Every NFL Player Hit By The Madden Curse (And The Few Who Broke It)

For several decades, the "Madden NFL" franchise has been the king of football video games. Debuting back in 1989, the game has grown immensely in popularity since being officially licensed through the NFL in 1993. Madden has been out so long, that kids who grew up playing are now getting drafted into the NFL themselves.

For the first 10 years the game was out, the creator and namesake of the franchise, John Madden, adorned the cover. However, beginning in 1999 and every year since, except "Madden NFL '23" when Madden returned as a tribute, the distinction has gone to one of the more prominent players in the league. Yet, while it might seem like a huge honor, some people think it's actually a curse, instead. The legend goes that whoever is selected as the cover athlete is destined to have a terrible season. The so-called curse began to gain steam in the early 2000s when several of the cover athletes experienced injury-plagued or otherwise poor years.

Not every cover athlete has seemingly been affected by the curse, as several have put on average if unspectacular seasons during their reign. A few have even broken the curse, putting in record-setting seasons or being named MVP of the league. Looking back, these are all of the NFL players who have been hit by the so-called Madden curse, and the few who broke it.

Garrison Hearst (Madden '99)

In 1999, San Francisco 49er running back Garrison Hearst made history when he replaced John Madden on the European (PAL) version of "Madden NFL '99" and became the first athlete to grace the franchise's cover. The season prior in 1997, Hearst had rushed for more than 1,000 yards with the 49ers, despite his playing in just 13 games. He was second in the league in rushing when he was injured in week 13, which helped earn him a spot on the cover.

During Heart's Madden cover year, he actually had a very good regular season. He rushed for an outstanding 1,570 yards and 7 touchdowns, earning himself a Pro Bowl nomination and setting the franchise rushing record. However, during the playoffs disaster struck. Hearst broke his left leg in the divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons on the very first play. With Hearst down, the 49ers were sunk, and the Falcons defeated them to advance to the conference championships.

Unfortunately for Hearst, his injury proved to be much worse than expected. After immediately undergoing surgery, he ran into a multitude of problems during his recovery. The talus bone in his ankle started decaying due to a disease called avascular necrosis, and doctors had to completely reconstruct his ankle with cartilage from his knee (via Sports Illustrated). He missed both of the next two seasons, but incredibly managed to make a full recovery, running for more than 3,000 yards over his final four seasons.

Daunte Culpepper (Madden 2002)

For a few years, the curse seemed to die down. Madden blundered with "Madden NFL 2000" by naming Barry Sanders as the cover athlete, only for him to retire before the season, and his replacement Dorsey Levens' season was mediocre but not terrible. "Madden NFL 2001's" cover athlete Eddie George was an All-Pro, though he did have a lot of fumbles. For "Madden NFL 2002," Minnesota Vikings' quarterback Daunte Culpepper earned the honors as the cover athlete, but it was another poor choice in hindsight, and he was seemingly cursed just like Hearst.

During the 2001 season, Culpepper played in just 11 games, leading the Minnesota Vikings to a poor 4-7 record. He had 13 interceptions and fumbled the ball a whopping 16 times, and his season concluded prematurely after injury. He sprained his ligament during a Week 11 game at home against the Chicago Bears and only made one more start, which he could not finish, before having season-ending arthroscopic surgery on his knee. When he came back the following season he started every game, but he led the league with 23 interceptions.

His epic failure of a season was only made worse by the outstanding year he had in 2000 that had earned him the cover, when he paced the league with 33 touchdowns, won a playoff game, and was named to the Pro Bowl. Culpepper would later rebound with another Pro Bowl season in 2004, but he never really lived up to his Madden hype.

Michael Vick (Madden 2004)

Marshall Faulk managed to largely avoid the curse with a decent Pro Bowl 2002 season, and EA Sports selected Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick to be on the cover for "Madden NFL 2004." Fresh off his first full-season as a starter, Vick had won the Pro Bowl in 2002 while mesmerizing fans with his dual-threat ability as a passer and a runner. At the time, Vick was one of the most prolific and rising young stars in the game, as this was well before the public knew about his horrific dog fighting ring, which he was already operating at the time.

Yet, his 2003 cover season was nothing but a calamity. Vick suffered from a broken fibula before the regular season even started when he got injured in the preseason against the Baltimore Ravens. Initially, optimistic reports thought he might only be out a few weeks, but he would miss the first 12 games of the season after it took longer than expected to heal. He also faced setbacks during his recovery, like when a teammate stepped on his foot and partially re-aggravated the injury in late November.

Vick returned to the field late in a Week 13 loss to the Houston Texans and started the last four games of the season. He recovered to have an excellent year in 2004, but his lone year on the Madden cover was by far his most disappointing in Atlanta.

