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Column: My John Madden moment during the Gulf War

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When I learned of the passing of the iconic John Madden, an event that took place 31 years ago jumped into my mind. Let me tell the story.

Early in 1991, I was serving CNN as a military analyst. I was operating out of the CNN studio in downtown Atlanta. Operation Desert Storm was underway, and a major coalition of nations were in the process of recapturing Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s military forces. I was appearing on camera as many as eight times per day. My job was to answer questions from the various CNN anchors (my favorites were Bobbie Battista, Bob Cain and Molly McCoy). In addition, I would draw the attention of viewers to pictures and film which would appear on the screen. 

At one magic moment during the second week of the war, a CNN executive vice president, Bob Furnad, approached me with a new idea. He told me that CNN had purchased a telestrator, and I quickly needed to learn how to use it. I had no idea what he was talking about. He then translated for me: “General, you are going to start using a John Madden machine.” I immediately understood. 

After a few test runs, I was able to put this wondrous piece of technology to work. Instead of telling the viewers to watch the upper left corner of a picture, I could draw a yellow circle around the item of interest. When troops were moving in a certain direction, I could draw a line and an arrow on the screen.  

In the weeks ahead, I would spend time each day with the writers, editors, producers and graphic artists. Working together, we selected or designed the very best pictures, film, graphs, or animation to be shown on camera. Our team would then decide where and when I should place arrows, draw circles and isolate images with my telestrator wand. 

To achieve the greatest impact, I would not use the telestrator until I was on camera. This is the technique that Madden used, and I tried to follow his lead. This telestrator helped me explain many complicated and confusing images. 

During the six-week war to recapture Kuwait, none of the other networks had this telestrator capability. It gave CNN an edge and helped it gain and hold audiences both in America and around the world. During the first weeks of the war, during any 24-hour period, more than 100 million people were watching CNN. 

During this war, John Madden was my role model. He explained football action on the field in simple terms. He used the telestrator creatively, and he quickly erased his yellow marks when they got in the way of the film or pictures. Also, Madden was a very serious student of his craft. I tried to follow his lead as a researcher and analyst. 

I should point out that John Madden was not my favorite football coach (it will always be Vince Lombardi), nor was Madden my favorite sports commentator (Pat Summerall was my guy). However, when considering the body of Madden’s work (as a coach, commentator, and video game producer), it is fair to say that his contributions to the game of football exceed anyone past or present. 

In sum, John Madden was larger than life. Millions of folks were educated and uplifted by his wise and enthusiastic commentary. I never met the incomparable John Madden. However, I feel indebted to him for what he taught me by his example. 

Perry Smith’s new memoir, Listen Up, includes many sports stories and stories from his years as a television commentator. Copies signed by Gen. Smith are available at a discount at the Augusta Museum of History. 

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