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Sportscaster Al Michaels remembers the great John Madden


At the age of 32, John Madden was named an NFL head coach. His Oakland Raiders never posted a losing record, and they won a Super Bowl. Then he went into the TV booth, where Coach Madden was a natural. Before long, he was calling marquee NFL games every week. You would also hear his voice in commercials and through your game console.

RICHARD SHERMAN: I'm - obviously been playing the John Madden video game and listening to his voice as soon as I can ever remember, honestly.

KELLY: Cornerback Richard Sherman was pictured on the cover of Madden NFL 15. He told NPR that John Madden is football.

SHERMAN: For a lot of kids, that's how they fell in love with the game, you know? And I'm sure a lot of our parents remember every game as - of him as a broadcaster. He's one of those grandfathers. If there was a Mount Everest of football, he'd be right in the middle.

KELLY: Well, John Madden died yesterday. He was 85 years old. We are remembering him today with his partner, on air for seven years, the great sportscaster Al Michaels. Mr. Michaels, thanks for joining us.

AL MICHAELS: My pleasure, Mary Louise. You know, it's - in one way, it's a day of mourning...

KELLY: Yeah.

MICHAELS: ...But it - to me, it's a day of celebration. I mean, there's so much to remember about John. I've spent the better part of last night after finding out about it and almost all of today just thinking back about the great times. And boy, there were a ton.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, what made him so great as a commentator? 'Cause there are a lot of folks who can call a football game.

MICHAELS: He was genuine. He wasn't acting the role of broadcaster or analyst. When John got into the broadcasting business, he wasn't sure that's what he wanted to do. But once he got in, he had to be himself. And John was not only an original, but he was the genuine article. What you saw on the air and heard on the air was John off the air as well. So he embraced a tremendous knowledge, obviously, of the game with a love of the game like no other person I have been around with a great sense of humor. And he was, at heart, a teacher.

KELLY: Yeah.

MICHAELS: And he loved to teach. He loved to...

KELLY: Did he walk around yelling boom in real life?

MICHAELS: He would throw out an occasional boom.

KELLY: (Laughter).

MICHAELS: You'd be at dinner, and then people would expect him to throw out a boom and an occasional doink as well.

KELLY: An occasional doink. All right. I think you answered my question. I was going to ask what he was actually like off the clock in real life. It sounds like it was just the same guy we all knew.

MICHAELS: The same guy.

KELLY: Yeah.

MICHAELS: Absolutely. And just - you couldn't have had a better dinner partner than John Madden.

KELLY: Now when you two came together to work, you had both already been broadcasting for decades, right?

MICHAELS: Correct.

KELLY: Yeah. What's your best John Madden story?

MICHAELS: Well when we got together, our producer - putting us together, we both had a lot of experience, but how would it work? And he said, do you guys want to do a rehearsal game? - which meant roll the tape in some studio and pretend to do the game. And we knew it would be artificial. And we looked at each other. He looked at me. I was the senior member at that point since he had come to ABC from Fox. And I said, no, we don't need - we don't have to do this. And he said to me as we walked out of the room, I'm glad you said that. He said, let's just wing it.

And I'll tell you something, Mary Louise - we had our first game together in Canton, Ohio - preseason game back in 2002. By the time we got to the second commercial, I thought I had worked with the guy for 20 years. It was that easy.

KELLY: Wow. Speak if you would - we just have a minute or so left, but I'm thinking about his impact on the NFL. And I'm sure that's hard to sum up in a minute, but what was his role in the growth of the league over the years?

MICHAELS: He was a tremendous coach - best winning percentage among those who won 100 or more games; the iconic broadcaster who brought so many people closer to the game, made it more understandable; and the video game, the Madden game, best-selling ever, made millions and millions of young fans. You put the three of those things together and in my mind, he is as important as any figure in the history of the National Football League.

KELLY: And just briefly, his coaching - I mean, what should we remember from his years with the Raiders?

MICHAELS: Ten fantastic seasons; won three-quarters of his games. And he - had he not had this horrible fear of flying, after those 10 years, he might have gone on for 20 or 30. But he had 10 pretty good ones.

KELLY: That's Al Michaels of NBC Sports, remembering his colleague and it sounds like also your friend - the one and only John Madden. I'm sorry for your loss. I'm glad to speak with you.

MICHAELS: Nice to be with you too, Mary Louise. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.
Claudette Lindsay-Habermann