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Madden limits air time to TV

ABOARD THE MADDENCRUISER - The first thing that strikes you about this rolling home away from home is how it just doesn't seem big enough for its principal inhabitant.

OK, so there's a satellite dish, three TV sets, a bedroom, two bathrooms, a fax machine, a kitchen - with a refrigerator, oven and microwave - dinette table, three captain's chairs and a sofa laid out across a converted 45-foot bus, more than enough to keep any football fan happy.

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But as a passenger boards John Madden's vehicle of choice as it made the last leg of the trip down Interstate 95 from New York to Baltimore on Friday evening for today's Ravens-Cowboys game, his first television visit here in 19 years, there's a sense that there ought to be more for a man who, with all the fame, fortune and endorsements one can handle, seems so much larger than life.

For Madden, however, the surroundings are just right.

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"This is comfortable," said the former Oakland Raiders coach-turned-Fox analyst. "If you have to do this, this is the way to do it."

And Madden, football's top television analyst for 19 years with 12 Emmy awards to prove it, has been doing it this way for almost 21 years, since he got off a flight on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, 1979.

The problem for Madden isn't a fear of flying, but claustrophobia, the fear of enclosed places, which had been dormant for years while he was coaching the Raiders for 10 seasons from 1969 to '79. That fear kicked up when he began flying commercial to get to games for CBS, where his broadcasting career began right after his retirement from coaching.

Ironically, the incident that triggered his decision to travel on the ground came on the very week he was to make his first appearance with his partner of 19 seasons, Pat Summerall. Madden, who was on one of the lower broadcast crews that first season, got a chance to join Summerall, who was then paired with Tom Brookshier, when Brookshier took a week off to attend a family gathering.

Madden, who had experienced two panic attacks in previous weeks, said he got "that feeling" as the flight attendant closed the cabin door for a flight from Tampa to San Francisco.

"I could do one of two things," Madden said. "I could make a jerk out of myself and jump up and run, because I knew they couldn't stop me. There's no way, if I wanted to get off, in that state, that they could stop me. If I committed myself to getting off, I was going to get off."

The second option was to gut it out and get to Houston, the flight's layover stop, and get off the flight. That's the option Madden chose, and he hasn't been on a plane since.

He took a train home from there, and traveled by rail the rest of 1979, never telling anyone about his condition, for fear of being embarrassed.

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"It's amazing how many people ask how your flight was," Madden said. "You don't know that until you don't fly, because when you're a closet train-taker, when people ask you how your flight was, you have to change the subject. You just don't answer that. 'How's the flight?' 'Man, it's good to be here. I love this place. It's going to be a good game this week. How about them Ravens?' "

He made his own travel arrangements, taking trains for six years, until he revealed in an interview that he preferred a bus. Then-CBS executive producer Terry O'Neil rented Dolly Parton's tour bus one week to get him from football games in Atlanta and Philadelphia, with an assignment at a billiards show in Las Vegas in the middle. Madden liked the experience, and, as it happened a group of investors who were buying Greyhound heard about Madden's desire to leave the driving to someone else and gave him a converted bus in 1987.

Willie Yarbrough, a Los Angeles-area native, won a contest to be his driver in 1987, and has been with him ever since, though he has a relief driver, Joe Mitchell, who will meet Madden after today's game. They'll head for Dallas, the scene of Thursday's game, before heading to St. Louis for next Sunday's telecast, and then back to New York, where he has an apartment, then to Washington the next week.

The current bus, Madden's third, has been in service since 1998, and is sponsored by Outback Steakhouse, one of Madden's endorsees. The dM-icor is swanky, with mirrors over the kitchen sink and pleasant lighting, all designed by Madden in a contemporary motif, though he confesses he doesn't know "what the hell that means."

As the bus makes its way down I-95 in the hour from a rest stop inside the Maryland-Delaware line and his downtown hotel, Madden's thoughts drift across the landscape.

