Voices are important to me. I grew up listening to some of the most iconic voices of the 20th century.
These voices sounded like no other. When I got home from school, the game show announcer Johnny Olsen caught my ear. He sounded so happy, I thought, as he introduced the host of “Match Game,” as only Johnny could, “Geeeene RAY-burn!”
The voice of Walter Cronkite sounded like no other. He was all business, no kidding around.
As I got older, I would try to imitate the style of Dick Clark. He was seemingly unflappable, maintaining his smooth, natural tone amid screaming teenagers and far-out rock singers.
So many voices, each one unforgettable. John Wayne. Howard Cosell. Ed Sullivan. Voices so distinctive, comedians built careers out of impersonating them.
Think of the presidents of my youth: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon. Their voices were as recognizable as their faces.
I can’t leave out the ladies. The voices of Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and Dolly Parton are part of our nation’s fabric.
A few days ago, we lost a great voice. A voice that grabbed our attention. John Madden died at the age of 85. When he was selling Miller Lite, “fast actin’ Tinactin,” or Ace Hardware, we listened.
We trusted him because of his reputation: analyzing and explaining professional football for almost forty years. And this was after he retired (at age 42) from coaching after leading the Oakland Raiders to the Super Bowl.
When we heard Madden on a football telecast, we knew it was important. Game announcers are not chosen randomly. There are a dozen or so games aired each Sunday. Madden was assigned to the biggest game, the one seen nationwide.
During post-season games, and eventually the Super Bowl, we heard Madden’s voice more than any other. His voice was football. It was the snow in Green Bay, the big star on the Cowboys field, and the wind in Chicago. It was strong, forceful and (“BOOM!”) loud.
Early in his TV career, he was teamed with play-by-play announcers who didn’t mesh with his boisterous style. Eventually, CBS executives came up with the perfect pairing. They assigned the excitable Madden to join laid-back Pat Summerall, who spoke with an economy of words.
A typical touchdown call would go like this:
SUMMERALL: “Third and goal. Montana. Rice. He’s at the 20. The 10. Touchdown San Francisco.”
MADDEN (using his then-new “Telestrator”): “And this is how Montana was able to get that ball to Rice. Look at this block from Brent Jones. BOOM! That’s why Montana had so much time!”
Madden’s voice always made us put down the remote control. Why look any further? This game means something. After all, John Madden is there!
Madden appreciated the “grunts” of football. The linemen, the tacklers, the ones who didn’t win the Most Valuable Player trophies. He liked the guys in the trenches. He singled out the guys who played with injuries, the ones with the dirtiest uniforms, and those who had to work extra hard just to make the team. No one of Madden’s stature had ever given them their due.
An often-overlooked Madden story is how he got to the game. Unlike most of us, who would quickly opt for a six-hour plane ride from New York to Los Angeles, Madden insisted on seeing America. Experiencing its diners, visiting with its people, and learning things he had never known. Even if that meant a 56-hour bus ride on his custom “Madden Cruiser.” And not just once but several times a year, for decades.
I will close with some wise words from “The Coach” himself (edited for space). This is from an excellent profile by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, who accompanied Madden on a long ride in 1990.
“I’ve always said that before someone can be a president, the person should ride across this country. Not drive, because you can’t see when you drive. You have to ride, either on a bus or on a train. If you fly into Washington from San Francisco or Chicago, what have you learned? If you haven’t seen the country, how can you represent it?”
“There’s sky all over the place. I think of all the things I’ve seen that I would never see on a plane.”
“I’m always hearing the nation’s going crazy. Not where I am. Everything seems fine here.”
“People are nice. You go to a big city, and you hear the world is going to hell, but it’s not true. Small parts of it are; but the whole isn’t. All we have to do is spread out a little bit, because we have a lot of space. You get out there, and it makes you feel better about our nation. America works.”
Another lesson learned from John Madden. And it had nothing to do with football. RIP, Coach.
David Carroll is a Chattanooga news anchor and radio host. His new book “Hello Chattanooga: Famous People Who Have Visited the Tennessee Valley is available on his website, ChattanoogaRadioTV.com. You may contact him at RadioTV2020@yahoo.com, or at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405.