In last February's Super Bowl, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu were the brightest stars on a glittering stage. Fitzgerald capped a stellar season by shredding the Pittsburgh defense for two touchdowns, while Polamalu keyed the Steelers' 27-23 victory with a series of bone-crushing tackles. Now the two are once again sharing the spotlight. On April 24, EA Sports announced the long-haired pair would share the cover of Madden NFL 2010, the newest iteration of one of the world's most successful video-game franchises. It's an honor that's historically been given to the top players of the previous NFL season and one that may cause Arizona and Pittsburgh fans nightmarish visions of sprained ankles, torn ACLs and wasted seasons.
That's because many believe gracing a Madden NFL box is the surest path to the inactive list. Since announcer John Madden first ceded the cover of his eponymous game for the 1999 edition, one of the NFL's quirkiest subplots has been the "Madden Curse," which appears to leave the game's cover boys injured or ineffective the following season. "The jinx thing bites us every year," Chris Erb, a marketing director for the juggernaut video game, said in 2007. "I haven't told this to people, but I've got a bottle of champagne in my office that we're ready to pop once someone breaks the curse."
The run of bad luck dates back to the beginning. In 1998, San Francisco 49ers running back Garrison Hearst was the first person other than Madden to appear on the cover of the game, which debuted in 1989. During the playoffs, Hearst suffered a severe broken ankle that torpedoed not only that season but the following two as well. The following year's cover boy, Detroit Lions RB Barry Sanders who only appeared in a silhouette behind Madden announced he would be hanging up his spikes before training camp.
Three subsequent stars the Packers' Dorsey Levens, who followed Sanders; Tennessee Titans RB Eddie George, in 2000; and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper saw stalwart careers wither in the years immediately following their cover appearances. Other stars, including Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb (who graced the cover in 2005) and Seattle Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander (2006), have had their seasons derailed by injury. But the strongest argument for a cover jinx comes in the prison-garbed form of Michael Vick. When Vick appeared on the cover of Madden 2004, he was heralded as the future of the game, a rocket-armed QB equally capable of carving up defenses with his legs. But within days of earning the cover, Vick broke his leg in a preseason game. He is currently serving a 23-month federal prison sentence for his role in a dogfighting operation.
Lost in the shuffle, however, are the other cover stars who thrived during their featured year. In 2004, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis earned All-Pro honors (as did George in 2000). Levens' 1999 campaign was among his best. Even players seen as evidence of a cover jinx still put up respectable if diminished numbers. Hearst galloped for 1,570 yards in 1998, scoring a Pro Bowl appearance in the process. And while St. Louis Rams RB Marshall Faulk's production slipped in 2002 and fell precipitously after that the jitterbugging back still notched 1,490 combined yards while coping with nagging injuries.
Most people involved with football downplay the curse. "What we've been involved with has been coincidence after coincidence," Erb said in 2005. "We've just had a string of bad luck." After being waylaid by a broken foot in 2006, Seattle's Alexander declared, "Curse or no curse, everybody, and I mean everybody, wants to be on that cover. I don't know one person that would say no."
Alexander wasn't exactly right. San Diego Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson declined the offer in 2007, though not because he was superstitious; Tomlinson's reps weren't swayed by the reported $100,000 to $200,000 deal EA Sports, the game's manufacturer, offers players for use of their likeness. But even among a group renowned for being superstitious athletes have tried to bust slumps by donning women's underwear, eating the same meal each day and performing elaborate foul-line rituals talk of a Madden Curse doesn't seem to have caught much traction. And for good reason. Most of the under-performing cover stars were felled by injury a common affliction in a brutally rough sport: According to a 2005 study, nearly 70% of football players suffer an injury each year. Those whose skills seemed to dwindle during their cover season may simply have peaked quickly in a sport whose shelf lives are disconcertingly brief.
For his part, Fitzgerald is unconcerned. "I didn't think about the curse," he said. And why should he? He's already appeared on a video game cover ("NCAA Football 2005") without incident. Besides, the year of the first shared Madden NFL cover has already been marked by the retirement of the game's first-ever cover boy. Perhaps Madden's departure will augur the start of a happier streak.