The dirty little secret was Broncos’ Public Enemy No. 1 sneaked back into Denver two months after Super Bowl XII and checked into the modernistic cylindrical hotel adjacent to Mile High Stadium.
John Madden and I had lunch in the restaurant atop the Holiday Inn.
The Oakland Raiders coach returned the scene of what he called “The New Year’s Day crime, dammit.’’
He defiantly pointed out the massive window in the direction of the stadium. “It was a *#%&ing fumble! Right there. It was just like that other time in Pittsburgh. We should have gone to the Super Bowl. We would have whipped the Cowboys. We would be World Champions -- again."
Then he added: “Boom.’’
The big bear of a man leaned back in his chair, and, suddenly wearing an expressive, expansive smile, said: “Let’s get dessert,’’ he said.
John Madden was The Man For All Reasons.
After John was hired by Al Davis in 1969 as pro football’s youngest coach, at 32, his Raiders didn’t lose a regular-season game at old Mile High Stadium for nine consecutive years.
There was one tie (23-23) in the first Monday night game ever in Denver on Oct. 22, 1973. Nobody realized then that Raiders-Broncos games would become a Monday night favorite 19 times, and Madden eventually would become a legendary color analyst regularly on broadcasts of the two vituperative ex-AFL rivals.
Back in the bad Broncos days the Raiders would treat them like a borrowed burro. In 1975 Bob King, Nuggets media relations director, asked if I’d like to meet his buddy John Madden before the Broncos-Raiders game. We shared steaks and stories at the Raiders’ downtown hotel. Madden had been an assistant coach and King the sports information director at San Diego State in the 1960s under head coach Don Coryell.
On Nov. 2, 1975, Madden’s team, with quarterback Kenny Stabler, busted the Broncos 42-17. Afterward Madden told me he hated Mile High Stadium. “Worst fans (in the South Stands). They’re always throwing stuff when I come out of the locker room. But we’re always beating their butts.’’
However, he wasn’t very talkative following the 1977 Oct. 17 game in Oakland when each team was 4-0 and the defending world champion Raiders were on a 17-game winning streak. The Broncos, under new coach Red Miller, intercepted Stabler seven times and blew out the Raiders 30-7. After one pick, Broncos’ linebacker Tom Jackson ran by Madden on the sideline and shouted: “It’s all over, Fat Man.’’
The teams played again two weeks later, and the Raiders prevailed as usual in Denver, 24-14.
They met for a third time Jan. 1 at Mile High Stadium. It was Oakland’s fifth straight conference championship, the Broncos’ first in franchise history.
I flew to Oakland the week of the game and drove to the Raiders’ headquarters to interview Madden and players. But Al Davis accused me of being a Broncos’ spy and had me removed from the practice field. In the parking lot a ballboy sent by Madden gave me a note saying we could meet later at a nearby bar. As we talked five players, including Stabler, joined us for beers.
The Raiders scored first in the game with a field goal, but the Broncos took the lead with a 74-yard touchdown pass play. In the third quarter the Broncos reached the Raiders’ 1-yard line, and running back Rob Lytle hit the middle and fumbled. Mike McCoy of the Raiders recovered in mid-air and began running for what would have been a 99-yard go-ahead touchdown. But the officials never saw or signaled fumble. The Broncos scored on the next play for a 14-3 advantage.
In the final quarter Oakland made it 14-10, but Denver countered with a TD. The Raiders would produce another touchdown, but the Broncos held on for a 20-17 victory and advancement to the Super Bowl. Madden obviously was irate. “Our guy came out with the football, and there was only one damned football.”
Madden retired as a coach after his 10th season -- 1978. His record was 103-32-1 (and the highest winning percentage ever). But his career as the most influential man in professional sports was just beginning. To one generation John would be remembered as a Hall of Fame football coach. To the next he was the most renowned NFL broadcaster of all time. And to the latest generation Madden is the name for the greatest football video game.
In 2005 John and I appeared at a promotional event at New York City’s Lincoln Center for employers Disney/ABC/ESPN. Back stage, John glared at me and roared in one of the most famous and treasured voices in American history: “It was a *#%&ing fumble!"
You were right, John. Peace.