Photo by Tom Ross
Future hall-of-famers Dave Casper and John Madden, of the Oakland Raiders, confer on the sidelines during a game played against the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field on Sept. 17, 1978.
Tom Ross' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
Find more columns by Tom here.
It's an underappreciated fact that before John Madden became the world's most gregarious sportscaster and secured his fortune by licensing his name to a remarkably popular video game, he was one hell of an NFL head coach.
If you were born in the late 1970s, Madden already was winding down his career with the Oakland Raiders and you may not recall his coaching career. But longtime Denver Broncos fans certainly do.
The Denver Post reported Friday that in 10 years as the coach of the Raiders, Madden put together a 14-6-1 record against the Broncos and won the Super Bowl in 1976.
Strangely, that Super Bowl was the beginning of the end for Madden as a head coach in the NFL, and it led to something even bigger. We can't say how many Super Bowls he might have won had Madden continued his coaching career away from Oakland. But we probably can agree that it was his broadcasting career - and his incredible ability to relate to the kind of fans who grill brats in the parking lot at Lambeau and smother burritos outside Mile High - that paved the way to Canton and the Hall of Fame.
I have to confess that I was a Packers fan and scarcely aware of the Broncos in 1978 when I had my chance to photograph Madden and participate in a post-game press conference.
I had never been to a game in Lambeau Field, let alone walked on the hallowed tundra. Strangely enough, it was All-Pro Raiders' tight end Dave Casper who unwittingly provided my shot at a press pass.
I was covering the dairy farm beat for the Chilton Times-Journal, about 35 miles away from Green Bay. Casper, improbably, played his high school ball in Chilton.
The game at Lambeau was a homecoming for Casper and a legitimate shot for me to wrangle press credentials from the Packers.
I was inexperienced at photographing NFL games and covered my skinny butt during pre-game warm-ups by shooting every catch Casper made during the drills. The Raiders thoroughly dominated the game, rushing for more than 300 yards while holding the Pack to a single Chester Marcol field goal. Oakland won, 28-3.
When I got my chance after the game, I asked Madden about Casper's lone touchdown among three catches on the day.
Madden was as deft in the way he handled the press as he later would be in the announcing booth.
Casper had absorbed a beating that Sunday while blocking for Oakland's punishing ground game. When I approached him at his locker, he was slumped over, blood oozing from a cut on the bridge of his nose.
The future Hall of Famer was in no mood to talk. When I asked him what it was like to come home to the stadium that was a big part of his youth, he barely mumbled a reply.
A little deflated, I salvaged my story by asking Casper's famous teammates - including Jack Tatum, Cliff Branch and quarterback Ken Stabler - about their tight end. All of them were helpful to a neophyte sports writer.
I don't mean to rip on Casper - he'd had a tough day. But it's my brief contact with Madden that I'll always store in my memory banks.
I would be a hypocrite if I pretended to love everything about Madden's broadcast delivery. However, I always learned from his analysis of run blocking schemes and defensive formations. And I'll always admire his ability to appeal to everyman - blue collar football fans in cities such as Oakland, Chilton, Wis., Pittsburgh and Buffalo - guys and gals who, thanks to John Madden, look forward every year to their Thanksgiving turduckens.