John Madden’s absence from NFL life is never felt more than on Thanksgiving

Photograph: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

For the 19th time ever the Chicago Bears will square off against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving in a game that could charitably be dubbed the Tryptophan Bowl. On one side, you have a listless Bears team that just broke their best quarterback prospect in 40 years. On the other, a dismal Lions squad seemingly hellbent on booking their second winless season in little more than a decade. The only upset possibility here is to our stomachs.

But if there were one man who could make this matchup halfway appetizing it was John Madden, still the NFL’s most colorful commentator more than a decade after he called his last game. Before the Minnesota native was synonymous with the league’s star-crossed video game franchise Madden was football’s fun uncle – a two-way lineman who found his way to coaching after a training camp knee injury nipped his pro career in the bud, only to wind up leading the Oakland Raiders to victory in Super Bowl XI at the record young age of 40. That he never suffered a losing season and remains the franchise’s most successful coach, with a career win percentage that tops Vince Lombardi’s, is as much a testament to Madden’s sharp mind as the Raiders fickle leadership.

After 10 full seasons on the Raiders sideline – where his mountainous stature, disheveled mien and laissez-faire management flawlessly meshed with a team of proud rebel – Madden retired from coaching and shuffled on to a broadcast career at CBS, churning through a slew of men in crested blazers before matching with Pat Summerall, Madden’s booth soulmate. Where Summerall was deadpan and laconic describing the action, Madden was freewheeling and bombastic, a gridiron onomatopoet who salivated over seal blocks and blitz pickups while his peers waxed on about the fruits of that dirty work – the high-arching completion or breakaway run. That is, when he wasn’t godding up a certain gunslinging Green Bay Packers QB.

But that’s not to say Madden only spoke in Booms, Pows and Favres. His live, improvised Maddenisms were as delightful as anything that tumbled from the mouth of Yogi Berra. They ran the gamut from football axioms (“If he’s even,” Madden would say of a receiver chasing down a long ball while running shoulder to shoulder with a defender, “he’s leavin’”) to insights on the business (“Cheap and available … you never want that as your nickname”) to general observations (“There’s no dog that has more fun than a golden retriever”) to delicious nonsense (“Butkus could have been a Belushi or Belushi could have been a Butkus.”) That wit not only keyed Madden’s prosperity across four networks, but it also scored him tons of money pitching beer and video games and, late in his career, made him ripe for send-ups from master mimic Frank Caliendo.

Apparently, the only thing Madden disliked more than those impersonations was air travel. His habit of crisscrossing the country to his TV assignments via coach-bus – aka the Madden Cruiser – only made him more endearing and his games extra important. (He famously never called a Pro Bowl while it was permanently in residence in Hawaii, nor did he anchor any preseason games outside the contiguous 48.) But Thanksgiving was confirmation that Madden’s everyman persona was no act. If Madden drew that assignment, it meant there’d be more than just a late-season triumph on the line. There would also be food. Madden is probably more responsible for introducing the world to a quintessentially American delicacy called turducken – which is exactly what it sounds like: a chicken cooked inside a duck cooked inside a turkey.

While Madden’s Thanksgiving game unfolded, cameras would cut back to the feast being prepared inside the Cruiser for the big man and his TV entourage. At the end of the game Madden would give away drumsticks from a six-legged turkey to the standout performers on the winning side. As a Chicago native who was cursed to grow up a Bears fan, it always felt like it would be either Barry Sanders or Calvin Johnson who’d wind up leaving me and mine hungry.

It’s been 13 years since Madden departed the booth to spend more time with his family. But Fox – which, in 1994, scooped Madden up in free agency and paid him more than any pro player – hasn’t forgotten the man who gave their then-fledgling NFL coverage instant credibility. For the past few Thursdays, the network has dropped tasters for All Madden – a biographical documentary slated for release on Christmas Day, with everyone from Troy Aikman to Michael Vick heaping due praise and respect.

That many of the players who delighted Madden in their heyday wound up following him into the booth is no fluke. Mostly, they serve as a reminder of Madden’s singular flair for the job. In fact, NFL fans have yet to see a color man who can fill his crested blazer. Matt Millen, a four-time Super Bowl-winning linebacker, looked poised to become Madden’s heir apparent at Fox before destroying his credibility in the Lions front office, assembling their infamous 0-16 team. Jon Gruden aped the everyman to excess on Monday Night Football while firing off bigoted emails to friends and colleagues. Aikman is a bit too stuffy, Cris Collinsworth overly sarcastic; Tony Romo is the class nerd who can’t wait to tell you how perfectly he anticipated every question on the test. Only the ManningCast comes close to Madden’s fun uncle football energy. That it takes two, and a steady stream of guest stars, says everything.

In retirement the 85-year-old Madden has become an increasingly distant figure, popping up from his NorCal home like a tackle eligible to make the odd interview or statement. (Overall, Madden wasn’t really built for today’s hot take ecosystem; the closest he came to roasting anything was to call regular Thursday night games a mistake back in the day.) Still, Madden’s absence looms large, especially on this holiday. And in a league where pretensions are known to boil over, NFL fans should be grateful that they had an authority who didn’t take himself too seriously for as long as they did. It’ll be good to see him again in the Fox doc and be reminded of this: If Madden isn’t the game’s best-ever broadcaster, he’s easily its ultimate Thanksgiving chef. Which is to say: no one brought more spice to the snoozer that is Bears versus Lions, a matchup that’s still a big fat turkey.

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Kathy Lewis

Kathy Lewis is an all-around geek who loves learning new stuff every day. With a background in computer science and a passion for writing, she loves writing for almost all the sections of Editorials99.

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