Donovan McNabb (Madden '06)

For "Madden NFL '06," EA Sports went back to a quarterback with the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb after selecting Ray Lewis for the cover the year prior. Lewis' season did not seem too affected by the curse, as he finished as a Pro Bowler and All-Pro, though he did miss a game and did not record an interception for the first time in his career. Nonetheless, it was much better than McNabb's cover year, which was a fiasco pretty much the whole time and definitely cursed.

When McNabb reported to training camp before the season had started he was already dealing with abdominal pain. Things only got worse during the season, and in Week 2 he aggravated it to the point of causing a sports hernia. McNabb opted to try and play through the pain as long as he could, but his performance on the field left a lot to be desired. Finally, in late November after the team fell to a 4-6 record following a four-game losing streak, McNabb decided to call it quits for the year and get surgery.

Through nine games McNabb had decent stats, but they were well below his numbers from the season before, including both higher interception and lower touchdown percentages. Overall, it was one of McNabb's worst seasons as a starter, and it snapped a string of five consecutive Pro Bowls from 2000–2004.

Shaun Alexander (Madden '07)

When EA Sports announced Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander as the cover athlete for "Madden NFL '07," he seemed like a very good choice. He had rushed for more than 7,500 yards and scored 87 touchdowns between 2001–2005 while anchoring the Seattle Seahawks' offense. That included a league-leading 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2005, when he was named MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, first-team All-Pro, and to the Pro Bowl.

Hopes were undoubtedly high for Alexander going into his Madden cover year for the 2006 season, but almost immediately things went off the rails. In late September, Alexander fractured his foot in a game against the New York Giants, which effectively ruined his season. He had already injured his foot in the season opener a few weeks prior, and things got worse during the Giants game. Ultimately, Alexander would miss six games over the broken foot, which he claimed in a 2007 interview with Herald Net never fully healed during the season.

At the end of the season, Alexander had failed to crack 1,000 yards or double-digit touchdowns for the first time since his rookie year, and he was out of the league after just two more injury-plagued campaigns. Alexander never came close to the heights he was at prior to his cover year, and the curse seemingly lasted until he retired a few years later.

Vince Young (Madden '08)

In 2006, Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young was one of the best young players in the league, earning a Pro Bowl berth and winning the Rookie of the Year Award. This was good enough to get him the spot on the cover of "Madden NFL '08," but it ended up being another bad choice by EA Sports. While Young did lead his team to the playoffs, he played poorly most of the season. He finished with nearly double the amount of interceptions as touchdowns (17), and he had 10 fumbles.

In his lone playoff start, a 10-7 loss to the San Diego Chargers, Young was very ineffective, throwing for little yardage and zero touchdowns. Part of the reason for his poor play could have been from a quadriceps injury that he sustained in October during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The injury would cost him the next start against the Houston Texans, and things didn't get much better from there. He topped 300 yards just one time during the season, and in one extremely bad game, he managed to throw for just 42 yards against the Oakland Raiders. It was a very poor season by basically any metric, and one that easily qualifies as cursed.

Brett Favre (Madden '09)

For the 20th anniversary of the franchise, EA Sports wanted to do something special for "Madden NFL '09" to pay homage to its successful history. In March of 2008, longtime Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre announced his retirement, and the next month EA Sports officially named him as the cover athlete for the upcoming game to pay tribute to his legacy. However, as you might expect, things didn't exactly work out for either party.

Just a few months later in June, Favre decided that he was not going to retire, which led to him being traded to the New York Jets that August. For EA Sports, it destroyed the concept of a retirement tribute for Favre, and they came out with two covers to reflect his new jersey. Still, Favre and the Jets seemed to have been a good pairing, until the curse struck in November, and Favre sustained an injury to his throwing arm in Week 12. An 8-3 Jets team collapsed to go 9-7 and miss the playoffs, largely due to Favre's poor play after his injury. He completed the season with a league-leading 22 interceptions, eight of which came during the last five games alone.

It was Favre's lone season in Gotham, and it concluded on a very sour note. Favre would rebound the next season with the Minnesota Vikings, before calling it a career after a disastrous 2010 campaign that looked a lot like 2008 in New York.

Troy Polamalu (Madden '10)

With "Madden NFL '10," EA Sports selected two athletes to split the cover for the first time: an offensive player Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and a defensive player Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. For his part, Fitzgerald had a decent season, leading the league with 13 touchdowns and being a second-team All-Pro, managing to avoid the curse. Yet, his counterpart Polamalu had much worse luck, with the curse causing him to have one of his poorest seasons as a pro.

