John Madden took a flight from Tampa Bay to San Francisco in 1979. He only made it to Houston before he disembarked the plane.
It marked the final time that Madden would fly.
Madden controlled his fear of flying during his 10-year NFL coaching career, but he gave up on the practice as a broadcaster. Instead, he rode to games in his “Madden Cruiser,” a luxury bus designed to allow him to get from place to place without flying. It gave him a chance to roam the country and experience various parts of America while he was on the road.
How did the Madden Cruiser come to be? And what led John Madden to stop flying during his post-coaching days? Here’s everything you need to know about Madden’s unusual travel set up and why it worked out perfectly for him.
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Why John Madden didn’t fly
Over the years, many have pointed to the California Polytechnic State University football team plane crash that occurred on Oct. 29, 1960, as something that keyed Madden’s aversion to flying. Madden had graduated Cal Poly in 1958 and lost friends in the crash, which killed 22 of the 48 people on board.
However, Madden admitted in 2008 that his fear of flying predated the incident. It was actually caused by claustrophobia.
“I didn’t like getting on planes before that,” Madden said, per NBC Sports. “I got claustrophobic, and it got worse over the years.”
Madden was able to fly during his coaching career, which spanned 1969 through 1978, but his fear became too much once he became a broadcaster. He last flew in 1979. He was on a flight from Tampa Bay to San Francisco when he had a panic attack after the flight attendant closed the cabin door.
“I could do one of two things,” Madden said of the incident in 2000, per the Baltimore Sun. “I could make a jerk out of myself and jump up and run, because I knew they couldn’t stop me. There’s no way, if I wanted to get off, in that state, that they could stop me. If I committed myself to getting off, I was going to get off.”
Madden instead elected to gut it out and got off the plane in Houston. After that, he committed to traveling by train and bus for the rest of his career.
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How the “Madden Cruiser” came to be
Madden spent the first six years of his post-flying broadcasting career traveling across the country by train and bus. However, he preferred busing places when he could, as it allowed him to see more of the country.
“People used to say to me, ‘It must be great coaching and traveling and seeing all the things you do,’” Madden told Peter King in 1990. “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.”
Madden’s preference for bus travel wasn’t known until 1987. Once it was revealed in an interview, then-CBS executive producer Terry O’Neil rented Dolly Parton’s tour bus for Madden during a week in which he had to work football games in Atlanta and Philadelphia as well as a billiards event in Las Vegas, per the Baltimore Sun. Madden enjoyed that arrangement, and that led to the birth of the “Madden Cruiser.”
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The Madden Cruiser was a luxury bus that Madden took around the country to get to the NFL games he was calling. It was given to him by Greyhound bus lines as part of a 1987 endorsement deal that covered all expenses for the bus, including a personal driver.
The Madden Cruiser became the broadcaster’s preferred method of travel, and he has put hundreds of thousands of miles on his buses over the years. It also became a legend in the NFL community, as Madden often hosted meetings and interviews on the bus during his career.
The original iteration of the Madden Cruiser was brought to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.