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John Madden Invited Us In

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Everyone’s going to be talking about the turducken, and with good reason. Of all the memorable moments that defined the broadcasting career of John Madden, who died last night at the age 85, none capture the enthusiasm and goofball spirit that he brought to every game he called quite like the time took apart a turducken with his bare hands. 

It happened during a Monday Night Football game in 2002, just before Thanksgiving. While the 49ers and Eagles were going through the motions of a football game, Madden, from his perch in the broadcast booth, spent two-and-a-half minutes talking about a turducken. Madden quickly and accurately detailed the properties of a turducken—a deboned chicken stuffed in a deboned duck stuffed in a deboned turkey—the way a precocious child might describe the various attributes of his favorite dinosaur. And then a turducken was placed in front of Madden, at which point he, without hesitation or self-consciousness, tore it up with his hands. 

What sticks with me now, rewatching that clip for probably the 500th time, is the line Madden delivers as he finishes pulling apart the—let’s be honest here—absolutely heinous pile of bird meat. “And then you just have to do it that way,” Madden says. “Or … if any of that makes sense.” In the cold light of 2021, Madden’s words almost land like a brilliant piece of anti-comedy, a knowing denouement to a perfectly executed bit. But that was the thing about John Madden: None of it was a bit. Nothing he said, about football or food or whatever TV show Pat Summerall was forced to plug, was ever delivered ironically or disingenuously. It was that straightforwardness that made him such a brilliant color analyst. He mauled that turducken for a television audience of millions not because he was trying to get attention or make anyone laugh, but because he really wanted us to know what a turducken was. He wanted to show it to us, and show us how it worked, and for us to understand that it wasn’t just three things, it was actually five things when you counted the two different types of dressing.

He succeeded at his job because he was able to entertain and inform the audience, but it never felt like he was consciously trying to do either of those things. Listening to John Madden talk about football never made me feel like I was engaging with a performance, but the thoughts of a man who wanted nothing more than to share them with me. Madden’s greatest gift was his ability to just open his mind and let whatever was in there spill out over the airwaves without ever once stopping to tweak the dials. It’s a quality that I don’t think I fully appreciated when I was younger. I am more than a little ashamed to admit now that my initial reaction to the turducken moment, when I watched it live as a 14-year-old shithead, was exasperated revulsion. Madden was kind of a joke to me then, the same way a kind but embarrassing relative might be, and I’m certain I spent most of my time reacting to him by rolling my eyes or making snide comments about his sometimes bumbling delivery. 

What I didn’t realize then, and what I am eternally grateful for now, is that in those moments that I found Madden to be silly or uncool, what he was actually doing was making me love football. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that he was making me love watching football, which was not the easiest of tasks. He took a sport that features a minute of actual sports for every two minutes of downtime and commercial breaks, and he made it something that I would spend three hours watching without hesitation. He did this not by evangelizing or intellectualizing, but by loving football himself, deeply and completely and honestly, and inviting me to sit close to him and absorb some of his unvarnished appreciation for the game. That I didn’t even understand how he was doing this at the time just speaks to how good Madden was at his job. 

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why I don’t like watching football now as much as I did when I was 10, 11, or 12 years old. Things you like as a kid start to lose their luster as you get older, and the ever-growing cloud of avarice and immorality that sits over the NFL certainly doesn’t help. But I really do believe that my unbridled enthusiasm for the game started to wane the moment that Madden left the broadcast booth. It doesn’t help that everyone who has tried to replace him has brought along an annoying schtick or a mirthless self-regard that now defines the league itself. Madden never went in for any of that. He never held up football as a national institution, but as something smaller and more personal, a part of his world that he wanted to share with us. It was never about the game itself, but who we enjoyed it with, and how they made us feel when we were together. 

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