Once In a Generation

It may only be a video game, but Browns running back Peyton Hillis being on the cover of EA Sports' Madden 12 is still a big deal.

Talk about some understatement.

Regarding the release of the newest version of Madden football – the one with Peyton Hillis on the cover – the Browns' star running back could only offer the following.

"It's exciting. I've been very blessed and I am kind of speechless at times, but you never can lose focus. You never can stay enough humbled. You just have to go out there and do what you can. I am very grateful for the opportunity that I had, but it's time to move on and get focused on more important things."

Previously, I've discussed Coachspeak and Playerspeak – but never before in Cleveland has the topic of Maddenspeak been covered.

While clearly the most unofficial and non-binding of football awards, making the cover of Madden football is still a colossal deal – which is something even the eternally humble Hillis has to realize. Yet, in an act befitting his reputation, Hillis proved that he is not the best spokesman regarding one of the most unique moments in contemporary Cleveland sports culture.

Of course, Hillis will never state the importance of the tidal wave of votes created by Cleveland fans earlier in the year. And naturally, there are still legions of devoted Browns fans that will casually dismiss Madden as a pixelated distraction from the real game. However, even if the targeted audience for Madden football is limited to those who grew up with video games, and/or still have the hubris to claim such a thing, the cultural relevance of a Brown on the cover is monumental.

Talk about some exaggeration.


If we step outside of our Cleveland roots and fandom and truly examine the significance of Tuesday's event, the reality becomes even more difficult to comprehend. On a national level, Cleveland could only count Josh Cribbs, Braylon Edwards and whichever quarterback stumbled onto the scene as recognizable figures. Until Hillis' 2010 ascension, the Browns' identity was still channeled through some mythical language about tradition and pride couched in grainy images of Jim Brown bounding off tacklers.

Or, as I asked every single NFL Draft prospect this past Spring:  Name a Cleveland Browns player.

The responses usually took about 7-10 seconds to develop and then a grinding realization set in. Other than Cribbs, the Browns lacked the kind of identifiable players that seem to litter every other team in the league. In terms of a pop quiz, nearly every player failed – or simply put, the ESPN culture we live in dictates that the Browns are a faceless franchise incapable of making a beer-sponsored highlight package.

Until now.

On this note, it's kind of fitting that because of the undying support Browns fans have for their team, a previously unknown player like Hillis is deserving of such a lofty title. In most respects, it's bizarre to suggest that the fourth-year running back is cover-worthy. However, the entire process can be attributed to a highly organized and incredibly passionate display of fan support. In a sense, Browns fans as a collective – often painted in patronizing terms by national media types – are virtually sharing the Madden cover with Hillis.

Anyway, over the next couple days – let's call it the extended Madden Holiday – football fans and Madden fans alike will be staring into the face of a player who could define a new era of Cleveland Browns football. Or at the least – put a recognizable face upon it.

But of course, considering the typical expansion winds of change in Cleveland, the background for such a moment has already been altered.

Never mind that the metaphorical "smashmouth" attack that helped to propel Hillis into the national consciousness has been replaced with a more sanitary West Coast system. Or, pay no attention to head coach Pat Shurmur's recent indications that Hillis' workload will not rival his 2010 production. And really, has Hillis even played that much during the preseason?

Finally, let's not trouble ourselves with any idea of Madden curses. For the uninitiated, the Madden Curse calls for havoc to be laid at the feet – or ACL's – of most cover athletes. Similar to a Sports Illustrated cover jinx of years ago, Hillis is being exposed – which simply means that a sizeable chunk of the Browns' offense is at risk.

However, when dealing with curses, a virtual one is no match for a litany that includes John Elway's two-minute offense, Webster Slaughter's goal line blocking or Art Modell's complete lack of modern business sense. More importantly, Hillis' running style – which could be generously characterized as caveman abandon – will not lead to a prolific ten-year career or multiple video game covers.

As such, the entire episode of Hillis' ascension could likely become an odd, but brilliant footnote in Browns history. Considering the manner in which Hillis was launched into the psyche of a national conversation, it's plausible to suggest that his exit could follow a similar path.

Or, we could be looking at the next video game Bo Jackson.

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