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John Madden: America’s biggest commuter

John Madden

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Sportscaster John Madden has not boarded a plane since 1979, but crisscrosses the nation weekly during the football season covering “NFL Monday Night Football” for ABC-TV.

His transport isn’t Amtrak or Greyhound. It’s the ultimate SUV — an $800,000, 45-foot luxury coach fitted with everything from sauna to gourmet galley.

Madden, 67, works, sleeps and eats as he covers 80,000 miles annually — almost all of it between September and January — across America’s interstate highways.

Here’s a peek at the highway lifestyle of America’s best-known “road warrior.”

The Madden Cruiser rolls out of the commentator’s upscale, gated Blackhawk development near Oakland for a routine, 53-hour transcontinental trek to New York for a Monday Night Football assignment.

“Turn off your mind for 50 hours,” says Madden, comfortable in golf shirt and sweat pants.

He’s a high-temperature guy who has the best winning record of any football coach from his days with the Oakland Raiders. He once patrolled the sidelines of wintry Soldier Field, Chicago in his shirtsleeves, so it’s no surprise that he sets the cabin’s climate control at a chilly 60 degrees.

The three flat-screen plasma televisions are tracking different stations by satellite and an ABC staffer is working at a laptop computer that’s up-linked to Madden’s Goal Line Productions office back in Pleasanton, Calif.

The Cruiser is a rolling command post, with high-speed Internet access, multiple TVs, a navigation system, cell phones and a fax all in satellite contact with the outside world.

“We don’t stop any more to set up a satellite dish or make a phone call,” says agent Sandy Montag. “We don’t need to. We keep rolling. It used to be that we didn’t use the satellite very much because we had to stop to set it up.

“We don’t like to stop, and we have rules. We don’t wait for anyone, we go 1,000 miles on a tank of diesel and we finish any bottle of water we start.”

Sockless, despite the on-board chill, Madden takes a slug of his 48-ounce water bottle.

“I used to get on the airplane, then I’d get off the airplane. I’d go to the hotel and the stadium, then back to the airplane. I traveled all over, but I didn’t see anything. Now, I do,” he says in that familiar, confiding voice.

John Madden with Tom Sorrells, CEO of Motor Coach Industries, the creator of John’s ‘bus’

It was back in 1979 that the poster child for the claustrophobic, fear-of-flying set had what he described as “a full-blown panic attack” when about to fly out of Tampa.

“It wasn’t about flying, bad turbulence or anything. The flight attendant closed the door and before we’d even moved I knew I had to get off the plane, but I gutted it out. You think you’re going to die. I was sweating, shaking, the whole thing.

“It was about being encased and not being able to get out.”

Madden landed, turned in his frequent flier card, and grounded himself forever.

First, he tried Amtrak, but when trains didn’t go where he wanted, he hired a motor coach. Soon, he traded promotional appearances for a custom Greyhound and boarded the first Madden Cruiser.

Today, he’s on his fourth, an E4500 Entertainer made by Motor Coach Industries of Schaumburg, Ill., and complete with bedroom (the queen-sized air mattress is set at ‘firm’), guest bunks and polished granite-topped galley with a double oven, electric stove and side-by-side fridge.

A generator big enough to power a 5,000-square-foot house powers it all.

There’s also a high-tech office, two bathrooms and an extra- large steam shower and sauna — everything finished in rosewood and glove leather.

The luxury-suite-on-wheels comes courtesy of a promotional agreement with Outback Steakhouse, and Madden makes a point of visiting as many of the 1,000 U.S. outlets as he can during his odysseys. After nine years with the company, he guesses he’s half way through the list.

But he still loves the greasy-spoon diners, back-road barbecue cafes and home-cooking food joints he finds on America’s highways.

“I like to go into small towns and find a new place. In Mississippi, I’ve got a seafood place I go to,” he says. “In Van Horn, Texas, it’s Chuy’s. We always call ahead and Mama Chuy makes a chicken dish with beans and rice, and she makes her own tortillas.

“In California, in Los Banos on Interstate Highway 5, our first stop is the Woolgrowers, a Basque restaurant. In Georgia, there’s a place called The Georgia Pig, that’s just barbecue.”

Madden wanders back to his office, scans the TV screens and starts reading sports reports, readying for his work at the Giants’ game.

Madden’s longtime drivers, Willie Yarbrough and Joe Mitchell, are always at the controls of the Cruiser. It’s 13 feet high, weighs 45,000 pounds, has a 200-gallon fuel tank and gets about six miles per gallon.

