John Madden passed away Tuesday at the age of 85. He was a mythical figure, a mainstay on the football pantheon of men larger than life who were as synonymous with the game as the NFL shield itself; the thousands of tributes that poured in after his death reinforced how widely beloved he was and will continue to be. The coach-turned-broadcaster presided over several generations of football fans: those who know him as a Super Bowl champion, those who know him as the go-to voice for the biggest games alongside Pat Summerall, and those who associate his name and likeness with the most popular NFL video game franchise ever created. That kind of reach and influence is rare and may very well never be seen again.
Four days ago FOX Sports aired a documentary, All Madden, about his football career. While it was not the intended purpose of the piece, it ended up serving as the perfect tribute to Madden's life and the impact he had on everybody around him.
Executive producers Tom Rinaldi and Joel Santos aimed to show everyone, both young and old, who Madden was and the unique, irrefutable impact he had on the game of football. Split into seven acts, the documentary features interviews with nearly 40 current and former athletes and broadcasters. There are extensive interviews with Madden's wife of over 50 years, Virginia, and his two sons along with Madden himself. Rinaldi and Santos hoped the piece would not only reintroduce Madden to younger fans, but also give a fuller picture of who Madden was to those who watched his career unfold over the course of decades.
"I think in hearing from Virginia, his wife, at length and then hearing from his sons, Mike and Joe, they infused the project with its most human tone," Rinaldi told The Big Lead. "It's most human portraiture of John. One of the things we hope that this story does and that this project does, is that it paints a human portrait of the man and the coach and the broadcaster and, if you will, the pitchman and entertainer and popular culture force that Madden became in his different careers and why it is that he is so beloved for all the different paths that he walked."
"It's just necessary," Santos agreed. "You could go on and do 90 minutes on everybody telling you how great John Madden is, but you hear it from his wife and his two sons and their reflection of his life and all the stages of it as a coach, as a broadcaster, as a father, as a husband. It really takes you on a journey that I don't think a lot of people expect."
Santos and Rinaldi describe Eric Shanks, CEO of FOX Sports, and Richie Zyontz, the lead producer of the Joe Buck/Troy Aikman booth, as the two engines that drove the project. Both have personal connections to Madden; Shanks worked in Madden's booth when he was broadcasting, and Madden was the best man at Zyontz's wedding. After they conceived the idea, they approached Rinaldi and Santos about overseeing it as executive producers. While both recognized how massive a responsibility the project was, it was an easy decision.
"In our current time, there aren't that many people who are just beloved, where that's not an overstated term," Rinaldi said. "That term applies authentically to John. He's beloved and it's a wonderful thing to work on a project, a portrait of somebody who is beloved. When you sit down and you hear from coaches and players and his family and people in TV what John has meant to them, it's as accessible and organic and giving and real as it gets."
"John Madden's voice represented Sunday mornings," explained Santos, who said he grew up on the West Coast watching football first-thing every week. "For me, that was Sunday morning. Waking up and watching football, so to hear him and sit down with him and to talk to him ... It just brought you right back and his voice sounds exactly the same. It's crazy."
Over the course of nearly a year, the pair organized interviews around the country and set up several lengthy sessions with Madden. That's complicated enough as it is. Then, early on in the process, they found out a storage container with thousands of hours of never-before-seen footage of Madden behind the scenes of his broadcasts. There were over 1,500 tapes, mostly filmed over the course of two seasons by Madden's production company. It was a gold mine and a treasure trove for what Rinaldi and Santos wanted to accomplish.
This footage helps fill in the blanks of who Madden was for those who didn't have the fortune of knowing him off-camera. Santos was quick to point to the video editors who combed through all the camera rolls as some of the most important individuals involved in the making of the project.
Paired with the interviews, a full portrait of Madden is painted. Rinaldi marveled over how every single person they requested to interview about Madden said yes immediately. Even the ever-stodgy Bill Belichick agreed and didn't mind going over his allotted time to keep talking about Madden.
Through these interviews, even the uninitiated come to understand how important Madden was to the game he spent his life in. The revered tone in which legendary figures like Peyton Manning and Bill Parcells speak about Madden shows how much he meant to everybody in football. In the documentary, Andy Reid explained how the simple approval of Madden on a national broadcast gave him significant leeway with the general public when he was in Philadelphia. No other broadcaster in any sport ever had that kind of influence. But that's how highly Madden's opinion was valued, by both casual viewers and lifelong diehards alike. What he said was gospel.
It is strange, sometimes, how life unfolds; All Madden is the most comprehensive chronicling of Madden's career, released only days before he passed away. While the man himself is gone, the interviews with his wife and children reflecting on his life, the candid clips of Madden behind the camera, and everything else the documentary gave the general public will exist forever. Madden will be missed-- but he will never be forgotten.
There was nobody quite like John Madden. There will never be anybody quite like John Madden.
"Everyone loved football when John Madden was the one telling you about football," Santos said. And that just about says it all.
'All Madden' will air on FS1 at 9 p.m. ET and 10:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, December 29 and on FOX at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on Thursday, December 30. 'All Madden' is also available to stream on ESPN+. NFL Network will air 'All Madden' on Thursday, December 30 at 3:00 p.m. ET and on Tuesday, January 4 at 8:00 p.m. ET and 12:30 a.m. ET.