By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
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.
"John looked at Sandy and looked back at me and said 'it's time.'"
Madden, who did not make himself available to the media Thursday after doing his radio show, insisted on KCBS that he was not leaving for health reasons and would continue some traveling -- by bus, always by bus -- to promote his various business interests, including the wildly successful video game that bears his name.
Ebersol also reported that Madden had recently taken a physical with wonderful results, and absolutely no problems, which he also added "may have propelled him even more" to retire while he still was in good health, the better to celebrate his 50th anniversary with his wife Virginia in December and enjoy those grandchildren for many more years.
"He's the absolute best broadcaster who ever lived," said Ebersol, who traveled with Madden on the bus for each of the last three years, missing only one game himself over that span. "One of the greatest things about him being that everyman was that he spoke so succinctly and to the point. You never got that artifice. He was great about life's lessons... He also was the one broadcaster who could change ratings. He was so consistently entertaining, larger than life. People stayed with a rout far longer than they would with anyone else just to hear him."
Cris Collinsworth will take over as NBC's lead game analyst. He filled in for Madden last October in Tampa. A former NFL wide receiver, Collinsworth has done brilliant work both in the studio and in handling game analysis, which he has done for the NFL Network.
Ebersol said the network will announce a revamped lineup for the studio show some time in the next two weeks, and don't be surprised if former Detroit Lions team president Matt Millen, often called "Baby Madden" in his broadcasting days in the 1990s, is signed to replace Collinsworth in the studio.
Ebersol also said that if Madden ever had a change of heart, no question he would find a primo place for him in NBC's coverage.
"There is never a time I would not welcome having John here," he said. "If he wanted to come back, we'd find a role for him, a prominent role. But I also know John. When he makes a decision, he does not look back."
Said Montag, "He doesn't change his mind. This is well thought out... He's going out his way... At 73, you decide you want to do other things. When you can't fly, you can't do those things. There is no problem. He's healthy, he's happy and content. It's time to get on with the rest of his life."
Can anyone ever replace Madden? Having spoken to Collinsworth about that possibility in the past, I'd venture a guess he'd likely be the first person to say it can't be done.
And now, faster than you can say "Boom!!" another era in the history of NFL broadcasting has ended, just as it did on Monday when Harry Kalas, the long-time narrator for NFL Films and baseball voice of the Philadelphia Phillies, died in Washington as he was preparing to do a ballgame at Nationals Park.
Kalas also was 73, but people who know Madden said his death played no role whatsoever in his own decision to leave the booth he's occupied since 1979, a year after retiring as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. His work there earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he also became the only man ever to be the lead NFL analyst for four different networks.
"It's tough," Madden said on the radio. "Not because I'm not sure it's the right time. I'm just going to miss everything about it. At some point, you have to do this. I got to that point. The thing that made it hard is that I enjoy it so damned much. That's why it took me so long (to decide).
"You go away in August and come back (home) in January. I'm to the point in my life where that's not the deal any more. That part of my life has come to an end."
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.