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John Madden, 1936-2021

Arguably the most influential figure in NFL history, John Madden passed away on Tuesday morning.

John Madden died unexpectedly Tuesday morning, the NFL announced this evening. He was 85 years old.

"On behalf of the entire NFL family, we extend our condolences to Virginia, Mike, Joe and their families," commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "We all know him as a Hall of Fame coach for the Oakland Raiders and broadcaster who worked for every major network, but more than anything he was a devoted husband, father and grandfather."

If Madden was not the most influential figure in NFL history, the list of men who did more than him to turn football into America's pastime is short. 

A 21st round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958, Madden suffered a career-ending injury in his first training camp and quickly entered coaching. He started in the small college ranks in California and eventually landed a job coaching linebackers for the Oakland Raiders in 1967, and two seasons later Al Davis appointed him the club's head coach at the age of 32. 

Madden went 103-32-7 as a head coach, compiling a career .756 winning percentage that's still the best in NFL history. After losing one game shy of the Super Bowl five times in his first seven seasons, Madden broke through in 1976, defeating the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. 

Madden retired from coaching in 1978 and immediately began his life's calling as football's greatest evangelist. He joined the CBS broadcast booth for the 1979 season and by 2006 he'd served as the lead NFL color commentator on all four major networks. 

As Bryan Curtis details in this 2018 story of Fox securing rights to the NFC broadcast package, the network made Madden more than any NFL player in luring him away from CBS at $8 million per year; it would take another quarter century for another NFL game analyst to top that figure. The fledgling network needed to be seen as legitimate by skeptical audiences, and Madden equaled legitimacy.

Madden’s regular-guyness belied just what a sought-after TV star he’d become. Early in 1994, his suitors included Fox’s Rupert Murdoch, ABC’s Bob Iger, and General Electric’s Jack Welch, who controlled NBC. Joe Buck later called Madden the “ultimate free agent.” Lesley Visser compared him to Moby Dick.

"(Fox CEO Rupert) Murdoch needed John because a lot of people, particularly in the advertising world, thought, “Well, those games will never be the same on Fox.” If John is doing them, they’re the same," Madden's agent Barry Frank said.

Of course, the third iteration of Madden's NFL life was the video game. 

The Madden NFL series debuted in 1988 and by 2013 had sold $4 billion worth of games. To a certain generation, the name "Madden" is synonymous with football itself.

"Nobody loved football more than coach. He was football," Goodell said. "There will never be another John Madden, and we will forever be indebted to him for all he did to make football and the NFL what it is today."

In addition to the Super Bowl he won with the Raiders, Madden won 16 Emmys, called 11 Super Bowls, and launched countless lifelong football love affairs in millions of living rooms across the world.