Checking in on the Madden Curse in 2019—Does This Weird Game Plague Still Exist?

Sports are full of infamous curses.

There are the Curse of the Bambino, the Talladega Superspeedway Jinx, and the Billy Penn Curse, to name a few. Each one dates back decades and finds fans immersed in strange interpretations of history that have more to do with superstition than anything else.

It seems odd, then, that video games—which have a relatively short history compared to major sports in the US—could be the source of bad athletic juju. But that’s exactly the story behind one game and its now-legendary curse on the NFL.

Digital John Madden and His Wacky Curse

Of course, we’re talking about the Madden Curse.

EA Sports introduced the NFL’s licensed video game version in 1988 under the title John Madden Football. Annual releases started in 1990, and John Madden himself appeared on the cover each year through Madden Football 64 in 1997.

Then NFL superstar players started gracing the cover with the release of Madden NFL 99. The Madden Curse was officially born. If you’re unfamiliar with the curse, it states that players featured on the Madden cover go on to lose significant amounts of playing time due to injury, inferior performance, or other reasons.

Basically, the Madden cover is a portal through which a player quickly steps from an outstanding football career to a forgettable one—or no career at all.

The Curse’s Most Notable Cases

Running back Garrison Hearst of the San Francisco 49ers rushed for 1,570 yards and a Pro Bowl appearance in 1998. He appeared on the cover of Madden NFL 99 that same year. In the divisional playoff round, Hearst broke his ankle on his first carry of the game. The injury knocked him out of the NFL for the next two seasons as he became the curse’s first casualty.

A year later, Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders was named to the cover of Madden NFL 2000The future hall-of-famer didn’t play that season or afterwards—he elected instead to retire from football.

Seattle Seahawks rusher Sean Alexander posted 1,880 running yards and an NFL record 28 touchdowns in 2005. The stellar performance earned him the cover of Madden NFL 07, released in time for the 2006 season. Ironically, Alexander broke a foot bone and missed six games that year. He would go on to play two more ho-hum seasons in the NFL, never regaining his pre-Madden swagger.

In 2017, Antonio Brown, the animated wide receiver of the Pittsburgh Steelers, led the NFL in total receiving yards and yards per game. It was a Pro Bowl year capped in the offseason with the cover spot on Madden NFL 19.

While Brown performed nearly as well in 2018, he created a rift with Steelers players and fans. After brief stints with the Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots in 2019, Brown is now out of football and considered toxic by the NFL.

Patrick Mahomes may be introducing a new wrinkle to the Madden Curse in 2019. The featured cover man of Madden NFL 20 missed Weeks 8 and 9 with a sore right knee. Mahomes has since picked up right where he left off, driving the Chiefs back to being a strong contender to win Super Bowl LIV with his typically-explosive games.

Adding Up 20+ Years of the Madden Curse

Overall, we estimate the Madden Curse has afflicted 16 of the 21 NFL players to appear on the game’s cover since 1999. That’s a whopping 76% curse rate.

The degree of the curse varies widely. Some players were never the same while others bounced back to former glory after missing a partial season.

Still, the verdict remains—the Madden Curse is alive in 2019.

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