The arrival of the NFL season brings with it the annual release of the popular Madden NFL video game.
The series dates back to its first iteration in 1988. For years, the cover was adorned by the likeness of the game’s namesake, John Madden, the Pro Football Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster.
That changed near the early part of the 21st century, when Madden’s likeness gave way to NFL players being featured. It’s since become an honor for players to be selected as the game’s cover athlete.
So it was little surprise in April when game developer Electronic Arts unveiled Patrick Mahomes for the cover of Madden NFL 20. The Kansas City Chiefs quarterback was coming off a season in which he joined Peyton Manning and Tom Brady as the only three quarterbacks in league history to throw 50 touchdowns in a season.
“When you’re a little kid, you dream about being on the cover of Madden,” Mahomes told The Undefeated at the time of the announcement.
Flash forward to Week 7 of this season. Mahomes became tangled up near the bottom of a pile and was in immediate pain. He walked gingerly off the field and headed straight to the locker room as Chiefs and NFL fans alike held their collective breath. The injury immediately invoked thoughts of the long-standing “Madden Curse.”
For those unfamiliar with its origins, there is a theory that players who have graced the Madden cover are beset by a negative set of circumstances, most commonly in the form of injury. Think of the curse in the same vein as the Sports Illustrated cover jinx.
“No, not at all,” Mahomes previously told USA Today when asked if he believed in the Madden Curse. “I’ve heard of the curse, but I feel like Tom Brady had a pretty good season after he was on the cover too. I don’t think that is much of a big deal at all.”
Initial indications are that Mahomes avoided a serious long-term injury after being diagnosed with a dislocated kneecap. He is expected to miss some time but has already resumed practicing, less than a week after the injury.
So for now, consider Mahomes one of the lucky ones. He appears to have avoided the full-on curse. Others haven’t been so lucky. Here are some notable cover athletes who have fallen victim to the Madden Curse:
Pittsburgh Steelers WR Antonio Brown, Madden 19
Brown went through a contentious final season in 2018 as a member of the Steelers despite putting up solid numbers, at one point skipping practices that resulted in him being benched for a crucial Week 17 game. That was followed by a trade request that saw him land with the Raiders. A cryogenic chamber mishap, some helmet drama, and a war of words with his general manager ended his Raiders tenure before it got off the ground. The Patriots subsequently signed him and he appeared in one game before being released amid sexual assault allegations.
New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski, Madden 17
Gronk had established himself as one of the most feared offensive weapons in the league and was fresh off a second straight All-Pro campaign when he appeared on the cover. He was subsequently plagued by injury throughout the 2016 season, missing the first two games and later having his campaign cut short following Week 12. The result was the lowest statistical output of his career, as he finished with 25 receptions for 540 yards over eight games. Worse, he had to watch from the sidelines as the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl.
Cleveland Browns RB Peyton Hillis, Madden 12
If looking for the most obscure player to be featured on the cover, look no further than Hillis. After putting together a breakout season in which he finished with 1,177 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, the former fullback turned running back won a fan vote over Michael Vick for cover honors. Hillis proved to be a one-hit-wonder, seeing his rushing yards get cut nearly in half while finding the end zone just three times during the ensuing 2011 season. He was out of the NFL entirely just three years later.
Pittsburgh Steelers SS Troy Polamalu, Madden 10
Polamalu shared the cover with Larry Fitzgerald, fitting after the Steelers defeated the Cardinals in the 2009 Super Bowl. Unfortunately for Polamalu, he was the victim of that year’s curse. The perennial All-Pro safety was hit by the injury bug, recording 20 tackles while appearing in a career-low five games before his season was cut short. His absence coincided with the Steelers missing the playoffs on the heels of their championship run. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, didn’t miss a beat during the 2009 season, going over 1,000 yards receiving while finishing with a career-best 13 touchdown receptions. One cover, two athletes, two different outcomes.
Green Bay Packers QB Brett Favre, Madden 09
When Favre was announced as the cover athlete, it was a fitting choice for one of the all-time greats. In fact, it was nearly the perfect send-off for Favre, who announced prior to the 2008 season that he would be retiring. Except, then he didn’t. Despite donning a Packers uniform on the cover, Favre was instead traded to the New York Jets. And despite appearing in all 16 games, he managed to throw as many interceptions as touchdowns (22). New York finished 9-7 with Favre at the helm and missed the playoffs, with the veteran gunslinger leaving after the lone season to join the Vikings.
Tennessee Titans QB Vince Young, Madden 08
As the story goes, San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson was offered the cover but decided to turn it down. That opened the door for Young, who jumped at the opportunity after his first NFL season, in which he was named Rookie of the Year. A sophomore slump ensued following his cover appearance in a season in which Young tossed 9 touchdowns against 17 interceptions. That was just a precursor for what was to come, as the young QB injured his knee in the following season’s opener and saw action in just three games that year.
Seattle Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander, Madden 07
It’s hard to argue with the choice of Alexander for the cover. There conceivably wasn’t a more dominant running back in the league at the time. Alexander was in the midst of five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. His most recent included 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns to earn league MVP honors. After the cover, Alexander saw his rushing totals fall to 896 yards and 7 touchdowns in 10 injury-plagued games. He would start just 10 more career games. Alexander was out of the league two years later following a failed stint with the Washington Redskins.
Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb, Madden 06
McNabb is another player on the list to earn the cover spot on the heels of a Super Bowl appearance. After guiding the Eagles to a 13-2 record prior to the cover, he endured a tumultuous 2005 season. During that year, he was involved in fighting with wide receiver Terrell Owens as well as injury. The result was a lost season in which he tossed nine interceptions in nine games. As a result, Philadelphia stumbled to a 4-5 mark with him under center. His next season would also be cut short due to injuries as he was limited to 10 games.
Atlanta Falcons QB Michael Vick, Madden 2004
Vick set the world on fire during his first full season as a starter. He earned a Pro Bowl berth and led Atlanta to the divisional round of the playoffs. The following season in 2003 could not have gotten off to a worse start for the cover athlete. Vick suffered a broken leg during a preseason game that would force him to miss the first 11 games. By the time he returned, it was too late to salvage the season, as the Falcons trudged to a forgettable 5-11 record.
Minnesota Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper, Madden 2002
Culpepper was selected as the cover athlete following a year with 33 touchdown passes (led NFL) and 3,937 passing yards. His follow-up campaign went south. Culpepper missed five games due to injury while managing just 14 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. His absence caused the Vikings to stumble to a 5-11 record. The record opposite from the year prior when they advanced to the conference title game.
Detroit Lions RB Barry Sanders, Madden 2000
One of the greatest players of his generation, Sanders was rewarded a cover spot following 10 consecutive Pro Bowl campaigns. Then he decided to walk away from the game. Yup, Sanders, still in his prime, never played another down in the NFL, choosing to hang up his cleats and ride into the sunset. Given the timing of his announcement and his appearance on the cover, it was a strange set of circumstances all the way around.
San Francisco 49ers RB Garrison Hearst, Madden 99
The distinction of being the first-ever player to be solely featured on the Madden cover belongs to Hearst. He appeared on the European version. It was also the birth of the Madden Curse. Hearst put together a Pro Bowl campaign in 1998 while rushing for a career-high 1,570 yards. However, on his first and only carry of a divisional-round game, Hearst suffered a broken ankle. It was a significant injury that would keep him out of football for two seasons before he made a comeback.