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Raiders greats remember an icon: ‘I salute Coach Madden’

Players and colleagues mourn the great John Madden, who died Tuesday at age 85

Oakland Raiders
John Madden, Phil Villapiano
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

If you ever talk to a Raiders’ great, you know one thing — they all consider themselves family for the rest of their lives.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the Raiders family suffered a great loss when word broke that legendary Super Bowl-winning Oakland Raiders coach John Madden died at the age of 85. Silver and Black Pride caught up with some Raiders legends to get their thoughts on the loss of their coach and colleague.

Here’s our collection of remembrances:

Tom Flores:
Flores and Madden knew each other for 49 years. Flores was Madden’s wide receiver coach from 1972-78, before taking over as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 1979 after Madden retired from a 10-year career as a head coach.

“I worked next to him for seven years, night and day,” Flores said by phone on Tuesday night. “If you worked for the Raiders, you worked and John worked ... That’s what you got with John. It wasn’t always fun, but we worked ... He was fun after the games.”

Flores, 84, heard about Madden’s death from a mutual friend. While they remained friends, Flores bemoaned that he didn’t get to spend as much time with Madden in later years. Madden was famous from his fear of flying, so the two rarely saw each other in the past several years.

“John was always on the freeways and not planes,” Flores said. “We went to our golf tournaments over the years and would send our ‘hellos’ through friends, but I mostly saw him on TV like everyone else.”

I asked Flores what he learned from Madden when he took over as head coach of the Raiders. Flores said he had pondered that thought all day Tuesday.

“He showed me the way to deal with (Raiders’ owner) Al Davis and that wasn’t always easy,” Flores said. “Al could be extremely difficult, but John showed me the way to handle it and it helped me a lot.”

Lester Hayes Raiders vs Dolphins
Lester Hayes
Photo by Getty Images/Bob Riha, Jr.

Lester Hayes:
Lester Hayes remembers his first day of training camp in Santa Rosa, California, in 1977 like it was yesterday. He was a fifth-round pick out of Texas A&M, where he was a former linebacker and strong safety for the Aggies. Hayes wanted to stay at safety, but Madden had other ideas. He worked out at cornerback that first day and he was crestfallen, Hayes explained by phone Tuesday night.

“I went to coach Madden after that first practice and begged him to let me play strong safety,” Hayes said. “Guess what Coach Madden did? He laughed and said ‘no way.’ He said I had great feet and I ran a 4.3 40. I was staying a cornerback. Guess what I did? I cried. I cried like a baby right there on the field after my first day.”

Madden then sent future Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown to go get Hayes from the locker room. Hayes was already out of his uniform.

Minnesota Vikings vs Oakland Raiders, Super Bowl XI
Willie Brown helps seal John Madden’s Super Bowl win with a Pick Six
Set Number: X21110

“Coach Madden, oh my God, he sent in No. 24, the godfather of the bump-and-run coverage,” Hayes said. “He said ‘Get dressed.’ Willie Brown told me to get dressed, so I got dressed. he took me out to the field and we worked on bump-and-run coverage. It all changed then ... Thank God, Coach Madden did that.”

Hayes went on to become an All-Pro cornerback and one of the greatest to ever play the position.

“Coach Madden had a God-given gift to help people,” Hayes said. “He was not normal. I salute Coach Madden ... Every player he ever had loves John Madden. I’m hurting so much. I loved him, loved him.”

Phil Villapiano
The superstar linebacker, who played eight years for Madden, heard from his children Tuesday evening about the passing of his former coach. He immediately called one of Madden’s sons, Joey.

“Joey told me that his dad loved me and all of his former Raiders’ players as much as he did him and brother because we were all his sons,” Villapiano said from his East Coast home. “I thought that was really something special.”

As he spoke, Villapiano said he was enjoying a “big glass of red wine in honor of my big, red-haired coach.”

Villapiano laughed that Madden never said a word to him as a rookie until a game at Denver. Madden, famous for ragging on the officials, was penalized twice for 15 yards for harassing the officials. The Broncos were within striking distance of winning the game, but Villapiano saved the game with an interception.

“He came up to me on the bus and smiled and said ‘thanks for bailing me out,’ I have bosses, too,” Madden said. “With the Raiders back then, you had to earn your place and I guess I earned it that day.”

Villapiano also recalled that he heard rumors in 1974 that he was about to be sent to the Green Bay Packers. He was upset and let it be known.

“Coach came up to me and said ‘what’s the matter with you,’” Villapiano said. “‘I heard I’m going to Green Bay and I don’t want to go.’ He said, ‘this does not go beyond these doors, but if you go, I go — now get the fuck out of my office’ ... I left that meeting so excited. I tackled everything in sight. I wanted to show I wanted to stay an Oakland Raider.”

Villapiano called Madden a great “psychiatrist.” He said he knew how to push each player’s buttons and his slumps always ended with a Madden pep talk.”

“To me, he was the top figure in the history of the NFL,” Villapiano said. “If John Madden gave a shit about you, you were in good shape.”