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By Bryan Burwell
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Bryan Burwell
All rights reserved.
Chasing the American Dream
"When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going."
John Steinbeck,Travels with Charley: In Search of America
It was a part of the great mythology of 19th-century America, spurred by the echoes of Horace Greeley's romantic, nationalistic rhapsody. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country. The bedrock concept of our great Western expansion was the quixotic promise that settlers were headed to the land of milk and honey on the plains and prairies. Greeley, the influential voice of Manifest Destiny from his perch as editor of the New York Tribune, believed a better life was out there for any hearty soul willing to exchange the poverty and rising unemployment in the industrial East for the agrarian life in the untamed American West.
Yet the cold reality confronting the first trickle of settlers who made their way into the heartland and beyond on covered wagons in the mid-1800s was that they were simply exchanging one hard road for another.
As tales of fertile farmlands and coal-rich hills just beyond the Mississippi River spread across the East Coast, a clan from the rugged Pennsylvania mining town of Wiconisco joined the westward flight. By the time John Madden's paternal great-grandfather, John F. Madden, arrived in Hardin County, Iowa, with his wife and two children in or about 1860, coal mining had expanded from the barren hills of southeastern Iowa to all portions of the territory. Like every other Midwestern state, Iowa was swept up in the craze of building railroads and expanding farther west as rapidly as possible. Wagon trains were being replaced by coal- and wood-burning locomotive trains that belched large gray plumes of ash and cinder. In 1836 Iowa's population was 10,531; by 1870 it had grown to nearly 1.2 million.
The Maddens were not fancy people. As best as can be traced, their roots as hardworking miners and farmers date back to the 18 century in Pennsylvania. They were never a part of the original American aristocracy. There was nothing highfalutin about them. They were poor folk with dirt under their fingernails. But they believed in the American Dream and chased it halfway across the continent, even if the so-called dream led them to grimy mining camps and parasitic company towns in the upper Iowa Valley outside of Clay and Eldora, where they dug coal, limestone, and clay out of the hard earth.
The Madden family's roots are no surprise to John Robinson. He is no social scientist. He's simply a retired football coach, and a damned good one. He won collegiate national championships at USC and NFL playoff games with the Los Angeles Rams. He also is one of John Madden's oldest childhood friends, and he has a theory about the everyman sensibilities that have long made Madden so popular with the masses. He believes they stem directly from those generations-deep, working-class family roots.
"I love great restaurants, he loves dives," Robinson says as he sits high above the football field at Denver's Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium. "I rode on his bus going across the country twice with him, and I swear, every day he picked the absolute worst restaurants in the world for us to eat at. Bad Mexican joints. Greasy-spoon diners. Grimy rib shacks. You know what I mean? All those places with red checkered tablecloths and jars for water glasses. I used to get mad [at] him and ask, 'Shit, can we ever go somewhere nice?'
"But those are John's kind of places because he genuinely likes people, ordinary people. And I think a lot of that is probably because John's dad was a mechanic. John's always been naturally attracted to the working stiff, the ordinary Joe. So I guarantee you if John would walk into this press box right now and had some free time on his hands, he's more likely to go over in a corner and talk to the electrician or the guy emptying the trash cans for an hour than sit around and talk to the play-by-play guy. He would just sit down and bullshit with that guy and be just as happy as ever."
More than 100 years after his ancestors made that first westward journey across the American plains, John Earl Madden routinely rolled across the same terrain in much higher style. As a broadcaster who had endured panic attacks while flying on airplanes, Madden hit the road and became a modern-day John Steinbeck in his own personal Rocinante, the tricked-out Greyhound bus named the Madden Cruiser. How many times did he make this cross-continental odyssey? One hundred? Two hundred? Six hundred? Is it possible that on many of his travels his bus followed the same path as his ancestors' strenuous pilgrimage in search of their American Dream?
In the wee hours of the morning on September 28, 1990, the 54-year-old Madden was in the back bedroom of the Cruiser. He was headed from his home outside of Oakland, California, to New York City to broadcast a football game. Over the first two days of the trip, Madden had indeed stopped in some of those salt-of-the-earth eateries that Robinson grumbled about — too many nameless truck stops, diners, dives, and convenience stores to mention. But all the while, the famous coach/broadcaster/huckster/video-game entrepreneur was mingling with America, doing what he has typically done on every one of these trips over the years: signing autographs at the gas station, shaking hands while woofing down his breakfast in the diner, and slicing off a piece of homemade rhubarb pie that someone brought him in the parking lot as he stood beside his famous bus.
