John Madden, who died on Tuesday at the age of 85, was known to yell at players and officials during his days as the Oakland Raiders’ head coach. But he also showed, in quiet moments away from the TV cameras, a decency for the players who sacrificed their bodies for the sport Madden loved so much.
George Blanda, the Hall of Famer who played 26 seasons, longer than anyone else in NFL history, said of Madden in 1979, “Of all the coaches I ever slaved for, John Madden was the kindest and the most thoughtful.”
But it was one act of kindness in particular that many recalled about Madden after his death: The care he showed for Darryl Stingley, a New England Patriots player who suffered a life-changing spinal cord injury in a preseason game against Madden’s Raiders in 1978.
When Madden learned of the severity of Stingley’s injury after the game, he went straight to the Oakland-area hospital where Stingley had been taken. When Madden arrived he was angered to learn that Patriots head coach Chuck Fairbanks was flying home with the rest of the team, as Madden felt that Fairbanks should have stayed with Stingley until Stingley’s family could arrive. A 1979 New York Times article reported that Madden got someone at the airport on the phone and barked, “You get Chuck Fairbanks off that plane.”
A Sports Illustrated profile of Madden in 1983 reported that when Stingley’s family did arrive, Madden and his wife offered to let the family stay in their home and use their car as long as Stingley was in the hospital. Madden also took time away from the Raiders’ training camp to make regular visits to Stingley. After the Raiders played the Broncos in the regular-season opener that year, they flew home from Denver and Madden went straight from the airport to the hospital to see Stingley.
Madden retired from coaching at the end of that season, and although Madden never said so, some who knew him felt the distress he felt about Stingley’s injury contributed to his decision to step away.
Stingley would never walk again, and he died in 2007 at the age of 55. In his autobiography, Stingley wrote of Madden, “I love that man.” Stingley could have been speaking for the whole football world.
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