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John Madden leaves a bus full of memories

John Madden
Michael Nov
John Madden

It’s a 45-mile trip from the Chesapeake House rest stop on I-95 south to the Ravens stadium in downtown Baltimore. In good traffic, you can get through Cecil, Harford and Baltimore counties and into the city in roughly 45 minutes.

On a November night 21 years ago, a week or so before Thanksgiving, that trek wasn’t long enough for a newspaper writer invited to share a bus ride with sports royalty.

My assignment – and I was pleased to accept it – was to get an interview with John Madden, the legendary former coach of the Oakland Raiders, turned commentator turned commercial pitchman turned video game icon.

Madden and his partner Pat Summerall, a broadcasting legend in his own right, were coming to town to announce a Ravens game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Because of the vagaries of life and televised football, Madden hadn’t set foot in Charm City in 19 years.

In that time, he had ascended the mountain of American popular culture in a much different way than he had climbed to the summit of football.

Football, as Madden would tell you, was a game of sweat and effort, of muscle and brawn, with occasional ingenuity and strategy mixed in for good measure.

Madden, who departed coaching in 1979 after 10 seasons in Oakland as the man with the best winning percentage in NFL history – an achievement he still holds – parlayed his cunning and motivational skills into gridiron immortality.

But, becoming an icon, as Madden surely became after he left football for the broadcast booth, was a matter of inventiveness, to be sure, but also timing, luck and likeability.

Put it this way: Even people who didn’t know a fumble from a first down, like my mom, knew who John Madden was. People thought of him as the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with, even if, like Mom, you didn’t drink. You’d want to share a bus ride with Madden, which was the forum for our discussion. Madden was famously claustrophobic, which precluded his flying from assignment to assignment.

Instead, with the support of his corporate sponsors, Madden traveled from place to place during the season on one of two super-sized 45-foot-long buses, dubbed Maddencruisers.

Think of a mancave on wheels, and you had the Maddencruiser: A satellite dish, three TV sets, a bedroom, two bathrooms, a fully-stocked kitchen and a fax machine. Hey, it was the 2000s.

Along the way, Madden was remarkably insightful about his success. He was occasionally obnoxious as he recounted how the Raiders had beaten the Colts at Memorial Stadium in a double overtime playoff contest in 1977.

Older Baltimoreans still grouse about that outcome, but Madden had a twinkle in his eye, like a guy who knew he had gotten away with something.

The ride ended far too briefly for my taste. I remember thinking that bus had all the accoutrements for a king, which Madden surely was. But he never behaved that way, which made him so beloved in so many circles.

It’s somehow fitting that John Madden and Betty White passed away in the same week. They were American treasures for the same reason: What you saw was what you loved.

And that’s how I see it for this week.

Twitter: @SportsAtLarge

Email: [email protected]

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.