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Friday, June 21, 2024

Behind the Scenes with FOX’s NFL crew: Honoring John Madden


By Richie Zyontz
FOX NFL Lead Producer

Editor’s Note: Richie Zyontz has been an NFL producer for FOX since 1994 and the lead producer for the last 20 seasons. He has more than 40 years of experience covering the league and has produced six Super Bowls. Throughout the 2022 NFL season, he will provide an inside look as FOX’s new No. 1 NFL team makes its journey toward Super Bowl LVII.

John Madden didn’t own Thanksgiving. But it was damn close. 

The Pilgrims and Native Americans may have started the tradition, but Madden embraced it with his joyful love of food, family and football. 

This was the first Thanksgiving without John, who passed away in December. The NFL very appropriately chose his favorite holiday to honor him, commemorating his impact on football during all three Thursday games. Fans were reminded of the special relationship they had with the greatest analyst to ever wear a headset. 

For me, it’s a little more personal. 

UNITED STATES – AUGUST 05:  John Madden, former Raiders coach and NFL broadcaster, poses with a bust of himself during his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Photo by Jay Laprete/Bloomberg via Getty Images.)

A great friend 

In 1982, I was in my second season traveling the country as a very young broadcast associate with CBS Sports. 

The Thanksgiving game that year featured a second-year phenom named Lawrence Taylor, whose New York Giants matched up against the Detroit Lions in the Pontiac Silverdome. 

While Pat Summerall and John Madden had called Super Bowl XVI the previous January in that very stadium, this was their first full season together as CBS’ lead crew. 

Producer Bob Stenner and director Sandy Grossman rounded out what would become the Mount Rushmore of production teams. I truly walked among giants. 

Little did I know that 39 years of close friendship with Madden was in my future. Never could I imagine taking walks with him in cities across America, introducing him to kosher delis and pizza on New York’s Upper West Side, playing poker in his apartment at the Dakota (see Lennon, John for historical reference) and riding his Maddencruiser bus from one end of the country to the other, telling stories and laughing the whole time. 

Not to mention that he introduced me to my future wife June, that we got married in 1990 at his home in Danville, Ca. and that he served as my best man. 

It was a great friendship and one I think about every day. 

John Madden Thanksgiving Tribute

Thanksgiving was John Madden’s favorite holiday. This year, the NFL honored the legendary coach and broadcaster.

Near the end of John’s life, I asked him what he missed most about broadcasting. Without missing a beat, his answer was Thanksgiving. 

He loved Thanksgiving football. He loves the players, the coaches, the food, the big holiday meal with his crew. 

During Thursday’s telecast, as we paid tribute to John, I glanced at my phone more than once expecting a test from him: 

“Enough about me, get back to covering the game.” 

A very special day 

I received a text during our broadcast from Mike Madden, John’s oldest son. He said the day had been “amazing, humbling.” I was proud we were able to celebrate his dad with kind thoughts and words as well as some memorable video clips. Director Rich Russo and I donned All-Madden jerseys as our own personal tributes to a man we knew and loved. Today, a new tradition was born —honoring John Madden for the joy he brought us every Thanksgiving. 

Richie Zyontz wearing a vintage All-Madden sweatshirt in 1991

Pass the BBQ sauce 

Normally, we would have celebrated Thanksgiving with a crew meal and party on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, our trucks had quite a haul from New York to Arlington, where we broadcasted the Cowboys’ win over the Giants, and Tuesday became a longer work day at AT&T Stadium. Wednesday didn’t work because the halftime rehearsal with the Jonas Brothers kept the crew occupied until the early evening. 

We called an audible and moved our celebration to Friday night in Kansas City, where we go next for a game Sunday between the Rams and Chiefs. It may not be traditional holiday fare, but you can’t beat the ribs, burnt ends and pulled pork at Jack Stack Barbecue.

John Madden would have approved — the man knew his way around a rack of ribs. 

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