Life on the Madden Cruiser

What’s the most famous bus in the NFL?

Some Steeler fans might disagree (see Jerome Bettis), but for most of us (even in Pittsburgh), the answer is:  John Madden’s bus.

The pros agree too.  This year, the (original) Madden bus went into the NFL Hall of Fame.

Technically, it was called the “Madden Cruiser”, and on the outside, it looked like a converted Greyhound bus, which is what it was.

But inside – well, a ride on the ‘Hound’ never looked like this.

      (Photo from Pro Football Hall of Fame)

We’ll get to that interior in a moment. But first, the story of how John Madden came to be on the bus.

“People used to say to me, ‘It must be great coaching and traveling and seeing all the things you do,’ … Well, I’d get on the airplane, and then I’d get off the airplane, get on a bus and go to the hotel. Then the stadium, then the airplane again. I thought I’d traveled all over, but I hadn’t seen anything. You’ve got to be on the ground to see things.”

That’s how he told it to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, when King rode the bus with Madden – Oakland, California to New York for a 1990 Giants-Cowboys game.

In the beginning, Madden did fly. But a recurring claustrophobia put an end to that. Then he rode the train. But the train schedules weren’t flexible enough for his schedule. And so in 1987, the Madden Cruiser hit the road for the first time – logging 55,000 miles that season.

Naturally, this was no ordinary bus. It came with a bedroom (queen-sized bed), full bathroom, kitchenette and – and a built-in vacuum cleaner! On the end, there were two color TVs, phone, intercom, CB radio, two laser-disc players, a stereo system and a videotape machine (remember, this was 1987).

But if Madden started riding the bus out of necessity, he came to love it, and the country it took him through.

“We had to stop in Beaver Crossing, Nebraska [pop. 480] once, to use the phone for the radio show* … Some guy comes across the street from a gas station and introduces himself. Roger Hannon. He was the mayor, and it was his gas station. The next thing I know, we’re in front of the city hall, and the people start coming out, and they want to see the bus. One woman brought me a rhubarb pie. I didn’t even know what rhubarb pie was, but it was great. The whole town came out.”

Madden developed an appetite for seeing the country – the mountains, the prairies, the big sky – and he had an appetite for all the small town cafes, the diners, the Grandpa’s Steakhouses and Chuy’s along the way. See the country he did too, over two decades and four different editions of the Madden Cruiser. When Madden hung up his broadcaster’s mic in 2009, the buses were racking up 80,000 miles a year.

(Photo from Bus Digest Magazine)

Over those years of course, the bus had changed a bit (by 2009, Madden didn’t have to stop at a gas station to use the phone anymore).  But what never changed was life on the road.

You can follow the road, wherever the road goes.  You can stop whenever you want.  You can see whatever there is to see.  As long as there’s a town, there’s food.  As long as there’s a gas station, there’s fuel.  And that’s as true for any of us, as it was for John Madden.

“If the claustrophobia thing didn’t happen, I wouldn’t know what this country is, or what these people are like.  I would have been like everybody else:  run, run, run.  Airport, airport, airport.  Hotel, hotel, hotel.  City, city, city.  I wouldn’t have found time to see things like I see them now.”

Madden also had one other inspiration for taking the bus.

Almost thirty years earlier, novelist John Steinbeck set out around the country in a camper – and those trips became his book, “Travels With Charley” (Charley the dog).  “Travels with Charley influenced me a lot … I always wanted to travel, because I’d never seen anything.  He was a great storyteller, John Steinbeck.  I read everything of his.”

Steinbeck’s book is a classic road story.  But, let’s save that story for another time.

By the way, it isn’t just the Madden Cruiser that’s in the Hall of Fame.  John Madden is there too.  No, not for Madden NFL.  Before the video game, before the broadcasting career – Madden was a Super Bowl-winning coach.  The Hall of Fame will catch you up on that part of his story here:  John Madden.