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Inman: John Madden was the face of Thanksgiving football. Now the NFL is making it official.

By Cam Inman

It was Thanksgiving Eve in 2016 when John Madden grabbed a microphone and took a seat in the festive lobby at Rose Hotel in Pleasanton.

He’d never done a podcast, didn’t know what the heck they were, but he was game for it, especially because it was Thanksgiving time.

My opening line: “Any time I think of Thanksgiving, I think of you.”

Next thing you know, boom, we were talking about six-legged turkeys, the kind Madden would award after the 20 Thanksgiving games he called as an NFL broadcaster — and as the sport’s maître d’.

“Six-legged turkey, yeah,” Madden responded. “You didn’t know how many valuable players you were going to have in a game or how many turkey legs you wanted to give away for the top players, so you had to put a lot of legs on there.

“Sometimes you’d get in a bind with just having two (legs) and you wanted to give the legs to the offensive line.”

The NFL’s Thanksgiving Day tripleheader will honor Madden, who passed away on Dec. 28 at age 85. Tributes will accompany all three broadcasts — Bills-Lions, 9:30 a.m., CBS; Giants-Cowboys, 1:30 p.m., FOX; and, Patriot- Vikings, 5:20 p.m.; NBC — as well as on the NFL Network’s GameDay Morning show.

The NFL calls it the “inaugural John Madden Thanksgiving Celebration,” and it comes complete with an image of Madden on the 25-yard lines and on helmet stickers.

The NFL’s inaugural John Madden Thanksgiving Celebration will include this image of the former Raiders’ coach and television broadcaster. The image will be on the 25-yard line on the fields of Thursday’s three games, and a sticker of the image will adorn players’ helmets. (Image courtesy of NFL)

Madden would appreciate the gesture in his humble nature that served him so well, from his Pro Football Hall of Fame coaching decade with the Raiders, to his Emmy-winning television days in which he shared his Thanksgiving not only with viewers, but broadcast crews and, of course, players and coaches.

Now, he might think a day-long, three-game celebration is overkill for “a doofus from Daly City.” (His words.)

“Yep, part of him would say it’s cool, and part of him would say it’s ridiculous,” Pete Abitante, the NFL’s vice president of special projects, said by phone this week. “He was an everyday guy, and he was a fan.”

Mike Madden, John’s oldest son, concurred and said: “I think it’s great. Dad and the NFL were synonymous. Dad and Thanksgiving were synonymous. It’s a natural thing.”

When Madden passed away, Abitante and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell searched how best to honor Madden, who became a special adviser to the commissioner upon retiring from broadcasting in 2009. Coaches, players, broadcast executives and NFL staff were tapped for suggestions, which ranged from naming the NFL coach of the year award after him to putting a team back in Oakland and naming it the “Maddens.”

“John encompassed so much, as a coach, a teacher, a broadcaster, (video) games, and philanthropy,” Abitante said. “Thanksgiving was his favorite part of the year, and what he put on the map was Thanksgiving Day games with his excitement, and that is what we focused on for this.”

Madden would love that kids will benefit from this NFL tribute. A “Madden Player of the Game” will have $10,000 donated in their name to the youth or high school football program of their choice.

“No one cared more or contributed more to our game than John Madden,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “Honoring his memory and impact on the NFL is important and Thanksgiving Day brings all of the elements significant to John to life – family, football, food and fun.”

"After awhile, they know more about it than you do," John Madden says of his sons' business savvy. Mike, left, 39, is a Tri-Valley real estate developer and Joe, 37, runs a Pleasanton commercial and video production house. They pose in the Madden Cruiser in Oakland. (Norbert von der Groeben/ Times)
“After a while, they know more about it than you do,” John Madden says of his sons’ business savvy. Mike, left, 39, is a Tri-Valley real estate developer and Joe, 37, runs a Pleasanton commercial and video production house. They pose in the Madden Cruiser in Oakland. (Norbert von der Groeben/ Times)

All three broadcasts of the Thanksgiving games will open with a video of Madden musing about the holiday’s pairing with football.

Madden made “Turducken” a household name every Thanksgiving. He discovered the dish — chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey — during a 1996 broadcast in New Orleans, he said in our podcast:

“Yeah, New Orleans. A guy brought me one in the booth. I was just going to eat it later or put it on the bus, and it started to smell so good I had to taste it. I grabbed it and started to eat it before the game.

“It was funny, the owner of the New Orleans Saints, somewhere in the paper it said he was going to hire a new coach and he’s going to talk to some people about it, and one of the people he’s going to talk to is John Madden. I didn’t know that, so in comes him and I’m sitting there with the turducken in my hand, and I couldn’t shake hands. Because you can’t have a hunk of turducken and shake a guy’s hand.

“So I’m dropping the turducken, and I know there’s no way he’s going to ask me who to hire as a head coach.”

BNG L MADDEN 1124 3 | Inman: John Madden was the face of Thanksgiving football. Now the NFL is making it official. | The Paradise News
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and teammates celebrate a 26-18 victory over the Atlanta Falcons with turkey legs on Thanksgiving Day, after an NFL football game Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019, in Atlanta. From awarding victory turkey legs to the star players to being the voice on the NFL’s biggest Thanksgiving Day games for years, John Madden was synonymous with the holiday he so adored. The NFL is making that a lasting tribute by honoring the late broadcaster by launching the “John Madden Thanksgiving Celebration” to begin on the first Thanksgiving following his death last December. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

In 2011, while I was in Baltimore for the 49ers’ Thanksgiving Day game against the Ravens, I gave Madden a call to wish him well, this being two years after his retirement from the broadcast booth. To my surprise, he wasn’t preparing turducken but rather a crawfish-stuffed chicken as a side meal. He told me he got the crawfish-stuffed chicken from the same Louisiana market that would send him turduckens — the Gourmet Butcher Block in Gretna.

Yep, it just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving if I weren’t learning something from John Madden.

When we sat down at the Rose Hotel that 2016 Thanksgiving Eve alongside his beloved wife, Virginia, he had just emerged from a rough year of health issues, starting with heart surgery in December 2015.

“It’s just good to get out and around and see people,” Madden said.

It was always good to see or hear him. We did several interviews, and informal chats, over the years. I really got to know him ahead of his 2006 Hall of Fame induction. We had common interests – football and family — as Pleasanton residents, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo graduates, and Bay Area natives.

Madden once recalled how he began doing the Thanksgiving Day game with Pat Summerall at CBS in 1981. It started a cherished tradition for the broadcast crew behind the scenes, and television viewers worldwide.

“That was my family,” Madden said. “When I did it, that was the Thanksgiving that I knew — with the crew and the guys and the officials. It was the same for us year after year after year. Then it became a tradition and something we looked forward to.

“What I had a problem was when I got out of broadcasting and got away from doing Thanksgiving Day games, and I had to do a normal Thanksgiving. I had no experience doing that.”

Source: Paradise Post