For instance, when reminded of Christmas Eve 1977, Madden, an introspective man despite the "whaps" and "booms" that punctuate his Sunday television patter, brightens. That was the date of the 37-31 overtime win the Raiders eked out over the Colts, the last NFL postseason game played at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, won in the sixth period when Kenny Stabler threw a touchdown pass to tight end Dave Casper.

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"That was one of the best games ever played," Madden said with a grin. "Because it was a playoff game and not a Super Bowl, it's been forgotten, but no one has topped that game. It had kick returns, passing, good defense, drama, everything. If you get a panel together and let them pick what the best game [was], I think that one could be up there."

Madden, who was known for his animated style on the sideline, recalled a moment between the fifth and sixth quarters, when he was designing strategy, standing near Stabler, the laid-back quarterback from Alabama.

"I was a wild man, and he was so cool," Madden said. "I'm ranting and raving about this play and the other play, and Kenny looked at me, with his helmet kind of cocked up on his head, and said, 'You know what John?' And I said, 'What?' thinking he had a play. He kind of looked around the stadium and said, 'These people sure are getting their money's worth today.' I'll never forget that."

Madden said he has loved television from the moment he did his first game, though he originally held out from CBS, not for more money, but because he wasn't sure he wanted to do games. His agent advised him to strike then, while the networks were still interested in a Super Bowl-winning coach just off the sideline, as opposed to waiting five or so years when no one cared.

Back then, Madden, a former lineman whose NFL playing career ended after a year when he suffered a knee injury with the Eagles in 1958, confesses he didn't think much of football television analysts or television in general.

"I didn't have a lot of respect for them [analysts]. I didn't think they knew what the hell they were talking about," Madden said. "That feeling probably still goes on among coaches. You work your [tail] off for 18 to 20 hours a day every day on specific things, and then someone comes in and criticizes you. How the [heck] do they know what I'm doing? Then I went and did it, and I loved it."

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The analyst of today says the coach of yesterday would never have allowed television the freedom it now enjoys around players and coaches and in the locker room.

"The things that we do now, I would never let go," Madden said. "They've got guys miked and fraternization and all that [stuff]. I would have drop-kicked their [butts] out of there and had them doing somersaults. Guys who knew me then when I was a coach laugh now. I never thought I would do it."

Madden, in the midst of a five-year contract with Fox, paying a reported $8 million annually, knows he has found his calling, but feels that if he wanted to, he could still coach today at age 64, some 20 years removed from the fray.

The only obstacle Madden sees would be managing free agency and the salary cap.

"I couldn't coach under that," Madden said. "That would be the biggest adjustment for Paul Brown or Vince Lombardi. I was a big one for loyalty. You build a team over time. You can't do that anymore. You get a guy and he's your guy. Next thing you know, he's a free agent. I mean, I had a guy and the next thing he says is 'I'm going to leave and play for someone else.' That would kill me."

Unlike so many who have left the sideline for television, only to go back, Madden says he has never been seriously tempted to return to coaching. The only time he felt a twitch was when Jimmy Johnson, who left the Cowboys to join Fox's pre-game show in 1994, told him before the 1995 NFC championship game in Dallas he was going to leave to coach the Miami Dolphins.

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Madden said he and Johnson started discussing strategy and coaching staffs and the like, and before he knew it, he was fired up about coaching again.

"I walked across the street with [Fox commentator and former Raiders linebacker] Matt Millen after dinner and I told him, 'I hope when I wake up in the morning that this feeling goes away.' When I woke up the next morning, it had gone away," Madden said.

While the fire to coach has ebbed, Madden's desire to do football on television hasn't. When asked how long he'll be calling games, he says forever, for the moment you place a time limit on your services is the moment you have already quit.

"You still have a season and you have an off-season and you have a preseason. My whole life has been that way," Madden said. "I couldn't live where October and April were the same. I mean, April is the off-season and October is the season."

And so the bus keeps rolling.


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