Superstition and sport are tempestuous bedfellows. Simple quirks turn into religious beliefs, from a fan wearing a lucky shirt to a player entering the field, touching the grass and making the sign of the cross enough times to skip a year of church. However, one sport, American football, has a very real superstition – and it revolves around a video game.
Being a cover star for an EA Sports game can be a professional highlight, showcasing athletes who have performed above and beyond, and won fan adulation from all corners. But none is so prominent, highly regarded and cursed as EA's Madden NFL series. EA used to decide which star from the previous year should grace their game, but recent instalments have had their cover stars selected by a public vote, almost like the game's makers are trying to exonerate themselves from any blame.
I say blame because, with two exceptions, the Madden NFL cover curse is a very real thing. Once you have been "awarded" the honour of the slot, the following season will see you lose any of the momentum you had before and lead to a terrible year both on and off the field, through bad form, injury or even criminal proceedings.
The Madden curse started in 1999 when PAL version cover star Garrison Hearst was sidelined after breaking his ankle. Hearst had a phenomenal 1998, setting franchise records and running one of the league's longest rush touchdowns against the New York Jets. Sidelined is putting it lightly, as the injury and complications from surgery caused a bone in his foot to die (avascular necrosis), but he became the first ever player to bounce back from such an injury.
For the 2016 edition, released on the 25th of August, fans voted for New York Giants wide receiver, Odell Beckham Jr. His rookie year won him multiple plaudits including the Pro Bowl, the NFL's all-star game, and the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year, to name a few. All of this is incredibly justified after a good season and what might not only be the greatest one-handed catch, but one of the greatest touchdown catches of all time against the Dallas Cowboys. The curse of Madden must be licking its metaphorical lips.
The second "victim" of the curse was probably a case of bad luck on EA's part more than the player, as in 2000 Barry Sanders not only left the Detroit Lions but also unexpectedly retired from football completely. Not to be put off, EA quickly remade the cover with Green Bay Packers running back Dorsey Levens on its PAL edition, who struggled with injuries and was released a year later from the team.
The curse continued. The star of Madden NFL 2001, Eddie George, fluffed a game-clinching catch that was intercepted and returned by the Baltimore Ravens, ending the Tennessee Titans' season. Madden 2002's Daunte Culpepper suffered a knee injury that affected his career dramatically. That was four in four for the Madden curse, and what had looked like something of an in-joke a few seasons earlier wasn't particularly funny any more.
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For the 2003 Madden cover, Marshall Faulk, one of the NFL's best ever running backs, had his worst ever season, failing to achieve 1,000 rushing yards in 2002, and three years later a knee injury would retire him.
Then we hit Madden NFL 2004, which put the Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick on the cover. Vick was undoubtedly one of the most complete athletes in the NFL at the time, but shortly after the cover was unveiled he fractured his fibula in a pre-season game and missed the first 11 weeks of the season. Off the field, Vick was arrested, charged and incarcerated for his part in an illegal interstate dog-fighting ring.
So is this a legitimate curse or just a very unfortunate set of coincidences? Does the Madden NFL series have as much luck going for its cover stars as TV's adaptation of Game of Thrones does Sansa Stark? For EA, of course, this is nothing but business. Meanwhile, Michael Carlson, a sports writer and former NFL analyst for Channel 4, likens it to a similar urban legend with Sports Illustrated. "It exists because you've done something at a high level, and they've finally noticed," he says.
But, in practice, the cover is just a good tool to sell the game – and with Madden NFL 15 missing its retail targets, dropping nearly 40 percent from the previous year, it needs to turn things around. "Odell Beckham Jr. will drive sales in New York where the people and the money is," says Carlson. "No put down of his great rookie year, but he's a reflection of our times. The Madden cover is now the SportsCenter highlight play of the year."
So there's no curse, as business doesn't break people or cause injuries, right? Video games can't actually ruin a professional athlete's career, can they? This is all about the money and nothing to do with the person on the cover. "That doesn't explain the freakish bad luck in either the Madden or Sports Illustrated curses," Michael tells me, and he's right.
There's Ray Lewis for 2005 (wrist), Donovan McNabb for 2006 (ACL) and Shaun Alexander for 2007 (foot fracture). Troy Polamalu for 2010 (MCL and PCL), Peyton Hillis for 2012 (hamstring and strep throat)... The list feels endless.
For Madden NFL 08, LaDainian Tomlinson declined the cover for contract reasons, but San Diego fans actually campaigned to keep him off the cover because of the curse. Vince Young and Luis Castillo were chosen and both suffered injuries all season. For 2009, the recently retired Brett Favre was to be the cover star, honouring his long, loyal Green Bay career. Except he then signed with the New York Jets, ditching those retirement plans to pick up an injury and spend the following year being investigated for sexual misconduct. For Madden's 25th anniversary cover in 2014, Adrian Peterson suffered multiple foot injuries and was investigated for alleged child abuse. Although that one probably shouldn't be put down to a curse.
The curse has been dodged, though. Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson had a stellar year in 2012, earning his place on the 2013 cover and earning his nickname "Megatron". Madden NFL 11 cover star Drew Brees had a relatively poor season after his appearance, but given that he was also named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year at the end of 2010, he could have come off a lot worse. Richard Sherman also dodged any lasting effects of the curse last year as he made the Super Bowl.
Look "curse" up in a dictionary and you'll read that it's "a solemn utterance intended to invoke a supernatural power to inflict harm or punishment on someone or something". Which means either one of two things when it comes to the Madden Curse: that there is one very bitter and twisted American football fan somewhere with an excellent command of dark magic who's repented in recent years; or that this is just one unfortunate coincidence that may have finally run its course. At least, that's what Beckham Jr will be hoping, right about now.
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