In the five seasons prior from 2004–2008, Polamalu had been elected to five consecutive Pro Bowls, won four All-Pro awards, and was top five in the Defensive Player of the Year voting twice. Even so, his 2009 season was a trainwreck. In the opening game, he tore his MCL, costing him the next four games. He was able to return for roughly a month in October, but once again injured his knee against the Bengals in November. The second injury turned out to be the final straw, and he was shut down for the year to avoid risking even worse complications.

Polamalu finished the season playing in just five games and with a career-low in tackles, and it was the only year from 2007–2011 that he was not an All-Pro and a Pro Bowler. He rebounded quite well, winning the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2010 — if only he had been on Madden's cover then.

Peyton Hillis (Madden '12)

For at least a year, the Madden curse seemed to take a break. The "Madden NFL '11" cover star New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees had a Pro Bowl-caliber season and was selected by fans as part of the first-ever fan vote. In spite of that, the curse returned in "Madden NFL '12" with a vengeance, hitting Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis pretty hard. The year prior, Hillis had his coming out party so to speak, when he ran for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns after being traded by the Denver Broncos in the offseason.

That was good enough to earn him a spot on the Madden cover, but his 2011 season was marred by injuries, tension, and subpar play. He ran for just shy of half his total from the season before, and he scored only three touchdowns in 10 games. Hillis dealt with nagging injuries, though some of his teammates thought he may have been exaggerating their severity in order to purposefully sit out games. He was involved in a nasty contract dispute with the Browns and was reportedly upset they did not want to meet his demands.

By the end of the season, his antics had worn out his welcome with both his teammates and his coaches, and he was not welcomed back to Cleveland the following year. The rest of his career was largely unforgettable, and his stats declined yearly until his retirement after the 2014 season.

Calvin Johnson Jr. (Madden '13)

When the fans selected Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson Jr. as the new cover athlete for "Madden NFL '13," they undoubtedly made an incredible choice. While a few athletes had seemingly evaded problems by not having terrible seasons, it was tough to say anybody had really broken through the curse and lived up to the hype of being a Madden cover athlete. That was until Johnson's monstrous 2012 season, which was one of the finest in NFL history.

In addition to being elected to the Pro Bowl and serving as a first-team All-Pro, Johnson was near or at the top statistically in several categories. His 122 receptions paced the league (and tied him for 13th all-time), as did his 122.8 receiving yards per game. However, what was most impressive was his 1,964 total receiving yards, which broke an NFL record that had stood since 1995. He came in third in the voting for Offensive Player of the Year, and he also had five touchdown grabs.

For Fantasy Football players, Johnson was the top wide receiver during his cover year, and it was overall one of the best seasons in his Hall of Fame career. He called it quits just a few years later after the 2015 season, but his Madden cover year definitely stands out as one of the best of all-time.

Rob Gronkowski (Madden '17)

After Calvin Johnson Jr.'s record-shattering season in 2012, the Madden curse laid dormant for a few years, as Minnesota Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, and New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. all had fine if underwhelming seasons for stars of their stature. Sadly, that would not be the case for "Madden NFL '17" cover athlete New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, whom the curse once again hit with full effect.

During his 2016 season, Gronkowski was beset with constant injuries. He pulled his hamstring before the season started which caused him to miss the first two games, and he was injured twice in November. First, a big hit from a defensive back resulted in a perforated lung for Gronkowski, and later he got a herniated disc during a game against the New York Jets. As a result of the herniated disc, Gronkowski had back surgery in December, which finished his season prematurely. He played in just eight games in 2016 and spent far more time on the injured list than on the field.

It was Gronkowski's only season between 2014 and 2017 where he was not a Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro. Statistically, it was by far his worst season, and he had career lows in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns. The Patriots would go on to win the Super Bowl that year, but the road was made much harder by Gronkowski's absence.

Tom Brady (Madden '18)

After Rob Gronkowski's ill-fated 2016 campaign reignited the so-called Madden curse, it was up to his New England Patriots' teammate quarterback Tom Brady to fight it off once again the next year. Already 17 years into a surefire Hall of Fame career and fresh off being named Super Bowl MVP, Brady was a pretty easy choice to be on the cover for "Madden NFL '18."

His 2017 regular season definitely did not disappoint. He led the league with 4,577 passing yards and had 32 touchdowns while ushering the Patriots to a 13-3 record. This earned him league MVP honors, as well as giving him first team All-Pro and Pro Bowler status. In the postseason, he helped lead the Patriots all the way back to the finals, but they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in one of the closest Super Bowls in history. Still, the season was immensely successful for Brady, and it's safe to say he rebroke the curse.

Since 2018, no athlete has really suffered from the Madden curse, including Brady himself when he split the cover with Patrick Mahomes for "Madden NFL '22." Maybe Brady was able to finally quash the curse for good — at least that's probably what the next cover athlete will be hoping