He had eaten dinner at Grandpa's Steakhouse in Kearney, Nebraska, early in the evening. But now on the final day of this three-day cross-country trek, the bus would bring him within 40 miles of Clay and Eldora. With Madden asleep in the back, the Cruiser breezed right past the I-80/I-35 interchange near Des Moines without its passenger making even a simple acknowledgement of the moment. "I remember that we stopped for gas just outside Des Moines in the middle of the night," says Sports Illustrated football writer Peter King, who had hitched a ride with Madden to write an article about the journey. "But I don't remember John ever mentioning a thing about his family being originally from Iowa. In fact, he had already fallen asleep by then, and I don't think he even woke up to look out the window when we stopped in Des Moines."
The landscape looked a lot different than it did the first time a member of the Madden clan set foot in Iowa in 1860. Long ribbons of asphalt and concrete extended in front of the Cruiser's glowing headlights. The sweeping prairies had been replaced by highway cloverleafs and suburban sprawl, which quickly give way to acres of fertile farmland the farther east they traveled.
When the coal-mining Maddens of Wiconsico County first settled in Iowa decades ago, the travel was far more arduous across the untamed plains and prairies. It would take more than a generation for a Madden man to emerge from underground and find work above it. By 1885 John F. Madden's family had swelled to six children — two girls (14-year-old Alice and eight-year-old Clara) and four boys (26-year-old Charles, 20-year-old John, 18-year-old George, and 16-year-old Will) — and the best way to travel was by the railways that were expanding all over the central part of the state. Coal and the railroads became so intertwined that captains of industry were creating companies that served both purposes. The Central Iowa Railway and the Eldora Railroad and Coal Company — which later became the Central Railroad of Iowa (1869–1878) — would become the chief source of employment for families like the Maddens.
Even at the height of the boom, mining at the Chaffin mines or, later, the Bennett and Blair mines was thankless and dangerous work. Drift mining was the standard method of drilling in Hardin County, with low-ceilinged tunnels dug horizontally into the mountain rather than in downward shafts deep into the earth. A single miner could roll down the inclined tunnel on a rail cart, pick into the vein, and wheel out between 85 to 125 bushels of coal per day, getting paid 4¢ per bushel. But it was a particularly dangerous operation, given to frequent tunnel collapses in the summer months when the earth was often too soft to be held up by the timber supports. It wasn't uncommon for horrifying mining disasters to either trap workers or bury them alive under tons of rubble.
Underground or above it, it was a harsh, unforgiving life. The towns and camps established by the railroad and mining company owners were full-service operations, including stores, saloons, and schools. If a man lived in the camp and worked in the mines, he leased the land, paid the rent, and shopped for food and supplies at the company store.
It was a rotten deal that ensured most working families were stuck in a crippling financial cycle. They worked for the mine, got paid by the mine, then spent that money on food and rent, returning all the money right back where it came from. And because drift mining tended to quickly exhaust the land of its precious ore, it wasn't unusual for a mine to close down within a year after opening.
In 1885 John F. Madden's three oldest boys, Charles, John, and George, all joined their father in the mines. Will, John Madden's grandfather, followed his siblings into the mines two years later. As railroad companies began buying coal from new mines sprouting up in Illinois and Kentucky at the turn of the century, the Maddens began to migrate from mining to farming as a way of life.
The first to escape the vicious cycle of mine work was Will. While he did spend most of his young adult life as a miner, by the time he was in his early thirties, he was ready to adopt a philosophy that seemed engrained in the Madden family ethos: never be afraid to pick up stakes if it means improving one's life.
The 1900 U.S. Census lists William A. Madden as a 31-year-old recently married "teamster" with no children, still working in the drift tunnels in Eldora. But unlike his male siblings, his father, and his grandfather, Will Madden would not spend his entire life underground. Along with his wife, the former Louise Ketenber, he was raising two young sons — nine-year-old Lloyd and five-year-old Earl Russell — and operating a farm on the outskirts of Eldora.
The virus of restlessness would infect Will Madden, just as it had infected his grandfather 60 years earlier. In 1920 Will moved the family about 100 miles north, just over the state line, to Moscow, Minnesota, a small farming community populated with families of Norwegian, Austrian, German, and Danish descent.
In time, the next generation of Maddens would also feel the urge to wander. The 1930 census shows that Will's youngest son, Earl, moved away from home and left farming behind. He was 26 years old and living five miles away in nearby Austin. While Moscow's population was about 400 people, Austin was a bustling town of more than 12,000, most of them employed by the meat-packing company Hormel. Home to the headquarters of the famous processed-meat makers, Austin became known as Spam Town, USA.
But Earl did not find work in the factory. Instead, he was learning how to be an auto mechanic at a local service station. A few years later he married a deeply religious Irish Catholic woman named Mary Margaret Flaherty. They started a family quickly, their first child arriving on April 10, 1936 — a full-faced, red-haired son they named John Earl Madden.
