ago, as a myopic head coach at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif., he read Travels with Charley, Steinbeck's rediscovery of America, and vowed one day to see the country. Madden tired of coaching after the '78 season and took a flier on a TV analyst gig with CBS in '79. Three attacks of claustrophobia while traveling to assignments forced Madden off airplanes and onto trains.

However, the Amtrak schedules weren't always convenient. The TV gig turned into a second career, one that has increased his wealth and fame more than he ever expected, and in '87 Greyhound offered to customize a bus for Madden and supply him with drivers for three years in return for promotional and speaking appearances. After three years, the bus would be his. It's now known as the Walker Advantage Muffler Madden Cruiser (a new sponsor, to cover expenses, you know), and Madden is one happy claustrophobic.

Sometime after dawn of every morning spent on the bus, while Madden sleeps soundly on a queen-sized, ultrafirm bed in the rear third of the vehicle, the driver stops to pick up a USA Today and whatever local paper is available. When Madden awakens, he picks up the intercom phone, calls one of his two drivers and asks, "Where are we?" And Dave Hahn or Willie Yarbrough might say, "In the middle of the Sierras, just past Reno," or, "Below Cleveland, almost into Pennsylvania."

Madden moves forward to the codriver's seat, puts his feet—in untied shoes, with no socks—on the railing near the windshield and digests the sports sections of the papers. During the day he eats, reads, talks and, for at least three or four hours, while sucking on an unlit Macanudo cigar, just peers through the front windshield and the huge side picture windows as America rolls past. He spends some time going over press releases and newspaper clippings about the teams playing in the game he'll be working that Sunday. Often he'll pick up the cellular phone and call his agent, Sandy Montag, in New York, or his wife, Virginia, in Blackhawk, Calif., or the coach of one of the teams in Sunday's game. At night he stops for dinner somewhere; rarely is it planned. Back on the bus he switches on one of his two 20-inch color TVs and pops a game tape into the VCR. He might watch two. Because it's his life, and he can do what he wants.

What follows is an account of his most recent coast-to-coast trip, from his house outside Oakland to his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The Madden Cruiser left the East Bay area at noon on Wednesday, Sept. 26. It pulled in front of Madden's New York City apartment building at 10 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28. I was on the bus with Hahn and Yarbrough, who split the nearly nonstop run into shifts; Madden's 25-year-old son, Joe, who is traveling with his dad this fall; and Madden's California neighbor, David Liskin, who was taking the long way to see family in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. The trip took 55 hours and covered 3,016 miles, but who's counting? Not Madden.

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