Irreplaceable John Madden Steps Away

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to
Thursday, April 16, 2009; 5:21 PM

Back in mid-October, John Madden was on the telephone from his Bay Area office explaining why he had decided to take a week off from his role as the lead NFL analyst on NBC Sports, ending a remarkable run of 476 straight games on four different networks going back nearly 30 years.

"I've got five grandchildren," he said at the time. "It's a quality of life issue... When you see the grandkids, it's like they've grown two feet. So I'd like to check in once in a while, and this is a good time to do that."

The wide world of high school, college and professional football has always been like family to 73-year-old John Madden, going back to the first year he ever played as a freshman in high school. But now, with his announcement that he has decided to retire from the broadcast booth, his real family will be the No. 1 priority in his life, especially those grandchildren, now between three and eight years old.

"They're at an age, when they know when I'm here, and when I'm gone," Madden said Thursday, revealing his choice to walk away, even while still at the top of his game. He announced the decision on a local radio show he's done for years on KCBS in San Francisco, choking up at one point during a 12-minute segment that began with him saying "I've decided to retire."

Back in October, when Madden skipped a game in Tampa to avoid crossing the country three times over the span of 14 days in the bus he's used for most of his broadcasting career, there was immediate speculation it might be the beginning of the end. But Madden, who has had a life-long fear of flying, actually had reluctantly agreed to the brief hiatus at the request of his friend and frequent bus-mate, Dick Ebersol, the long-time chairman of NBC Sports.

Ebersol insisted at the time he simply wanted to give Madden a blow during a very long season. Still, even Madden was a tad suspicious at first. In another interview that week in October, Ebersol told me Madden had asked him point blank, "do you have another agenda going?"

But Ebersol had no agenda then, or now.

This decision, with three lucrative years remaining on his original six-year contract, was all Madden, all the time. It was reached two months after his bravura final performance along with play-by-play man Al Michaels covering Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa. In one of the greatest Super Bowls of them all, Madden was particularly on point in his analysis during a thrilling fourth quarter, and sadly, he will be leaving while he's still, in my opinion, at the very top of his game.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Ebersol said Madden called him on the telephone April 7 and told him that he had decided to stop. Ebersol immediately shot back, "no you're not." To which he said Madden replied again, "I'm going to retire."

Ebersol knew then it likely would be futile to try to talk him out of it, but he told Madden he wanted him to think about it a little more, and he'd fly out to California to see him this week. That meeting took place on Wednesday, with Ebersol accompanied by Sandy Montag, Madden's long-time agent.

Ebersol said he was prepared to do just about anything to keep Madden on the air, offering him the possibility of working half a season, or taking the summer off, starting in September, skipping October and coming back for critical November and December games down the stretch.

"Sandy said it was going to be nigh on impossible to change his mind," Ebersol said, and then described the moment he knew he had lost him.

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