What brought that to mind was a garbage e-mail I received to pre-order the Madden 12 video game. Why I got this, I have no idea. I've never been a "gamer" – I'm being very generous in using that term because I know that several NFL players capable of pummeling me play Madden, but I don't. Never have. I can't see myself ever doing it. It's just how I am.
I have wondered over the last couple of months if such things as the Madden franchise, which gives very realistic depictions of the NFL and its players, is one of the underlying issues of the players association demands during the negotiations. The Madden franchise has generated more than $3 billion in sales. Remember when ESPN made a huge marketing push on its own video game and couldn't get the licensing to use real teams or player names? It killed them off within a year. I've always thought that one of the contentions of the players association could be that the proof of an NFL monopoly is found in the fact that EA Sports and the Madden game represent the exclusive video game of the NFL – rendering moot competition that may have superior technology and graphics.
That insipid junk mail perked my interest because, of all people, Cleveland running back Peyton Hillis is the cover model for Madden 12, arguably the most questionable player to don the coveted cover. He was proudly displayed with an offer to pre-order the game, which doesn't come out for almost three months, and put myself on the top of the mailing list – about nine minutes before someone who buys it Aug. 29 gets his order shipped.
Conspiracy theorist alert: The Madden 12 game, which is expected to have as complete of rosters as it can, is scheduled to be released Aug. 30. Why is that significant? The last four Madden game release dates have come early in the standard preseason – Aug. 10, 2010, Aug. 14, 2009, Aug. 12, 2008 and Aug. 14, 2007. The release date could be viewed as someone deep within the inner workings of the current labor strife hedging a bet by allowing for player movement to put the right players on the right teams for the standard game.
After seeing how the 2011 schedule was laid out – for the first time since the NFL-AFL merger 40 years earlier, not just one, but two weeks have no divisional games and each team in those two weeks playing once at home and once on the road – nothing is out of the realm of possibility.
The furor over the Madden game isn't a recent phenomenon. The legacy of the Madden game is as strange as the curse that seems to follow it.
The Madden video game series is a fascinating story. John Madden holds the singular distinction of being the only NFL broadcaster to be the A-list color man on all four major television networks – he started with Pat Summerall at CBS, when FOX outbid CBS for the rights to the NFC TV package, he moved on to the fledgling FOX Network. After Summerall retired, Madden moved to Monday Night Football on ABC, but, when ABC allowed its fellow Disney corporate sibling ESPN to take the Monday night package, Madden moved on to NBC's Sunday Night Football – completing the cover-all Bingo of network TV paydays. His video game has seen even more transformations.
Believe it or not, it was almost 30 years ago that the Madden franchise was born. The game's creator initially approached Joe Montana to be the face of their product in 1982. How long ago is that? Montana turned them down because he had a deal with Atari. Atari? Really?
Before they landed Madden, they wanted then University of California head coach Joe Kapp – the architect of the Vikings' only NFL championship in 1969. However, Kapp – ever the businessman – demanded royalties. Imagine how much things could have been different if Kapp had relented and taken a time-to-pay agreement instead of Madden.
It took almost five years from the first agreement between Madden and the game designers on an Amtrak train (Madden wouldn't fly) to the product being unveiled. The initial design called for six or seven players and Madden said wouldn't put his name on it unless it included 11 players on both sides and looked as real as video games could in the 1980s. "John Madden Football" debuted in 1988 for those with Apple II series computers. In 1990, Sega Genesis (an operating system more people are familiar with) became the cartridge of choice and resulted in Madden's expansion and domination of the market. An argument between EA Sports and Sega would eventually lead to a parting of the ways and, without the Madden game to sell, killing Sega out of the sports video business, being replaced by PlayStation and Xbox as the operating systems of choice.
Until 1999, Madden was the annual cover boy for the packaging of the game bearing his name. That changed when EA selected running back Garrison Hearst to be the cover model. Hearst, who had distinguished himself by rushing for 1,570 yards, adding 535 receiving yards and scoring nine touchdowns in 1998, seemed like a logical choice (I would have contacted Randy Moss, but that's just me). Hearst became the cover boy and didn't play another game for the next two years – as significant injuries became the genesis of the Madden Curse.
It took on a life of its own after that. On the cover of the Madden 2001 game, Eddie George was selected. He was a star. After being on the cover, he never averaged more than 3.3 yards a carry in any of his subsequent seasons. The curse grew.
Daunte Culpepper was on the 2002 cover and, after having a killer 2000 season, he went in the tank due to injuries, going 4-7 in the games he played that year, throwing 23 interceptions and setting an NFL record for fumbles in a season. Marshall Faulk followed in 2003. A three-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year, he never rushed for 1,000 yards in a year after being on the cover and missed 11 of the 32 games played the next two years.
Michael Vick (the other finalist with Hillis this year) was on the Madden 2004 cover and broke his leg in the preseason and missed 12 games. His dog fighting imprisonment added to The Curse. Ray Lewis was the Madden 2005 cover man. An NFL ironman, he missed 11 games over the next two years with a broken wrist and a thigh injury. Donovan McNabb was the man for Madden 2006, but he suffered a hernia injury in the season opener and hobbled his way through until tearing his right ACL and meniscus, putting The Curse into legendary status.
Shaun Alexander was the reigning league MVP when he was on the Madden 2007 cover. He suffered a foot injury and hit "the wall" and his career was never the same. Vince Young was on the cover of Madden 2008 and, while he didn't suffer horribly in the 2007 season, his career took a nosedive and he was still included as a victim of The Curse. That same year, LaDainian Tomlinson turned down the offer to be on the cover, which many claimed was due to the curse.
Madden 2009 went a different direction. It put Brett Favre, in a Packers uniform, on the cover. Any time Madden had a chance to talk about Favre on TV, especially at the end of both their careers, it was a manlove festival like few others. They did the cover in honor of Favre prior to the 2008 season. He was retired. He couldn't get hurt. Not so fast, my friend. He came back, got traded to the Jets and tore his biceps tendon that resulted in a late-season collapse and the Jets opting to move up in the draft to take Mark Sanchez – ending the Favre experiment after one year.
Hoping to increase its odds, the Madden 10 game included two cover models – Larry Fitzgerald and Troy Polamalu. Fitz had another big season with Kurt Warner, but has struggled to dominate since. Polamalu did his part to promulgate The Curse, missing 11 games that season.
Last year, Drew Brees made the cover and, while his team made the playoffs, Brees became a member of the elite club as the only quarterback in playoff history to lose to a team with a sub-.500 record – losing to the 7-9 Seahawks.
Madden fans will likely tell the story of fan disenchantment with the league's current labor strife. The sales numbers could drop significantly – I can't imagine anyone buying a game that would have Donovan McNabb quarterbacking the Redskins in the store-bought version when there's no chance he's playing for the Redskins. I won't be waiting for the doors to open at midnight Tuesday, Aug. 30 with the freaks and geeks that got on line about 9:30 Monday night. But, given my penchant for the unexplained and conspiracy theories, there is also no way Hillis is going to end up on my fantasy football team.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.