ARLINGTON, Texas – John Madden changed how we watched and consumed football, how we learned the intricacies of the game and how generations would embrace the sport by playing the video game that bears his name.
As part of a Hall of Fame legacy, Madden also had a way of forever tying his larger-than-life presence with his love for Thanksgiving, creating somewhat of a romantic connection that turned an American holiday into a past time for the National Football League.
For coaches, for players, for broadcasters and the fans he reached, those to whom he introduced turducken and the Super Bowl champions he rewarded with turkey legs over the length of a decorated career, few names are more revered and command more respect than his.
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“Madden,” NFL on FOX analyst Greg Olsen said in a recent episode of the “All In with Art Stapleton” podcast. “Man, I struggle ever bringing up the name John Madden in my early time as a broadcaster. That’s not something I’m overly comfortable with, comparing myself with, by far, the icon in this genre. He pretty much pioneered this, making it possible to get football guys on TV, to talk ball and get people to find it interesting. His voice narrated playing video games as a kid, his voice narrated the biggest game every week. When I watched the game of football as a kid, his voice was the voice you remember. You couldn’t escape it.”
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Madden had an incredible life and career, and following his death 11 months ago at the age of 85, it became apparent he was known by different generations in three capacities: Hall of Fame coach, legendary broadcaster and video game genius.
“His voice: ‘EA Sports, it’s in the game,'” Olsen recalled with a laugh. “Madden ’93, Madden ’94, those were iconic [memories] in my childhood.”
The league is planning to make a Thanksgiving tribute to Madden an annual event starting Thursday with special dedication segments on all three game broadcasts by CBS, FOX and NBC.
A recording of Madden discussing Thanksgiving and the holiday’s relationship to football will serve as the lead-in to the three games that day, including the Giants’ NFC East showdown against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium that will be called by Olsen and Kevin Burkhardt.
“You think football,” Giants coach Brian Daboll said, “you think Madden.”
A Madden moment for the 2007 Giants
Tom Coughlin saw the voicemail light blinking on his phone upon an early morning return to his office inside the old Giants Stadium.
The message from Madden was waiting for Coughlin when he arrived for work just hours after the Giants went all-in and all-out in the 2007 regular season finale against the undefeated Patriots, in a game that set the stage for the greatest Super Bowl upset only a handful of weeks later.
The Giants lost that Saturday night and New England stayed perfect, escaping with a 38-35 triumph, pushing their opponent to the brink in a game that did not affect their place in the standings, or their playoff fate, at all.
And the NFL – more specifically, one of the league’s biggest legends – was watching.
“I believe so firmly in this: that there is only one way to play the game, and it is a regular season game and you go out and win the darn game,” Madden said during his voicemail. “I was just so proud being a part of the NFL and of what your guys did and the way you did it. You proved that it’s a game and there’s only one way to play the game and you did it.”
For Burkhardt and Olsen, in their first season as the No. 1 broadcast team for FOX, the opportunity to call a game for an audience that cherished listening to Madden and longtime partner Pat Summerall is quite humbling.
“I think that one’s gonna hit me,” Burkhardt said. “These games, you show up and they’re all big. We’re having monster numbers watching the games were doing, but that one’s really a big deal because I feel like you’re being welcomed into people’s homes. For me, I idolized Summerall, I idolized John … I know it’s gonna hit me, and it’s gonna be a real honor, and maybe the people watching will be like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, those are the dudes doing the FOX games now.’ We’ve had big games, but this is going to be a little bit different.”
The childhood memories of what it meant to see and hear Madden on the TV will be present in the booth, for sure.
“I remember Madden ripping those turduckens apart,” Olsen said. “I remember Emmitt Smith on the field after the game chewing on a turkey leg. I remember vividly seeing those moments in my living room as a kid, and now all these years later, it’s going to be Kevin’s and my voice broadcasting the same game, it’s a little surreal when you stop and really reflect on it.”