Madden: The man, the game, the curse

We sort through the myths of Madden mania to find the deeper truths about the man, his videogame franchise, and the misfortune said to beset those whom it honours.

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A scant two decades ago, John Madden was still just a man. Following a very brief stint with the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1950s, Madden began his climb toward immortality when he was named head coach of the Oakland Raiders at age 28. Over the next decade, he became a familiar sight each weekend chugging up and down the sidelines in a white short-sleeve shirt and tie, gesticulating wildly and perfecting an expression of utter disbelief at whatever the officials said his men in black were doing wrong.

Despite having to relinquish top billing for any success to the Raiders' larger-than-life owner Al Davis, Madden gained some recognition for guiding the team to a Super Bowl victory in January 1977. He finished with the highest career winning percentage for a head coach in NFL history, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Madden the Media Maven

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In 1979, a year after retiring from coaching (at the ripe old age of 38), Madden began a second career as a colour commentator on TV. There he acquired long-sleeve shirts — though he seems never to have mastered the art of buttoning the cuffs — and instant popularity with a nation of football fans desperate for informed, plain-spoken enthusiasm after a decade of Howard Cosell. But then, in 1988, everything changed: Electronic Arts put him on the cover of its new Apple II football game and — WHAM! — an entertainment juggernaut was born.

As detailed in our slide show, "20 Years of Madden", the first iteration of John Madden Football was actually six-to-a-side football, not unlike the six-man game played at tiny Texas high schools like Motley County. But since then, Madden Football has grown remarkably, in number of controllable players, in graphical and play-calling sophistication, in complicating factors (weather, injuries, etc.), and — starting with Madden '94 — in approval from the NFL (helmets with logos on 'em!). For details about the 20th instalment in this video game dynasty, see "Madden NFL 09: The Best Madden Yet".

Happy 'Madden Holiday' to All

It has become a viral spectacle that sports gamers can't wait to catch. Every year, like game clockwork, Madden NFL fans call in sick or cash in their personal day to celebrate the latest release of EA's digital NFL spectacular. Surprised? Don't be. To date, the Madden NFL franchise has rung up unit sales of 70 million copies — 1.9 million in 2007 alone — a stratospheric tally that has even chart-busters like Grand Theft Auto and Halo eating its dust. And when it comes to plastering Madden NFL all over the national map, the series' giddy fanbase isn't messing around.

"It is our opinion that a federal holiday is not only wanted, but necessary so that hard working Americans can take one day off to enjoy the greatness that is John Madden Football," reads part of a petition signed by over 3000 Madden buffs lobbying semiseriously for Congress to declare an official "Madden Holiday" prior to the release of Madden 2006. This spirited effort was sacked by unsympathetic legislators, but that hasn't stopped gamers in their tens of thousands from perennially shirking work, school, and more, to plunk devotedly down in front of big-screens and launch a barrage of virtual seasons, from drafts and trades to playoffs and Super Bowls. NFL "for-real" fans get only one season per year, but Madden fans are at any given time playing through millions.

Then there's Maddenpalooza, this year's music, sports, and gaming fan festival hosted by EA at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, on August 11, just before the game goes on sale. It's a flashy melange of live bands from past and current Madden NFL soundtracks (including Good Charlotte and Busta Rhymes), retired NFL legends scribbling autographs, interactive NFL activities, and 300 Xbox 360 gaming kiosks to whip enthusiasm for Madden 09 into a multiplayer game-ready frenzy before an on-site Wal-mart "pop-up" store places the very first retail copies of the game on sale at 9 p.m. PST.

So happy Madden Holiday 2009, everyone!

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This year, big chain stores will open at midnight to lines of eager armchair quarterbacks, all itching to play the latest version of Madden NFL. One store is already offering "Madden Meals" guaranteed to replenish any calories you may lose while working up a sweat on the virtual gridiron.

The Curse of the Curse

With great power, though, comes great responsibility. And in the case of Madden Football that responsibility includes deciding each year what promising career to ruin by sacrificing the player on the altar of the game's cover. The story of "the curse" goes like this: Since 1999, when Electronic Arts began featuring NFLers prominently in their packaging, a number of outstanding athletes have taken their lumps during the ensuing year. An inordinate number? Well, it's a rough game.

Being sceptics by nature, we propose to deal with this issue scientifically: We'll introduce each season's featured player, starting with the 1999 season, examine that player's performance during his Madden year, and see whether the EA football gods could have made a better choice of curse victim among the rest of the NFL players. Not to take a knee or anything, but we think you'll agree that, in retrospect, Madden Football's Curse Quotient could have been a lot higher.

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Madden 99 Featured Player: Garrison Hearst, San Francisco 49ers

Curse case: After running for 1570 yards and 7 touchdowns during the regular season in 1998 (the Madden 99 football season), Hearst suffered a broken ankle during the 49ers' playoff game against the Falcons, and missed the next two seasons completely.

Curse contradictions: This sounds like a good episode to launch a curse with, but consider: (1) Immediately after the injury, doctors feared that Hearst would never play again, but instead he made a miraculous recovery and two years later was rushing for 1206 yards and averaging 4.8 yards per carry. (2) By missing the 1999 and 2000 seasons, Hearst skipped the years when the 49ers went a combined 10-22 and got to play during the happier 1998 and 2001 seasons when they went 23-9. (3) We don't see Garrison Hearst on the cover of Madden 99 — do you?

Curse counterpart: Ryan Leaf, San Diego Chargers. The only thing everyone talked about prior to the 1998 NFL draft was who should be taken first — Ryan Leaf or Peyton Manning? The Colts chose Manning; the Chargers, trading up to select second, waltzed away with Leaf. Leaf proceeded to guide San Diego to victories in his first two games as a starter — and then fell apart, ending the season with a remarkable 2 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 39 (the league average during the latter part of his brief career was 78.9).Curse Quotient: Hearst, 120; Leaf, 200

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