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Alan Pergament: John Madden memories with a Buffalo flavor – wings, weather and a rare crushing defeat

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John Madden on the day he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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The death of the legendary NFL coach, broadcaster and pitchman John Madden led me to refresh my memory over conversations with him and stories about him with a distinct Buffalo flavor.

Let’s call it an All-Madden column.

The University of Mars Game: There weren’t many “Boom!” days of Madden involving the Buffalo Bills here as a broadcaster.

It wasn’t because he didn’t want to make the 2,609-mile bus ride on his Madden Cruiser from California to Western New York.

"No, no, that has never been an excuse," he said before the Buffalo Bills-Washington Super Bowl in 1992. "The Madden Cruiser can get there. I'll guarantee you that. If the Madden Cruiser can go ice fishing in Minnesota, it can get to Buffalo. And be happy. And get those chicken wings ready."

He wasn’t here often primarily because he was at CBS and Fox when the networks were aligned with the National Football Conference. The Bills weren’t very good or deserving of prime time when he was the analyst on ABC’s Monday Night Football and NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

His most memorable game here was when he coached Oakland and the Raiders came to Orchard Park to play the Bills on MNF. The Bills’ 21-20 win in 1974 was Madden’s only loss in 13 appearances as the Raiders' coach on Monday nights.

"I remember that loss to Buffalo more than any of the wins," Madden said during a game and a conference call.

Bills quarterback Joe Ferguson hit receiver Ahmad Rashad with a 13-yard touchdown pass with 26 seconds left to give the Bills the victory only 48 seconds after Oakland took the lead.

It also was the night that MNF analyst Alex Karras made his debut as an analyst and made his career with one remark. During a timeout, the camera focused on the Raiders' Otis Sistrunk, a menacing-looking man with a shaved head.

"That's Otis Sistrunk," said Karras. "From the University of Mars."

Madden remembered another remark that night from Howard Cosell, the late legendary MNF analyst.

"I saw him in the parking lot and he said, 'That was a great game, you gave us quite a show,' " Madden said. "I said, 'Show, my ---. We lost a game.' "

Meeting Jim Kelly: Madden did so few Bills games as a broadcaster that some fans might have questioned whether he would recognize a Bill if he bumped into one. That theory was put to the test in the early 1990s when Madden ran into Kelly.

"I met Kelly standing in line to go to the bathroom at the Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard fight in Las Vegas," explained Madden. "Kelly was behind me. He tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and thought, 'This guy looks like a tackle.' I didn't realize he was that big.” He should have seen Josh Allen in person.

Madden’s Self-Analysis: Madden told me before the Bills’ 37-24 Super Bowl loss to Washington in 1992 that he graded his performance after looking at the next morning's newspaper to see if he addressed everything important being discussed. It was the standard that analysts are judged. Madden usually graded an A.

Before the Bills' loss, Madden was careful to avoid implying the game wouldn't be close. After Washington dominated, he said he expected it.

When the game was out of hand, Madden was there with his entertaining Maddenisms. After the Redskins' Mark Rypien was sandwiched by the Bills, Madden, joked: "(Darryl) Talley was the bread, Rypien was the bologna."

The only thing that usually was missing from Madden's calls was the criticism of coaching decisions and players that inevitably ran in newspaper columns the next day.

Madden was more of a storyteller and friend of the league than a critic.

My reviews of Madden's work were generally favorable, but I was wrong about his move from Fox to ABC's Monday Night Football in 2002 at age 65. I said it would have been a good idea several years earlier and added his act had grown stale. However, the move to Monday nights seemed to re-energize him.

The Wickie Moment: During the Bills' 10-7 upset victory of the Cowboys in 1996, Madden made the comical suggestion that Western New York is famous for its "beef on wickie" sandwich. At the time, I suggested it was either out of ignorance of Western New York cuisine or because he wanted to rhyme it with "lookie," his pet name for a look-in pass.

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Now That’s an Embarrassment: The word was tossed around this season after the Bills lost, 14-10, to a New England team that only passed three times in terrible weather conditions.

That was nothing compared to the Bills’ SNF game against the unbeaten New England Patriots in 2007 that was Madden’s last game here.

After driving 2,609 miles in his Madden Cruiser to get here, he played the same optimistic card he did before the 1992 Super Bowl.

Asked what he really thought of the Bills' chances, Madden said: "There is a way they could make it close." He said they just needed to run back a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns.

It didn’t happen. The Patriots won, 56-10, in what Tom Brady has described as his perfect game. Needless to say, it was embarrassing for the Bills.

Funniest Retirement Story: It was hard to avoid laughter when reading various blogs about Madden’s retirement announcement in 2009 that claimed he started his coaching career at Buffalo State College.

It came from a Wikipedia item that claimed Madden was coaching at Buffalo State while he was getting his master's degree at Cal Poly.

As absurd as it sounded, I still had to check its accuracy. I called Larry Felser, the longtime NFL writer for The Buffalo News. "Not a chance," said Felser. "His whole life was spent on the West Coast."

A Buffalo State spokesperson said the college started its football program in 1981, more than 20 years after Madden supposedly coached there.

What’s in a Name: He did visit the Bills preseason camp before doing a Bills game in Toronto in 1995 that required the Madden Cruiser to enter Canada for the first time.

"I didn't know what to bring,” said Madden. “Everybody is saying a passport. I've never had a passport. I don't fly. Then they said, 'Just bring your birth certificate.' Like you carry a birth certificate around."

He received a copy of his birth certificate from the Minnesota county where he was born. After he pulled it from his pocket, I asked to look at it.

"Sure, I don't have any secrets," said Madden.

Well, almost no secrets. The birth certificate for Madden, then 59, revealed that his full name is John Earl Madden. How many people know his middle name?

"Not many," said Madden.

His Buffalo Finale: When Madden came to Buffalo in 1996 for the game with the Cowboys, he was looking forward to more than the game.

"I love Buffalo chicken wings,” said Madden in a telephone interview. “I have them all over the country, but I've never had them in Buffalo. I don't know if what I am eating and what I like are real Buffalo chicken wings. Usually, you have the real things first. I don't know what I'm missing and I can't compare."

Upon his return in 2007 for the first time in 11 years for the SNF game with the Patriots, he extolled Buffalo. It was his final game here.

"When you think of the top venues, you think Buffalo, Green Bay, Kansas City," Madden told me. "It feels half like a college game, half like a pro game. That's a pretty good mixture."

"The last time [1996] I was there the big thing was chicken wings. You had to go to Buffalo. Now they have Buffalo chicken wings in every restaurant in the country."

However, he conceded you only get the real McCoy here.

Like the chicken wing in Buffalo, Madden was the real McCoy.

He gave Buffalonians “quite a show.”

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TV Critic

Alan Pergament has had a variety of roles at The News since 1970, including as a news and sports reporter. He has been the TV columnist since 1982, with more than year off for good behavior. He is a member of the national Television Critics Association.

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