John Madden spent Christmas surrounded by friends and family watching FOX Sports’ documentary “All Madden,” a tribute directors Tom Rinaldi and Joel Santos describe as a “love letter” to the Pro Football Hall of Famer’s life and legacy.
“John asked to see it,” Santos told USA TODAY Sports during a joint interview with Rinaldi on Wednesday. “It was our wish to make it a gift for him and his family on Christmas Day.”
Three days later, Madden died at the age of 85.
Rinaldi and Santos set out 10 months ago to highlight Madden’s multi-generational football career – from his Super Bowl-winning coaching tenure, to his pioneering broadcasting career and being the namesake of one of the most popular video games ever created – in film, but the documentary has taken on new meaning in the wake of his death.
“We are truly stunned by the timing and heartbroken by it,” Rinaldi said Wednesday. “The other side of our sorrow is our incredible gratitude that John was able to see this.”
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“All Madden” features interviews from Madden himself, his family and other football greats, including Lawrence Taylor and Bill Belichick, who are both notoriously mum with the press. But out of 38 interview film requests made, Rinaldi said “we got 38 yeses.”
“He was really blown away… it made (Madden) realize his impact and the fact that so many people loved him,” Santos said.
Rinaldi added, “Now that John has passed, I don’t think I’m overstepping by saying that everyone of those people that sat down with us and shared their time, their thoughts and their hearts, feel all the greater for having done so.”
Madden did have one playful critique, highlighting his ever-present sense of humor up until his last days. “He made a joke about the one thing he didn’t like… Dave Casper calling him a cartoon character,” Santos recalled. “He was a jokester.”
Here’s some highlights from “All Madden,” which will air on FS1 at 9 p.m. ET and 10:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday and on FOX at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday.
How to watch John Madden documentary: ‘All Madden’ available to stream and will re-air on TV
In a poignant scene, Madden, who was 85 at the time of filming, watched footage from his 1979 press conference where he retired from coaching at age 42: “I gave it everything I had and it’s basically that simple. I don’t have anymore.”
Santos described Madden “watching his life” in his final days on Earth as “poetic.”
Madden gained fame in a decade-long stint as the coach of the renegade Oakland Raiders, making it to seven AFC title games and winning the Super Bowl following the 1976 season.
Madden explained that he retired because coaching “takes it out of you” when you are “responsible for everything. You live and die without reply.” He said Virginia, his wife of 62 years, noticed that he “wasn’t enjoying life” anymore.
Virginia Madden said in the film she took the couple’s two children – Joe and Michael – out of school for the announcement: “He was crying. I was crying. It wasn’t what he wanted to do, but I think he knew he had to. I told him, ‘John we don’t need football. We need you.'”
NFL fans celebrate John Madden’s life with clips from his legendary broadcasting career
The documentary focused on Madden, the father, in addition to the widely-known football coach, broadcaster and video game influencer.
“I love my dad. I’ve been proud. I’ve been known as John Madden’s son my whole life. That’s been a pretty cool thing,” Mike Madden said, telling his dad: “All your careers have been Hall of Fame… even as your role as father. You are a Hall of Fame guy.”
After interviewing Virginia, Mike and Joe Madden, Santos said it was clear the film wasn’t going to center around “famous people telling you how good Madden was,” even though there’s plenty of that too.
The directors knew it was “emotional” and “special” to hear from “voices that you never heard from” before. It made “All Madden” resonate with everyone, beyond football fans.
Rinaldi told USA TODAY Sports that Madden asked his children and grandchildren what they each loved about the documentary after it aired on Christmas. Mike Madden was sure to ask his dad his thoughts too. “He loved it,” Rinaldi shared.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor let Santos and Rinaldi know that he doesn’t do interviews for anyone – not for the New York Giants and not even for the NFL.
“I don’t do any of that (expletive),” said Taylor, according to Santos. But, “then he said, ‘Oh, this is for John Madden? We’ll work that out.’ “
Santos said Taylor was “difficult to track down” but he gave a really compelling interview. “He was so raw and so real and truly grateful for what Madden did for his career.”
During the documentary, Taylor remembered his time on the All-Madden team. He said Madden’s support motivated him to play hard on days when he didn’t have to.
“(If) I know John Madden’s calling the game, I got to give him what he gives me,” Taylor said during the film. “If he’s on your side you don’t want to let him down.”
Madden even got Bill Belichick talking. Rinaldi said they originally allotted for a 20-minute interview, but Belichick went 20 minutes over his allotted time, an uncommon occurrence for the Patriots coach. Santos said, “His answers have this personal joy to them when he’s talking about John and their relationship.”
At the end of the interview, Santos and Rinaldi asked every participant, “What message do you have for John?”
Belichick replied: “Love you. I love everything that you’ve done for the game of football. Thank you for everything you personally did for me.”
It’s hard to imagine sports broadcasting without Madden, but he initially had “no interest” in it, his agent Sandy Montag revealed. In fact, Montag said Madden referred to television reporters as “hairdos.” He thought Howard Cosell was “bologna.”
“I didn’t want to broadcast… I didn’t think what they did was the right way so I wasn’t a fan of it,” Madden said. But he admitted returning to mundane activities after winning the Super Bowl was “too slow for me. I need action. I need to do something.”
Madden said he agreed to give broadcasting a shot after initially turning down CBS’ offer to broadcast six or seven games. He was paired with up-and-comer Bob Costas for a “rehearsal game” at Los Angeles’ Coliseum in 1979 to, as Costas put it, “see if John was good enough to maybe be somewhere on their roster.”
“I had never been in a booth in my life,” Madden recalled. “It was with Bob Costas and he looked like a 12-year-old kid. I thought, what am I going to do with this guy.”
The rest is history. “I just remember how much fun it was,” Costas said, joking that “it turned out better than great for (Madden) and it turned out reasonably OK for me.”
Madden traveled cross country covering the NFL, but he didn’t rack up frequent flyer miles by air. Instead, he logged thousands of miles on the road onboard the Madden Cruiser.
Why? “He doesn’t have a fear of flying. He’s claustrophobic,” Michael Madden said.
Madden had a panic attack during a flight from Tampa while coaching and vowed never to fly again. “I’m either gonna get up, rip the door open and jump out, or I’m going to gut it out. I gutted it out. I said, ‘If we land and I’m still alive, I would never get on an airplane again and I didn’t. That was in 1980.”
Madden traveled by Amtrak train until CBS rented Dolly Parton’s tour bus for him to get to a shoot faster. The idea of the Madden Cruiser was born.
“I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s the answer. I want a bus,'” he recalled.
All Madden’ will air on FS1 at 9 p.m. ET and 10:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Dec. 29 and on FOX at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Thursday, Dec. 30. NFL Network will air ‘All Madden’ on Thursday, Dec. 30 at 3 p.m. ET and on Tuesday, Jan. 4 at 8 p.m. ET and 12:30 a.m. ET. ‘
All Madden’ is also available to stream on ESPN+.
Contributing: The Associated Press