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John Madden's celebrity went well beyond the football field

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

To talk more about Madden's legacy, NPR's Eric Deggans joins us now. Hi, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

MCCAMMON: What made him last so long in the public eye, first of all?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, his authenticity and his charm just allowed him to become this really unique pop culture figure. He was this loud, funny, friendly guy who could really sweep you up in his enthusiasm. He hosted "Saturday Night Live" in the '80s. He did a cameo appearance on "The Simpsons." He was in a YouTube video. You know, he was famous as a pitchman for products like Miller Lite and Ace Hardware. Stand-up comics did impressions of him. You know, that's how well he was known and how distinctive he was.

But his most unlikely success probably came as the face and name of one of the world's most popular video games, "Madden NFL." EA Sports spent years developing the first version of the game with him, which he saw as an opportunity to maybe educate gamers on how football actually works. It first dropped in 1988, and it's since become a title that's worth billions, earning Madden himself at least 150 million.

MCCAMMON: For those who weren't necessarily diehard football fans, he had a way of explaining things in a unique way. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN MADDEN: Watch him, Al. He switches the ball. Now, he's going to unload with that right arm. So Johnson has to get his load ready to go load to load.

MCCAMMON: I want to pause a moment to say that Madden lived long enough to have a slightly more complicated legacy. Tom Goldman noted today that his teams were accused of playing dirty. And as a commentator, he celebrated toughness, big hits, which is to say violence. And people take a different view of football injuries now than they once did. He even had to alter his football video games to take account of concussions. But he endured. How did that happen?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, he came across - he had this attitude like the guy that you were sitting next to at the bar who could explain the game to you, but he had the knowledge of an NFL coach. And again, that idea that he had so much enthusiasm that he made you love the game because you could clearly tell that he loved the game. Of course, it helped that he stopped becoming - he left the world of commentating in 2009, which was, you know, well before we started having these really serious discussions about concussions and, you know, particularly having the NFL pay attention to them. So that helped. But here was a guy who sort of embodied, I think, the enthusiasm for the game and the fans' enthusiasm for the game. And I think that is what endeared him to so many fans who listened to him and even watched him coach.

MCCAMMON: And as we've noted, he reached so many different generations during his career. How did he accomplish that?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, he had three - he had success in three different areas. You know, there were folks who knew him as a coach, which he did for a while. And then later, they were folks who knew him for his decades as a commentator delivering insights about the game. And then there were folks who knew him through the video game. They were even younger. So he had three very distinct generations of fans. And he - you know, I've seen him quoted saying that he could tell who was his fan from where, depending on what they called him - if they called him Coach, if they called him John or if they called him Madden.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thanks so much, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.