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John Madden, Football Enthusiast, Was Peerless in the Booth

On his bus headed to Canton, Ohio, for the Hall of Fame game in 2005, John Madden was talking about his favorite season — not spring or summer — but football season.

Sitting sideways in a diner-style booth, Madden told me how he awakens, almost like a bear from hibernation, as the N.F.L. season nears. He had recently been to a Chicago Bears practice at Soldier Field, his appetizer to a season’s meal.

“I know this comes off sounding phony,” he said as we rode on Interstate 80, “but there’s no better smell than that grass — and the smell of a baby’s head. It’s a great feeling that football’s back. You’re off for six months. Then my body senses something.”

I’m not certain when I first heard Madden, who died on Tuesday at 85, analyze a football game. But surely it was in the early 1980s when he was on CBS, sharing his hunger and enthusiasm for the sport like a newly awakened bear. He was a tornado of originality with his antic but sublime approach to discussing X’s and O’s, his comic-book sound effects (Bam! Boom! Doink!) and his electronic Telestrator squiggles that taught a generation how plays developed.

He had brought a coach’s chalkboard to America’s living room — and watching football would never be the same.

Madden was light years better as a commentator and entertainer than the many analysts who preceded him; it seemed he was calling a different sport altogether. His predecessors in the booth were slower to parse a pass or run and rarely first-guessed plays as deftly as Madden did. The best analysts today — Cris Collinsworth (who replaced him on NBC), Tony Romo and Troy Aikman — aren’t nearly as engaging or amusing.

One benefit of Madden’s highly informed, unpolished, Everyman appeal was his ability to keep viewers watching, or awake, during a blowout. Much of that was Madden — he would have been peerless beside nearly any other play-by-play announcer. But his relationship with his broadcast partner, the terse ex-player Pat Summerall, was part of the magic. Summerall set Madden up like an expert straight man, Bud Abbott to Madden’s Lou Costello.

Summerall’s end of a conversation — after describing the bare basics of a play — could be as simple as saying “yes” on either end of a Madden monologue. Fans who complained that announcers talked too much didn’t moan about the deadpan Summerall.

Al Michaels was chattier than Summerall and he had a different chemistry with Madden on ABC’s “Monday Night Football” and NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” like two football Ph.D. students pursuing some higher level of pigskin understanding.

“He spoiled you,” Michaels said after Madden retired in 2009. “I never had to wonder if John was informed or prepared. John can run with you on anything and engage you on any subject.”

Many sportscasters seem to exist only when they call games. But Madden created an immense football brand for himself: as a commercial pitchman of myriad products (“You got a tough case of athlete’s foot? Boom! Get Tinactin”); the name on the immensely popular “Madden NFL” Electronic Arts video game and the most famous denizen of a bus since Ralph Kramden because he did not fly (his wife, Virginia, did and had a pilot’s license).

Fans knew they might see him and chat him up — he was, after all, the pigskin Charles Kuralt — when he and his crew (two drivers, friends, his agent, maybe another analyst like Matt Millen) stopped at a roadside restaurant to inhale some food.

Food was a leitmotif in Madden’s world. During a trip I took with him in 1997 from a game in Pittsburgh to New York, the menu on the bus consisted of a pungent cabbage and noodles dish, sausages and chili. “Mmmm,” he said, taking in the smells of his coronary smorgasbord. “The only things that smell good are fat and sugar. Tofu being boiled doesn’t smell good.”

He added, “Anything that smells good is fattening.”

And of course, there was the Thanksgiving turkey, which was replaced by the turducken, a deboned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck that is stuffed into a deboned turkey. This festival of poultry existed before Madden made it famous but seemed to have been created solely to satisfy Madden’s appetite and his desire to talk about food during games.

He was a physical presence dating to his time as the coach of the Oakland Raiders: overweight, his red hair uncombed, his shirt partly untucked, a sideline pass hanging from a belt loop (as if security would question that he belonged there), shouting and flailing his arms. That persona translated perfectly to the Miller Lite commercial campaign featuring ex-athletes, coaches and celebrities; in one, he entered by crashing through the wall of a bar.

He crashed through our TV sets as no sportscaster had and transformed his craft to such an extent that he has had no true imitators.

A few days before Madden retired, Harry Kalas, the voice of the Philadelphia Phillies, collapsed in the booth at Nationals Park before a Phillies-Nationals game in Washington and died at a nearby hospital. I asked Madden if retiring when he was healthy was his way to avoid dying at a game.

“That wasn’t one of my thoughts,” he told me, “but maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.”

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