Operating costs aren’t discussed, but industry insiders say a luxury coach like this rents for $450 a day plus fuel, maintenance, insurance and driver salaries. A few other odds and ends help push the cost well over a dollar a mile, or say $4,000 for a one-way, cross-country trip.

That’s small change for Madden, who’s reputed to make about $40 million a year from his broadcasting, video games and Ace Hardware and Outback Steakhouse endorsements.

“If it’s a short trip, say from New York to Philadelphia, the bus is full, a rolling party,” says Montag. “But when it’s all the way across country, New York to San Francisco, there’s usually about three people aboard.”

A rolling command post has its virtues, as well as being a people mover, Montag says.

“In San Diego the other week, the NFL announced at 7 p.m. on Sunday that the San Diego-Miami game would be moved to Arizona because of wildfires in California. By 7.30 p.m., John was on the Cruiser headed for Tempe.

“They arrived at 3.30 a.m., Monday and a few hours later were ready to broadcast!”

Back on Sept. 11 when the World Trade Center towers were attacked, Madden was in New York, where he has an apartment. The football game was canceled and he readied himself for a trip back to California.

His management group called to say that flight cancellations had left ice queen Peggy Fleming stranded in Pennsylvania and could John give her a ride back to her Los Gatos, Calif., home?

Big John collected the Olympic legend and as they drove through Nebraska, they stopped at a small store near Omaha to buy American flags for the bus.

“The guy couldn’t believe that Peggy Fleming and John Madden had just walked in. He begged: ‘As you leave town, drive by the store and honk at me!'”

As the Cruiser rolls east across the Sierra Nevada on Interstate Highway 80, Madden retreats to his bedroom for a nap. Even the queen-sized bed is special; it has an air mattress from Select Comfort that the manufacturer scrambled to fit.

“John heard about the air mattress, tried it and liked it,” says Chuck Dorsey, president of the Minneapolis sleep company. “The problem was coordinating its installation in the Cruiser, as it’s on the road all the time.”

A crew contacted the bus somewhere in Wyoming and when Madden arrived for playoffs in the Twin Cities, workers took out the innerspring and installed the new air bed while the game went on.

Dawn comes up as the Cruiser passes the Black Hills, and Madden is on the intercom, asking the driver, “Where are we?”

Truckers on the interstate recognize the red-and-yellow rig and radio in to ask driver Yarbrough where Madden’s headed, what game he’s doing.

By midafternoon, already through the Rockies with sightings of antelope, wild horses and prairie dogs, there’s a stop for fuel. The bus is in Nebraska, roughly half way, and Madden takes a 15-minute walk.

He doesn’t seek it, but he is quickly recognized as “The Football Guy”‘ or “The Ace Hardware Guy.” Sometimes, people give him pies or fried chicken. Mostly, they greet him and say how they enjoy listening to his commentaries. He’s friendly, outgoing, approachable, but he’s soon back on the bus.

There’s no exercise equipment on the Cruiser. Madden considered putting a treadmill on board, but it was too big.

“For me, it has to be industrial size,” he sighs.

The drivers grab several local newspapers. Madden, after a steam shower and sauna, downloads other reports from the Internet and starts to do homework as the bus rolls through thickening traffic south of Chicago.

“I’m not a journalist, I’m not an actor. I’m a football coach doing television,” he says. “It’s fun. It’s my life, my passion. I’ll do it as long as I can.”

Madden’s driver stays far south of Lake Michigan and skirts I-80 — a standing order, as the highway invariably seems to have construction delays. Then, it’s through the fall foliage of Indiana and Pennsylvania.

Madden, lolling in the front seat with his feet on the windshield, nods at the colors.

“People pay money to see scenes like this,” he says. “You only get to see America driving through places like Nebraska for eight hours.

“This is seeing our country. I’ve always said a congressman should ride across country. Not drive, because you can’t see when you drive, you have to ride. You have to be a witness to America.”

It’s Friday afternoon, and the Cruiser is touching down, pulling into Manhattan. Madden will sleep at his apartment, ready himself for Monday night’s analysis and banter, ride the brightly-painted Cruiser to Giants’ stadium and greet a throng of eager fans.

Game over, he’ll snack, shower and sleep on the bus as it threads its way out of the city and starts again to cross the huge spaces of America’s heartland. He’ll travel from stadium to shining stadium, from Mile High to Lambeau, Qualcomm to Candlestick. It’s all in a season’s work for the coast-to-coast commuter.