John Madden became the head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 1968, Fred Biletnikoff's fourth season in the NFL. But before Madden was named the youngest head coach in league history at the time, he was the team's linebacker's coach.
While Biletnikoff had known somewhat known Madden in the locker room, they would get a lot closer starting in that 1968 season as the Hall of Fame receiver set career highs in catches and receiving yards.
"It was an easy transition for us to have John as our head coach," Biletnikoff told Raiders.com. "I don't believe there was anyone who didn't like John. Everyone was very enthusiastic when he took over and the way he approached us – as players, number one, and then as a team, number two – was just unbelievable."
The two went on to win Super Bowl XI together, with Biletnikoff being named the MVP of that game. The wins and the stats were not solely a product of Madden being a masterful game planner or drafting extremely talented players. From all accounts, including Biletnikoff's, he was just a genuine guy who cared about his players.
"One thing about John – John had a lot of respect for his players. And he was our biggest fan," the former receiver said. "Everybody on the team, John wanted to see them do great things. He was always encouraging us to be great. We just followed his lead, followed his personality."
One of the biggest things that brought joy to Biletnikoff was watching his coach "do his little gesturing" from the sideline. Madden was known for his passionate style of coaching, frequently getting animated on the sideline with the waving of hands, jumping up and down, or running full speed after referees. Biletnikoff was convinced that Madden could've played on the team alongside them with the athleticism he showed just from coaching.
"He was pretty agile for a big guy," Biletnikoff said with a big laugh. "Nobody talks about his agility, but he had some agility on that sideline being able to wave his hands and throw things and run up and down there. For as big as John was – I'll tell you what, he looked pretty damn good at running around there."
After Madden left the Raiders and turned his attention into broadcasting and his video game series, Biletnikoff saw his former coach turn into "a rockstar." The world-renowned fame that Madden would come into was not a surprise to Biletnikoff though, as all of the things he saw Madden do calling games and acting in commercials, he saw before in the locker room. He expressed that Madden was always himself no matter what, cultivating a generation of people who felt as if they knew the late coach the same way his players did.
"Just being so into the game, as he's shown on TV, that's the way he was on the sideline. That was his personality. He loved football so much that all his his gesturing came from deep and truly inside. It was really sincere. It wasn't a fact that he was putting on some kind of clown act, it was John. That was him. ... He just took the coaching deal and took it to TV, that's all he did."
While emotional and saddened by his former coach's passing, Biletnikoff expressed that death is inevitable and is happy his dear friend is at peace. What he has noticed, seeing the massive outpouring of grief amid Madden's passing, is how many people of all different ages have been affected by it – a reaction he feels also properly tells the story of the legacy Madden left behind.
"He was somebody [who] thousands and thousands of guys would love to play for," Biletnikoff said. "Thousands of guys would've loved to be on that practice field, in those meeting rooms, in that locker room before a game and being able to be around him. Seeing how easy it was to be around him and how easy it was for you to call him coach.
"To me, that's his legacy. He was a friend to all of us, and like I said before, he was our biggest fan."