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How John Madden Showed the Way People With Multiple Sclerosis See the World

On December 28, 2021, the bell tolled for John Madden. A lot of bells, actually, and he earned them. He was great at what he did, and he did a lot of it.

Head coach for the champion 1970 Oakland Raiders football team. Ten winning seasons, zero losing seasons. He won three of every four games he coached. On each will one of those games, he’d blow his gasket stalking up and down all 100 yards of the sidelines.

He channeled all of that passion into broadcasting. Commentator John Madden had a blustery style. In his early days in the booth, you could hear his meaty face reddening and blood pressure spiking through the speakers. To him, a routine three-yard run was a small war:

“Look at those linemen — there’s a lot of beef packed on that line! Watch how they power into the defense. Boom! You can hear the bones crunching with your eyes!” Exclamation points, exclamation points, and more exclamation points. The name for it was passion. Sports fans or not, people are attracted to joyous, unbridled passion. And exclamation points!

Over the years Madden mellowed into a knowledgeable teddy bear, great for landing endorsements for garden hoes and low-calorie beers. Then Electronic Arts named a massively successful videogame franchise after him. And then (catch your breath here) at some point his producers pushed into his hand a clever technology that now is so taken for granted that most NFL viewers have no idea that it has anything to do with Madden. The Telestrator let the announcers doodle on your TV picture during play-by-play. With 22 players in motion on every down of football, the Telestrator made a good toy for Professor Madden to explain the action to his audience.

He’d circle the quarterback: “Here’s Montana…”

With lines and X’s, he’d show the design of the play: “… and here the defensive-ends collapsed the pocket on a blitz…”

Then he could break down the results: “…so Montana stepped up in the pocket and boom! he’s got all this open real estate in front of him.”

But the secret history of the Telestrator, my friends, is this: it was not invented by a TV company or a gifted and gregarious football announcer, no! I have it on good authority, and personal experience, that people with chronic illnesses, mobility impairments, and disabilities have been using the Telestrator long before Madden ever uttered his first Boom — in fact, they have used it throughout history, maybe all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. (Exclamation point, exclamation point.) Using the Telestrator is what these mighty people do every day, all the time. To them, seeing circles, arrows and dashes becomes second nature, a way of life.

Let’s go to the tape. Here’s some classic footage from the 80s, before the Telestrator was even born. Here’s a guy in his early 20s, walking into a convenience store late at night: because of chronic fatigue he overslept and the grocery stores are closed. And see this circle right here? That’s his walker, because he has MS. He’s here to buy food, but energy is a problem, so he has to 1) do it safely and 2) in as few steps as possible. How’s he going to play this situation? Let’s look.

— Like an expert coach, he plans the best strategy, the shortest route, the most efficient path to avoid traffic or doubling back: “The milk is here on Aisle 6, but you can’t eat milk — you need cereal! Even better, you need raisin bran because then you don’t have to walk over here to the produce: the fruit’s already in the box! Two food groups in one, Boom! fewer steps. Raisin bran is over here, end of the aisle, and turn left. But that leads you into this pallet of toilet paper that needs to be stocked… and there’s no one around stocking it! Who does that? See this arrow? That’s the clerk, arguing with his girlfriend on the phone — he’s not going to help you. So you have to cut back and go the long way around the Slurpie machine.”

— He’s aware of the condition of the field: “Watch out for this freezer. See the spot I’m circling? That’s leaking water. And over here, a freshly mopped floor. One slip and oof! your season is over.”

— He knows to be prepared: “Exits, exits, always looking for exits. Does the door swing inward, or out? Push-button, automatic, or spring-loaded? Knob or handle? Is it a heavy door? Does it stick? And of course: A-K-W-T-B! You know what that means, don’t you? ‘ALWAYS KNOW WHERE’S THE BATHROOM!'”

Do you get the idea? Good. For the next play, let’s fast-forward a couple of decades and watch the same guy in a wheelchair, stopping in at a friend’s party after a million invitations because he doesn’t want to be rude and plumb ran out of excuses not to:

— First thing, check the turf: “I’m circling this sprawling throw rug because throw rugs squirrel up and can be a major obstacle. Players want to avoid this hazard. Things are getting sticky already.”

— Scout the defensive formations: “See this coffee table here? this rocking chair there? and this entertainment center right here? They’re stacking the middle: there’s no way you’re getting through! What that does is create running lanes down the sides (dot-dot-dot-arrow). Are you a good driver? You’d better be, because these lanes are narrow, people step in and out of the way, and right here we’ve got the sharp edge of a fireplace mantle jutting out. Plus if you’re not careful you’ll scrape the wall. Out of bounds!”

— Gauge the home crowd: “These scattered toys right here! They belong to these two little guys playing video games halfway across the room. (Hey, those nippers are playing Madden NFL, aren’t they? Smart kids!) They’re hypnotized by the game and can’t hear a word you’re saying, but look how the stretched chords prevent all movement. Your offense is bottled up! Perfect D.”

— Clock management skills: “Once the party gets rolling, it harder for you to keep rolling. This joint really filled up, huh? Where once there were spaces, now you are butt-high in a room full of strangers. Looks like you should have gone with your hunch and left 15 minutes ago. But boom! here’s a corner for you to sit and wait for a hole to develop, and then pow! you’ll make a break for the end zone. Hey, at least you ended up next to the Christmas tree. Let’s draw a star on your head, and now you’ve got matching stars! Are you having fun yet?”

— And remember the key to every gameplan in every place you go (say it with me, people): “A-K-W-T-B: ALWAYS KNOW WHERE’S THE BATHROOM!”

Getty image by Jordi Ramisa.

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