Behind the scenes with the NFL crew from FOX: 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 has been the principal producer for the past 20 seasons. He has over 40 years of league experience and has produced six Super Bowls. During the 2022 NFL season, he will provide a glimpse as FOX’s new NFL #1 team makes its way to Super Bowl LVII.

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

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

This was the first Thanksgiving without John, who died in December. The NFL appropriately chose its 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 good friend

In 1982, in my second season as a very young broadcaster at CBS Sports, I was traveling around the country.

That year’s Thanksgiving game featured a sophomore phenomenon named Lawrence Taylor, whose New York Giants took on the Detroit Lions at the Pontiac Silverdome.

While Pat Summerall and John Madden called out Super Bowl XVI in that same stadium last January, this was their first full season together as CBS lead crew.

Producer Bob Stenner and director Sandy Grossman rounded out what would become the production crew’s Mount Rushmore. I really walked among giants.

Little did I know that 39 years of close friendship with Madden lay in my future. I could never have imagined walking him in cities across America, introducing him to kosher delicacies and pizza on New York’s Upper West Side, playing poker in his apartment at the Dakota (see Lennon, John for historical references) and driving his Maddencruiser bus from here from one end of the country to the other, telling stories and laughing the whole time.

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

It was a great friendship that I think about every day.

John Madden Thanksgiving tribute

John Madden Thanksgiving tribute

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

Towards 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 dinner with his crew.

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

“Enough from me, come back to cover the game.”

A very special day

I received a text message from Mike Madden, John’s eldest son, during our show. He said the day had been “amazing, humbling”. I was proud that we were able to celebrate his father with kind thoughts and words and some memorable video clips. Director Rich Russo and I donned All Madden jerseys as our personal tribute 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 wore a classic All Madden sweatshirt in 1991

Strain the BBQ sauce

Normally we would have celebrated Thanksgiving on Tuesday night with a crew dinner and party. Unfortunately, our trucks had quite a drive from New York to Arlington, where we broadcast the Cowboys’ win over the Giants, and Tuesday turned into a long workday at AT&T Stadium. Wednesday didn’t work because the halftime rehearsal with the Jonas Brothers kept the crew busy until the early evening.

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

John Madden would have agreed—the man knew ribs.

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