Leitch on John Madden: Boom Went the Dynamite

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Photo: Getty Images

John Madden announced his retirement from NFL broadcasting this morning in a simple fashion his old colleague Pat Summerall would appreciate: “It’s time. I’m 73 years old.” And he’s right: It’s definitely time.

That’s not meant as an insult. Madden’s voice and enthusiasm for the game of football have become one of the sport’s signature selling points. Football is brutal and violent, but as interpreted by Madden, this was all in fun; his trademark “BOOM!” after a big hit was cartoonish enough to make you forget that these were 350-pound men ramming into each other at dangerous speeds.

Madden had become a bit of a caricature of himself in recent years, but not dramatically so: Mocking his shtick was always more out of homage than dismissiveness. But since splitting with Summerall in 2003, it has been clear his heart isn’t quite in it anymore. These days he’s not even the main commentator on his own video game. He’s leaving before he can become a joke, with respect and genuine goodwill from those who listened to him.

People forget, but Madden was once a rather great coach: He has the highest winning percentage in NFL history among coaches with more than 100 games, and he won a Super Bowl with the Raiders. And then he left and never looked back. Madden has always been a little bit more sensitive and odd than the boisterous character he plays in commercials. His famous fear of flying (he rides around the country in his special-made Madden Cruiser, which, surreally, contained only Madden and Peggy Fleming the day after September 11) is due not just to his paralyzing claustrophobia, but also to a plane crash at Cal Poly State involving former teammates. Madden has spoken movingly about the incident.

Madden has two homes: a house in Oakland and an apartment on the Upper West Side. In fact, I used to live just down the street from him, and we used to go to the same diner, a beaten-up, ancient, and delicious place just off 74th Street and Columbus. I’d see him there, eating alone, usually just a bowl of soup, looking older than he does on television, frailer, just a quiet old man at peace. John Madden’s always been about more than football — he’s known for his vast wine collection and love of great books — and it’s not difficult to imagine him spending the rest of his years reading, enjoying his family, and quietly eating soup, all without a single BOOM! Cris Collinsworth, a very smart analyst, is likely to take his spot on NBC — he’s already taken his spot on his video game — and he’ll do a great job. But he’ll never be John Madden. No one could be.