Before long, two daughters, Delores and Judy, joined the family. The Great Depression had started, and with automobile sales declining and many struggling families too impoverished to afford gasoline, it was becoming difficult to support a growing family on an auto mechanic's wages.
By the early 1940s, America was emerging from the Depression. Earl's older brother Lloyd had by then moved to California, and he told Earl that there was plenty of work for him in San Francisco. So nearly 90 years after the Maddens of Wiconsico County began the westward migration from the Pennsylvania coal mines to the great Western plains, the Maddens of Mower County, Minnesota, packed up their belongings and completed the transcontinental journey.
The Maddens found that Daly City, California, was indeed the land of milk and honey. Earl immediately found work at one of the largest auto dealerships in San Francisco, Les Vogel's Chevrolet. This was no cramped, single-stall garage like the mom-and-pop operation back in Austin. This was a state-of-the-art garage with an expansive service department for the popular local dealership, whose slogan in the 1940s was "Eye It, Try It, Buy It."
For an active six-year-old kid like John Madden, Daly City was a personal Shangri-la. He could smell the salt air of the Pacific Ocean every morning as he walked out the door of the family's modest bungalow at 213 Knowles Street. Even better for a boy who loved to play any sport he could find, he could simply walk 10 steps out his front door and find himself at a vacant lot turned playground. It was a stingy piece of earth, quite frankly, barely 20 yards wide and 40 yards deep. But to the boys in John Madden's neighborhood, it was their field of dreams.
"We used to play there all the time," Madden would recall years later. "We just called it Madden's Lot. So the game would be, 'Okay, we'll meet after school at Madden's Lot,' or 'We'll play the game at 2:00 at Madden's Lot.' And I assumed that it was my lot. And then one day they came in and started building a house there, and I think as a kid, that was probably the most disappointing day of my life. Here they built a house on Madden's Lot."
If that proved to be the greatest disappointment of his son's childhood, then Earl Madden's move across the country and all his hard work would have been worth it. While he did find steady employment at Les Vogel's, to Earl Madden it was always just work — grimy, tedious work under a hood or looking up at a raised chassis every day.
"My dad hated his job," says Madden. "That's why he probably never pushed me to get a job when I was a teenager. I remember as I got older and I started to want a little money in my pocket and to want the sort of things teenage boys want — cars, clothes, stuff like that — I told my dad that I wanted to work part time."
Earl Madden looked his son square in the eye and shook his head. "No, son," he said. "Don't start working until you have to. Once you start working, that's it."
"That's it," as in, end of your childhood, end of fun and games, grow up now. The Madden clan had been taking the hardest path in life for generations. It was always earnest work, but it was also a joyless existence. Go to the mines. Go to the field. Go to the garage. And somewhere along the way, Earl Russell Madden made a promise to himself that his son would have it better.
There would be a lifetime of work waiting for young John after he grew up. Earl just didn't see the point in rushing him. His father had gone into the Eldora mines by his 18 birthday, and as a kid Earl lived a strict farmer's life, held captive by the rigorous agrarian rhythms of the harvest. He understood that the fleeting joys of childhood should not be sullied punching a clock.
So young John Madden was allowed to do what his father could never do: keep playing games until he had to stop.
And when did he have to stop?
Just like every other kid — when the streetlights came on.CHAPTER 2
Daly City Roots
"For me, it was simple. I was always going to play. I was going to play forever. I think all players think that way, don't they? I was always going to play forever. You don't think that it is going to end. I was always thinking, Where am I going to play next?"
In the summer of 1945, the original crew from Madden's Lot was about to get a new running buddy. Johnny Robinson was born in Chicago but moved with his family to Provo, Utah, when he was six, then on to Daly City three years later. Call it happenstance, call it fate, call it incredibly great fortune, but when the Robinsons settled five blocks away from the Maddens, they set off a series of fortunate events that would ultimately shape two boys' lives forever.
Robinson and John Madden did not meet right away, and they did not meet in their Daly City neighborhood. Instead, their first encounter was, quite naturally, on a playing field. It was across the bay at Oaks Park, the ballpark of the now-defunct Pacific Coast League Oakland Oaks minor league team way out in Emeryville. "We went to this weekend baseball school when I first got [to California]," says Robinson. "John was a catcher, I was a catcher. And all the catchers were standing around before a drill. Now, you know how in situations like that when you have a bunch of guys at a camp or a tryout or something and you kind of survey the competition? Yeah, well, I looked around, and I saw John standing over there, and I thought to myself, Hell, I know I'm better than him."
Excerpted from Madden by Bryan Burwell. Copyright © 2011 Bryan Burwell. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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