Bus rides with John Madden during his broadcast career meant learning plays and plenty of food

It was 8 on a fall morning in the late-1980s, and Lesley Visser was doing what she did dozens of times for a decade, hailing a cab from her Upper East Side New York City neighborhood to cross Central Park to meet a bus parked outside the venerable Dakota apartment building by 10 a.m. This wasn’t just any old bus. It was the one with John Madden inside.

The trip through the park took approximately 10 minutes, so Visser had built in a significant cushion for bad traffic and wrong turns, with good reason.

“If you were not there at 10, he left without you,” Visser said over the phone Wednesday. “That was one of several of his rules: There would be no complaining, no saying it was too hot or too cold. You’d talk football and you’d look out the window. But most important was ‘Wheels up at 10.’”

Wheels up — for a bus, said by a man who wouldn’t fly.

John Madden practices the electronic charting device Telestrator on Jan. 21, 1982, in Pontiac, Mich., for an upcoming Super Bowl broadcast on CBS.
John Madden practices the electronic charting device Telestrator on Jan. 21, 1982, in Pontiac, Mich., for an upcoming Super Bowl broadcast on CBS.

Visser, a sports television trailblazer who worked with Madden for 10 years on CBS’s NFL broadcasts, said “America lost a family member” when her dear friend and colleague died Tuesday at the age of 85.

As the cornfields and barns rolled by outside the windows of the Madden Cruiser, Visser sat with Madden watching video tapes of NFL game film on a TV set, back and forth, over and over again.

“He would play Washington’s counter trey, Joe Gibbs’ misdirection run play, and then I would have to diagram it,” she said. “The running back would take a step to the left to draw the defense that way, then left tackle Joe Jacoby and left guard Russ Grimm would pull to the right. John got really upset if I didn’t understand that the fullback would replace the guard as a blocker or where the tight end was supposed to be.”

MADDEN NFL: How legend got involved with popular video game

TRIBUTE: Madden will live forever because his influence was so great

After several run-throughs, Madden stopped the tape and told Visser to diagram what she had just seen. She grabbed a pen and a paper placemat and got to work, “circles for offense, squares for defense, the way it’s done, of course” she said.

As she finished, Madden looked at her work, then uttered one simple sentence:

“I don’t think this play has ever been seen in the history of the NFL.”

Said Visser: “Maybe I had the nose tackle over the tight end, but I definitely had something wrong, so he hit play and we watched it a few more times until I was able to get it right.”

Madden enjoyed teaching the intricacies of the game as much as Visser enjoyed learning them.

“He taught me that you must be an intentional observer, that details are so important,” she said. “He really raised my game on that. He saw everything. He was a teacher, that’s what he was. He was a coach but he really was a teacher."

There was a lot of learning going on in the cruiser, but there might have been even more eating. The bus always made the trip to Dallas for the Thanksgiving game, and invariably some of the Cowboys poked their heads in after the game to grab some food before heading home.

“There was a lot of food out for Thanksgiving, and they ate it,” Visser said. “John knew that my favorite was sweet potatoes with marshmallows, so he made sure they hid some of that from the players.”

Sometimes the bus rides were short and direct, from New York to Philadelphia or Washington. Other times, “we would go around Salt Lake City to get to Candlestick,” Visser said.

If Madden spotted a lighted field out the window, he’d ask his driver to stop. “One time we went to a high school baseball game,” she said. “Another time, we stopped in at a practice at West Point. He really enjoyed doing that.”

Madden also didn’t mind sitting on a park bench and watching the world go by. “He loved benches,” Visser said. “He would just sit on a bench outside the hotel in Green Bay, or he’d sit on a bench outside the Dakota when he lived there. He’d sit there and talk to people. He didn’t care if you were a cab driver or a king.”

It must have been quite a sight: the 6-4, heavy-set, famously rumpled John Madden, just hanging out on the sidewalks of New York.

“He acknowledged that he looked like an unmade bed,” Visser said. “In fact, he said one time, a bum came up to him and gave him a dollar!”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: John Madden's bus trips meant learning plays and plenty of food