On Monday afternoon, a couple hours before the start of a public memorial at the Oakland Coliseum to celebrate the life of John Madden, Madden’s grandson Jesse flashed back to his final high school football game last year as quarterback of the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons. The matchup was a few blocks away from O’Dowd, at Castlemont High School in East Oakland, and his grandfather didn’t want to miss it.
At away games during the pandemic, the elder Madden would arrange with athletic directors to drive his SUV as close to the field as possible so he could watch his grandson play up close, binoculars in hand. He also saw something else that day, Jesse Madden told The Oaklandside on Monday evening—the discrepancies between the sort of resources available to players and students at a private school like O’Dowd and a neighborhood school like Castlemont.
“He made a priority to benefit the lives of those kids,” the younger Madden said. The idea for the John Madden Foundation was born, a new philanthropic organization providing scholarships and educational opportunities to the city’s students.
The Madden family, friends, NFL coaches, and hundreds of Raider fans packed the Oakland Coliseum on a chilly Monday evening for a two-hour memorial honoring the late Oakland Raiders coach, KCBS radio contributor, and innovative football analyst.
Madden, a longtime Pleasanton resident who grew up in Daly City, died Dec. 28 at the age of 85. His legacy lives on in highlight reels of his decade coaching the Oakland Raiders and years narrating games as a broadcaster. A younger generation knows him by his association with the popular Madden NFL video game.
Madden’s family hopes future generations of Oakland youth will know him for yet another reason: the new foundation in his name. Proceeds from the ticket sales of Monday’s memorial will go to the fund. The family announced six students have received scholarships so far.
“He wanted everyone to have a fair experience,” said Jesse Madden, who is now attending the University of Michigan.
Tributes poured in from around the NFL. Pre-recorded interviews with Brett Favre and broadcaster Al Michaels appeared on the Coliseum’s jumbotron. Washington Commanders coach Ron Rivera and Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid joined former 49ers coach Steve Marinucci, broadcaster Lesley Visser, and retired KCBS radio anchor Stan Bunger on a stage on the Coliseum infield.
Many of the speakers told behind-the-scenes stories of a larger-than-life man who was generous with his time. Often, he preferred talking about food over football.
Rivera, who grew up in Monterey County and played football at Cal, recalled meeting Madden as a teenager. Madden signed an autograph for him and left by saying: “Kid, go with your gut.”
Madden’s unwavering love for Oakland, and in particular the Raiders, was on full display. His wife, Virginia, said after her husband passed away she knew there needed to be a gathering at the Coliseum, on the field where Madden paced the sidelines for a decade in the late 1960s and 70s. Even as the Raiders left for Los Angeles, only to return to Oakland before leaving again for Las Vegas, Madden maintained a presence in the East Bay.
“I know he’s up there and I know he’s smiling down on all his players that are here and all of you people, the fans that supported him for many years,” Virginia said, turning to the fans clad in silver and black. “John believed in Oakland, he believed in the Coliseum, most of all, he believed in the Raiders. The Oakland Raiders.”
Mike Madden, one of his two sons, told The Oaklandside his father was involved in meetings to keep the Raiders from leaving to Las Vegas, which the team eventually did in 2020.
“He wanted to do whatever he could to keep the Raiders here but at the same time get the Raiders a stadium that is fitting for the new NFL. It just never happened. It broke his heart,” he said.
With the departure of the Raiders and Golden State Warriors, Oakland is now facing the possibility of losing its last professional sports team, the Oakland A’s. The MLB team has proposed building a stadium and mixed-use development at Howard Terminal in Jack London Square but is considering ballpark options in Las Vegas.
The Warriors’ move to San Francisco in 2019 also stung. Mike Madden recalled a friend of his getting all excited about the new arena across the bay, arguing it would attract better free agents.
“Dad got in his face,” saying “you don’t know Oakland,” he recalled. “He got pound your fist angry.”
In some ways, the Madden memorial felt like a funeral for the Oakland Raiders. Several fans arrived well before the 66th Avenue gates opened for what may be the last Raider Nation gathering at the Coliseum.
Louie Sumaya, 35, drove from Hollister to be the first in line at the entrance. “He’s a legend,” Sumaya said of Madden. “Lots of coaches in the NFL have respect for him. His legacy is going to live on.”
Other fans wasted no time in cracking open adult beverages, as they waited to enter the A Lot. A man parked next to Sumaya didn’t want to give his name because he called in sick to work.
“Madden is Oakland. He is the epitome of Oakland Raiders football,” said former season ticket holder Robert Canderlaria, who painted his face and wore a sombrero.
A few cars back, Barbara Sacks shook her head. “You got the wrong stuff on,” said Sacks, who was about the only person waiting to get in not wearing Raiders gear. She said she gave up on the team when they moved to Las Vegas. That didn’t stop Sacks from paying her respects to Madden. “He was always on the positive side of situations. He just seems like the kind of person you just want to hang around.”
Robert Walker, who grew up on 86th Avenue in East Oakland, flew up from Los Angeles. “He was just straight Oakland Raiders,” the 52-year-old said. “He said, ‘Yeah we are dirty, what are you going to do about it?”
The Coliseum itself might soon be gone. A group of Black business leaders with ties to Oakland are negotiating with the city to develop the 120-acre site and add entertainment, shopping, and housing. Looking at the Coliseum from the A Lot, Walker worried that any new housing built on the site would be out of reach for people in his old neighborhood. “I’m going to keep it real,” he said.
Standing nearby was “Raider Willie” who flew in from Kansas City. Over the years, he made the trip often to Oakland from the Midwest to root on his favorite team.
“I might go home Wednesday,” he said between pulls of his beer. “But I might not.”