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By the late rounds of the 1958 draft, the Eagles were essentially throwing darts at a dartboard. They took players whose names have long been forgotten, even by old-timers: Kent Lovelace, Mike Meatheringham, Mickey Trimarki. In the 21st round, they took a flier on a tackle out of Cal Polytechnic by the name of John Madden.
He’d never play a single down for Philadelphia, but that draft pick — little more than an afterthought at the time — would change the course of NFL history.
“He came to camp trying to grab the last rung on the ladder,” fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Ray Didinger told Billy Penn. “They only carried 33 or 35 guys. If you were a 21st round draft pick, you were trying to buck the odds.”
Didinger would know. Few in Philly have better knowledge of pro football than “Ray Didi,” as the WIP host and NBC Sports Philadelphia analyst is affectionately called, and no one in the city crossed paths professionally more often with Madden. They first met when he was coach for the Oakland Raiders and Didinger was a writer for the Philadelphia Bulletin. Later, working for NFL Films, he’d regularly interview Madden, who died this week at age 85.
“He was just a really fun guy,” said Didinger about the beloved coach, announcer, and video game icon. “And he was very, very smart. A conversation with John would go in a lot of different directions.”
Back in training camp with the Eagles, Madden’s already slim chances of making the team took a further hit when he hurt his knee. His pro career was essentially over before it started. Instead of conceding the point, he decided to stick around Philadelphia — a pivotal decision.
To get treatment for his knee at Franklin Field, Madden had to arrive early in the morning, before the rostered players, if he wanted a spot in the hot tub. The only other person regularly in the locker room that time of the morning was the team’s veteran quarterback, Norm Van Brocklin. Van Brocklin would come in early to watch game film in preparation for the following week’s opponent.
The QB wasn’t known for his friendliness, according to Didinger, who called him “a prickly character.” But Van Brocklin liked guys who liked football, and was ahead of his time in terms of film study: “He prepared for every game like it was the SATs.”
In the 2019 book, “Game for Life: John Madden,” the future Raiders coach described what happened on one of those trips to the locker room. “One day, he (Van Brocklin) said ‘Hey Red, come on up’,” Madden recalled. “So I went and sat next to him. … I just sat there and listened as he broke film down.”
As the impromptu film sessions continued, Madden began to realize how much more there was to the game than he had noticed previously. “That’s where I learned pro football,” he recounted in the book. “Seeing from Norm Van Brocklin what it takes to prepare for a game.”
At the time, the idea of being a coach hadn’t yet occurred to Madden — but it would. “The more he sat with Van Brocklin, the more he studied film,” Didinger explained, “the more he thought, ‘You know what, it might be fun to coach this game’. He never had those thoughts until he had that time with Van Brocklin.”
In 1960, while the brainy old vet Van Brocklin was quarterbacking the Eagles to an NFL Championship, Madden began to follow his destiny.
He took an assistant coaching job with the Allan Hancock Community College Bulldogs, and then quickly moved up the ranks. By the end of the decade, he was head coach for the Raiders. After tremendous success in Oakland, including a Super Bowl title, Madden retired abruptly in 1979. But his love of Xs and Os, forged in the Franklin Field locker room at 33rd and Spruce, would again serve him well, as he started to call football games for CBS.
As an announcer, Madden’s combination of strategic knowledge — as first gleaned from Van Brocklin — and a natural affinity for the game and the players in it manifested into the “everyman” announcer who became almost universally adored.
“Sometimes I see analysts trying to make things too technical,” said Didinger. “I want to hear all that, but don’t make me feel like I’m sitting in a classroom learning geometry. John’s thing was, ‘I’ll explain the game to you, but I’m also going to tell you about why Nate Newton’s shirt is never tucked in’.”
Madden’s greatest quality, added Didi: “He never lost sight that this is supposed to be fun.”
In 2006, Madden was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And it’s possible none of it would have happened had the Eagles not taken a chance on a kid out of Cal Poly in the 21st round of the 1958 draft. As Madden himself would later say about his time in Philly, “It was the most important year of my life.”