Remembering John Madden’s very human side
A superb football coach and an even better man
The John Madden I remember was before his extrodinary broadcast career, comical Miller Lite commercials, and in advance of the video game that bears his name. I remember John Madden when he was an NFL coach for the Oakland Raiders.
I was stamped a Patriots fan early, when they were still known as the Boston Patriots. John Madden’s Raiders were larger than life to a New England youngster like myself. The Raiders were a combination of California cool with a large dose of swashbuckle that any teenager would admire. They were led by coach Madden, and played a wide-open brand of football that was appealing to young fans 1970s.
Madden himself was larger than life, young, and animated. He was not anything like the stoic Dallas coach, Tom Landry, or the dressed to the nines coach of the Patriots, Hank Stram. I watched the Patriots every Sunday and wished they were the Raiders.
I remember distinctly the day my long distance affair with the Raiders ended. The date was August 12, 1978. My New England Patriots were playing a preseason game on the west coast against Oakland. Patriots wideout Darryl Stingley ran a slant route and extended for an out-of-reach pass. He was met with a hard hit to the head by Raider’s safety, Jack Tatum.
The hit would be illegal in today’s football and was violent even for 1970s football. The 26-year-old Stingley suffered crushed vertebrae and spinal cord damage. His bright football future was over. He would never walk again.
Stingley was hospitalized in Northern California for three months following the paralyzing hit, and John Madden was by his side on almost a daily basis, often driving an hour and a half after Raider practice to be there. He was at the hospital that first night when Stingley underwent surgery.
Here’s a passage from a 1983 Sports Illustrated feature story that I have linked below.
During the first weeks after Stingley suffered his injury, the Raiders were at their training camp in Santa Rosa, an hour and a half north of Oakland, and Stingley was in Eden Hospital in Castro Valley, south of the city. Still, Madden and his wife were daily visitors to Stingley's bedside. They offered their home and the use of a car to Stingley's family. They brought clothes to the hospital for Stingley's girl friend, who had not had time to pack before flying West. On the opening day of the season in September, when the Raiders lost to the Broncos in Denver, Madden returned to Oakland at night on the team plane and went straight to the hospital to see Stingley. Hank Bullough, then the Patriots' assistant head coach, said at the time, "
The player and coach forged a friendship that lasted until Stingley passed away in 2007. In his autobiography, Stngley spoke of his appreciation for Madden’s kindness and the love he had for the man.
Stingley wrote that he believed that Madden left football coaching, in part, because of the paralyzing injury. John Madden resigned as coach of the Raiders following that 1978 season. According to the Sports Illustrated story, Madden never coached football again.
At the press conference at which Madden made his announcement, he said, with tears in his eyes, "I'm not resigning, quitting for doing anything else. I'm retiring. I'll never coach another game of football. I gave it everything I had for 10 years, and I don't have any more."
Gene Upshaw, then a Raider guard, said that day, "When Stingley was hurt, when Warren Wells had problems [the Raider wide receiver went to prison in 1971 for violating the terms of the probation given him after he pleaded guilty to attempted rape], John stepped in. Over the last 12 years our players would sometimes get into scrapes. John would be there night and day, fighting to help them. I'm going to miss the man, I'll tell you. I'm just glad he touched my life."
Today, John Madden is remembered for his ubiquitous video game and broadcast persona. It’s more fitting that we honor him as a superb football coach, and an even better man.
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