The National Football League has been in the news a lot these days. Even with all the controversy and varying opinions, the NFL is one of the most powerful and valuable franchises in the world. For many of us baby boomers, no doubt Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr were our childhood heroes.
Since then, there have been hundreds of players we could cite as great: names such as Payton, Elway, Montana, Brady, Bradshaw, Aikman and so many more. We also remember the legendary coaches such as Landry, Ditka, Shula, Noll, Allen and the dean of them all, Vince Lombardi. But in many ways, one of the most influential of all coaches was (is) the venerable "bull in the china shop": John Madden. Who can forget his storming down the Oakland Raiders sidelines as their head coach for 10 years until he finally won the Super Bowl?
For those of you who get the NFL Network, you might have seen the show "A Football Life." When I saw that Madden was being featured, I was intrigued but a little skeptical. What surprised me after watching the show was how much this rough and tumble guy could teach us about life.
Madden, in many ways, was unlikely to have gained so much fame and influence. But I soon learned not only from his own words, but also from the testimonies of his sons, players, fellow coaches and fellow broadcasters, that Madden's first lesson in life for us is: Do what you really love! That is sometimes easier said than done. The fact that Madden ended up a football legend seems unlikely if you know his story.
As it turns out, he and the legendary USC Coach John Robinson were boyhood friends and rivals from age 10. Both decided to play football at the University of Oregon, but Madden left after one year; he didn't like the rainy, cloudy weather. Madden completed his bachelor's and master's teaching degrees and football career at Cal Poly.
He was good enough to get drafted in the 21st round by Philadelphia, but was injured in the first year and so ended his professional playing career.
Lesson 2: Learn everything you can from the best people. Madden loved football and spent a lot of time on his own with the legendary quarterback Norm Van Brocklin watching endless football game tapes. Eventually, Madden got hired by Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders and worked his way up the coaching ranks until he was offered the head coach position in 1969.
Madden was an incredible student and learner. While he at times could turn the air blue with his yelling and stomping, he was much-loved by his players — well, most of them most of the time.
Lesson 3: Persistence, persistence, persistence. As a team, you are expected to win games. But eventually, the standard becomes winning your division and conference. Year after year, the Steelers foiled the Raiders. As a matter of fact, the Raiders reached and lost five AFC Title games in seven years.
Finally, the Raiders beat the Steelers and went on to crush the Vikings (my childhood team of choice, dang it!). At that point, Madden, with little fanfare, decided to move on. He didn't quit; he didn't resign; he just, in a low-key "Forrest Gump" sort of way, decided that was all he had to say about that.
Lesson 4: Flexibility in fulfilling your passion. Doing what you love might take difference forms. Madden had become quite the celebrity and started doing the Miller Lite commercials. His bursting through paper walls also extended to "Saturday Night Live" and a lot of other gimmicks. He says he might have burst through more paper walls than any human being on Earth.
Because of his rising fame, and especially his amazing analytical mind for football, CBS offered him a gig to do a few games. He admittedly was pretty bad at first, but being teamed up with Pat Summerall, he developed into a celebrity analyst in his own right and went on to work with Summerall for 22 years.
Then he went on to work with Al Michaels and the elite in the broadcast world. But again, after a few years, he knew when to move on and, with little fanfare, according to Michaels, announced he was done.
Madden also has written several best-selling books. And, he jokes, who would have thought that most people know his name from his pioneering video football game rather than from his time as a player, coach, pitchman or broadcaster. More than 100 million copies of the game have been sold.
Lesson 5: Luck comes to those who work hard. Hard work is part of the formula, but so is focus. Says Madden, "Self-praise is for losers. Be a winner. Stand for something. Always have class, and be humble." In 2006, after being a part of the game for more than 50 years, he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. Very few coaches are ever afforded that honor. Now, at age 81, he serves on a commission to make the game safer and better.
I hope you will watch the full episode of "John Madden: A Football Life." The impact it has had on me is most keenly felt when I hear his players, fellow coaches, friend Robinson and, especially, his sons use terms such as love, character, integrity and being true to himself. I'm inspired. Those are attributes all of us can use, not to have a great football life, but an outstanding life of our own where we make the world better for others.