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Coaching icons Madden, Robinson shared lifelong bond

To most, John Madden was a great football coach or a great broadcast analyst or the great, big, smiling face around which an iconic video game bearing his name (and ample torso) was built.

But to John Robinson, Madden was a friend before he was any of those things.

“We met in the third or fourth grade at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Daly City, California, … and after all these years, we still called each other the best of friends,” the former Southern California, Los Angeles Rams and UNLV head coach said of his Raiders Hall of Fame contemporary and transcendent personality who died Tuesday at age 85.

“We went to class together and we both played sports, because that was what you did. We were just a couple of Daly City guys. Wherever there was food, we were hanging out.”

The two briefly went separate ways after grammar school, with Robinson attending Serra High in San Mateo, California, and Madden Sacred Heart in San Francisco and Jefferson High in Daly City. The pals were reunited at the University of Oregon where both played football, although Madden would transfer to Cal Poly where he also starred on the baseball diamond.

“Oh, I think he probably was,” Robinson said about who was the better football player. “He was big and fast — but you probably would not have gotten me to admit that unless it was the present circumstances.”

As accomplished a football coach as Madden was, Robinson said he was a greater judge of people. He said Madden tended to gravitate toward interior linemen.

“He had Kenny Stabler — he was the kind of quarterback he liked, tough guy and all that — but at practice, during calisthenics, he was always standing down by the linemen where most head coaches stand around the quarterbacks and (skill position) guys,” Robinson said.

“He was just a simple, honest guy who had a great intellect and was smarter than hell. He understood human beings. He would walk in a room, look around and knew everything about the people in it. He understood people, and he knew how to motivate them.”

More importantly, Robinson said, he never forgot a friend. Especially if it was one he made in grammar school.

“Last week,” Robinson said about the last time he and Madden spoke. “He said he felt great. We talked about that (All-Madden) special he had on (Christmas day). We talked every other week for 40 years.”

When asked what they usually talked about, Robinson began to chuckle.

“Football, mostly,” he said.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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