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Is the John Madden Video Game Curse Real?

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I’m not usually one to believe in curses. I’m actually not superstitious at all—sometimes to the annoyance of my friends who wince at my cavalier quips about elevators crashing and impending earthquakes. 


But after watching the first game of the 2009 NFL season, I just might be a believer. When Pittsburgh Steeler all-pro, one-of-a-kind, star safety Troy Polamalu went down with a frightening knee injury that could have him on the bench for the first half of the season, I wasn’t horrified only because I’m a Steelers fan. It’s the fact that football’s yearly “Madden Curse” might already be coming to fruition. 


In 1989, EA Sports put out a NFL-inspired video game entitled John Madden Football that was a huge and instant success. In the first ten years, John Madden himself was featured on every cover of the game. But in 1999, EA Sports decided to feature one of the league’s top players on each cover. Since then, the new version comes out yearly with an action shot of a successful NFL star. 


Being immortalized on a video game cover is today’s version of a Wheaties box and obviously something every hungry player in the NFL would love a shot at. But when it comes to this accolade, being second best might be the best thing after all. Why? Because every player who has been featured on the cover in the past ten years has either suffered a nasty injury, had a dismal season immediately after the cover shot, or just had some freak weirdness happen that disrupted the star’s glory. 


Wonder who’s on Madden NFL’s 2010 cover? Yep, you guessed it—Troy Polamalu. 


Not enough evidence for you? Though every player this decade has been a victim of Madden’s curse in one way or another, here are some stories worth pointing out. 


Barry Sanders/Dorsey Levens – 2000
This Detroit Lions running back and future Hall of Famer was featured on 2000’s cover and ended up not playing a single down in the season (or ever again) when he abruptly announced his retirement. 


Since he retired before the season began, later covers of the 2000 edition included a shot of Dorsey Levens, a running back from Green Bay who was instrumental in the Packers’ back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. He was worn down by a nagging knee injury and was released by the Packers in 2001. 


Michael Vick – 2004
The star quarterback who took Atlanta and their three-year losing streak to the Wildcard spot in the playoffs in just one year was considered the next, great wonder. One day after the new video game came out featuring his mug, he fractured his right fibula, and Atlanta went back to their losing ways. Not much needs to be said about how Vick’s career progressed after that. 


2006 – Donovan McNabb
When this Eagles’ quarterback was featured on the 2006 cover, he dismissed the Madden Curse, saying that though it might be a trend, he didn’t believe it at all. Maybe he should’ve had a little more respect for the curse because he tore his ACL (one of the hardest injuries to come back from) in the first game of the season. He had to have surgery and his team finished last in their division. 


2008 – Vince Young
In his entire career, from middle school all the way to the NFL, Vince Young, a rookie quarterback for the Tennessee Titans, had never missed a game. Once he was tapped to grace the 2008 cover of Madden NFL, he injured his right quad, which caused him to finally miss a game, breaking his amazing streak. Due to the lingering injury, his stats suffered. Ultimately, he lost his starting position and is still playing backup to the former backup, Kerry Collins. 


2009 – Brett Favre
We’re all annoyed with this future Hall of Famer’s never-ending swan song, but once he was featured on the 2009 cover, he suffered a torn bicep ligament, and his performance ever since has been on the decline. One could argue that his two-year deal with the Vikings is based on the Favre of yesteryear, and not the gray-haired guy stirring up trouble by defecting to his old team’s sworn rival. 


Before Polamalu was injured, he caught an amazing one-handed interception and was leading the team in tackles; in other words, already on his way to more glory. This year though, Troy Polamalu actually shares the cover with Larry Fitzgerald, the fast-as-lightening wide receiver of the Arizona Cardinals, the team which, ironically enough, lost to Pittsburgh in last year’s Super Bowl. We can only hope that Fitzgerald’s season won’t be another nightmare come true.

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