Curse is no game

OTHER VOICES

Vince Young, the latest Madden NFL cover boy, should be very, very afraid about next season

The Kickoff

April 18, 2007|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG

Even before it was mercifully put to rest in 2004, I never believed, not for a minute, in the Curse of the Bambino.

It was, in my opinion, a lame excuse that people trotted out when they attempted to rationalize or ignore the bad decisions made by countless Boston Red Sox teams.

That's true for the Chicago Cubs, as well. Curses, whether they're named after a billy goat or a man wearing headphones and a hoodie named Bartman, are a cop-out. In sports, people choose their own destiny. Nothing is predetermined.

Except, of course, for the Madden Curse. That's real.

And you can't convince me otherwise. Which is a roundabout way of telling you that Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young - this year's selection - is doomed.

If you don't know about the Madden Curse, you either don't play video games, or don't have kids who do. But for the uninformed, here is the Cliffs Notes summary: Every year, EA Sports releases a new version of its most popular video game, Madden NFL, which is named after former Oakland Raiders coach, current television color analyst and professional blowhard John Madden.

And every year, the NFL player who graces the cover of the Madden franchise suffers an inexplicable freak injury, or, like biblical hero Samson after a surprise buzz cut, loses his strength and powers entirely. It doesn't always happen right away, but it always happens. Careers are rarely, if ever, the same. Players are more likely to survive a guest appearance on The Sopranos than duck the Madden Curse.

The phenomenon seems to have begun in 1998, when San Francisco 49ers running back Garrison Hearst became the first player to be featured on the cover, Madden NFL '99. His fate? A career season that ended with a broken ankle, an injury so gruesome, Hearst nearly needed to have his foot amputated.

The next year, Barry Sanders was so frightened by the Madden Curse, he turned into J.D. Salinger on the eve of training camp and went into hiding. (The theory that he was running from the Madden Curse is, of course, speculative, but also no less credible than the other conspiracy theories about his sudden retirement.) Dorsey Levens, who shared the cover with Sanders, suddenly ran with all the speed and agility of Madden himself, a septuagenarian who publicly gorges himself on turducken each year. Levens was cut by the Green Bay Packers less than a year later.

Eddie George (2001), Daunte Culpepper (2002) and Marshall Faulk (2003) were never truly the same after they graced the cover of the game, and though their fall from grace was gradual and more subtle, it was no less painful for their fan bases. For a 20-something nerd like me, it was like watching the Star Wars prequels. I could try, repeatedly, to convince myself that things would get better, that Faulk would suddenly spring to life again, wow me like he did in years past, but in my heart, I knew it was hopeless. His joints seemed as wooden as Natalie Portman's and Hayden Christensen's acting.

The Madden Curse could strike immediately, as it did when Michael Vick broke his leg in a preseason game against the Ravens just days after appearing on the 2004 cover. And it could lie in the weeds patiently, attacking months later when no one expected it, as it did with Ray Lewis (2005), who sneered at the idea of the curse, only to tear his hamstring a year later, forcing him to miss most of the 2005 season.

No athlete, however, has angered the Madden gods quite like Donovan McNabb (2006). The season he appeared on the box, he suffered a hernia, a groin injury, saw his manhood questioned and feuded publicly with teammate Terrell Owens as though the two were a pair of snotty rival high school girls, furious that the other was about to be named prom queen.

Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander (2007) kept The Curse going last season. After earning a spot on the cover by rushing for 1,880 yards and setting an NFL record with 28 touchdowns, he broke his foot, missed six games and ran for just 896 yards the following year.

The fate suffered by those selected to appear on the cover of Madden is so inevitable, the selection of Young, last season's NFL Rookie of the Year, seems almost cruel. Has Madden, with his jiggling jowls, his booming voice and his penchant for grunting cliches, truly become the modern equivalent of the Greek gods, the ones who regularly struck down heroes at the height of their powers simply to remind them of their own mortality? And if so, wouldn't Peyton Manning or LaDainian Tomlinson be a more deserving target?

San Diego Chargers fans were so fearful that Tomlinson would be on this year's cover, they started a Web site (saveltfrommadden.com) begging that he be spared.

It appears that their pleas were answered. The burden now falls to Young, who will need all the rabbits' feet, four-leaf clovers and horseshoes he can find just to make it through this season without a major injury. If Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher needs to sacrifice a live chicken in the locker room before each game to ward off disaster, with apologies to PETA, I'm cool with that.

Some curses are bigger than all of us.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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