John Madden, a Happy Death and the Communion of Saints
COMMENTARY: As football fans prepare to mark another Super Bowl Sunday, we can learn two lessons from the late John Madden we might take for Christian discipleship.
At the annual National Football League awards presentation, it is customary to recall those who have recently died in a combined video montage. This past Thursday though, one man was singled out for special feature: John Madden.
Madden coached the Oakland Raiders for 10 seasons from 1969-1978, won a Super Bowl and achieved the best winning percentage of any coach in NFL history who coached at least 100 games. After an early retirement at age 42, he became most famous as a television commentator for nearly 30 years. He was the best of his profession, better than anyone else at explaining the game and sharing the fun — offering both education and entertainment.
He pioneered the use of the “telestrator,” by which commentators can outline the play on the screen. He didn’t invent the word “boom,” but he made it his own — a noun, adjective or verb as needed, sometimes all at the same time. More than any player, he became the face of football at a time when the NFL began its ascendancy to professional sports supremacy.
His claustrophobia made him unable to fly, so he crisscrossed the country in a specially-outfitted luxury bus — the Madden Cruiser. People would follow it for miles on the highway, just to be part of the phenomenon.
While his colleagues would jet first-class from one five-star hotel to another, the Madden Cruiser would pull into a diner in rural Nebraska. He was, in the words of one admirer, “America’s ambassador to itself,” seeing the country much of the elite class misses.
Larger than life, he championed the working-class approach to life. He changed how Americans observe their distinctive national holiday, introducing generations to the Thanksgiving “turducken” — a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey, all best eaten by hand.
“He was football,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell when Madden died at 85 last December. “There will never be another John Madden, and we will forever be indebted to him for all he did to make football and the NFL what it is today.” He did more than nearly anyone else.
I know nothing about Madden’s religious faith, but as Super Bowl Sunday occasions more remembrances of him, there are two lessons we might take for Christian discipleship — a happy death and the Communion of Saints.
Madden died “unexpectedly,” it was reported. As to the holiness of his death, I cannot say, but the death granted to him by Providence was a happy one.
Last year, Fox Sports prepared a documentary on the coach’s life, All Madden. It was, in secular terms, pure hagiography. Not a discouraging word was to be heard. That’s not unusual in tribute documentaries — especially those that require the cooperation of the subject. What was unusual about All Madden was that it included extensive footage of Madden himself watching the others talking about him. It was a bit like being able to attend your own wake.
The documentary premiered on Christmas Day. Madden gathered his close family around him, his wife Virginia, children and grandchildren, to watch it, a review of a life lived with a dedication to hard work and excellence, with an appreciation for many blessings along the way.
It served as an extended, anticipatory eulogy. Madden would be dead two days later.
The Catholic tradition of praying for a happy death includes, above all, reception of the sacraments, but it also includes natural blessings — a lack of suffering and pain, the presence of loved ones, an opportunity to look back and be grateful for God’s goodness.
On a natural level, Madden was granted that happy death, well past his biblical three score and 10 (or four score for those who are strong), surrounded by his family and the love and esteem of his friends, professional and personal.
I don’t know what Madden believed about the Communion of Saints but, in his inimitable fashion, he gave us an earthly vision of what it might be like. It was on the occasion of his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. Members of the Hall of Fame are commemorated with a bust in the halls of honor.
“You have to stay with me a moment on this one,” said Madden, operating viva voce without the aid of a telestrator:
This is a little goofy here. … But I started thinking about this after I got voted into the Hall of Fame. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s true. Now I know it’s true and I believe it.
Here’s the deal: I think over in the Hall of Fame, that during the day, the people go through, they look at everything. At night, there’s a time when they all leave. All the fans and all the visitors leave the Hall of Fame. Then there’s just the workers. Then the workers start to leave. It gets down to there’s just one person. That person turns out the light, locks the door.
I believe that the busts talk to each other. I can’t wait for that conversation, I really can’t. Vince Lombardi, Knute Rockne, Walter Payton, all my ex-players, we’ll be there forever and ever and ever talking about whatever. That’s what I believe. That’s what I think is going to happen, and no one’s ever going to talk me out of that…
That’s an image of the Communion of Saints, an eternal conversation of the blessed, drawn up into the eternal conversation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, extended into creation by the very Word through whom all things were made.
In football terms, Madden thinks about talking football and life with Lombardi. In heavenly terms it is talking with St. John the Apostle about the Blessed Mother in his home, or St. Augustine about his own mother, or St. Francis Xavier about carrying the Gospel to the ends of the earth and the fascinating and fearsome sights he saw along the way. It’s about listening in on the private conversation St. Josephine Bakhita had with the future St. Pius X in Venice, or those many encounters we saw between Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II. Better than the busts talking to each other, it is the bodies and souls themselves at the end of history.
For generations of Sundays, football fans spent their afternoons with John Madden. In the light of the eternal Lord’s Day, may he rest in peace.