The trend of misfortune was spotted early by an ESPN copy editor in 2002. She pitched a story about it for ESPN The Magazine, and upon its publication, the Madden Curse was born.
“I had just started at ESPN,” said Alyssa Roenigk, now a senior writer there. “I was a young copy editor and, of course, wanted nothing more than to be writing stories for the magazine. I’ve never been a gamer myself, but the Madden game, when I was in college, my roommates were obsessed with it."
When her roommates played Madden 97, 98 and 99, Roenigk would take out her notebook to jot down notes, using the game as practice for her goal of becoming a sports reporter. She developed an affinity for the games, which helped her learn NFL offensive and defensive alignments and patterns. But it was another type of pattern that she observed that helped get her published.
Starting in 2001, Electronic Arts (EA), the publisher of the Madden series, started putting athletes on all of its covers, including the American release of the Madden game, replacing broadcaster and series namesake John Madden. Roenigk recalls her peers eagerly anticipating each cover reveal, and she wondered whether there could be a story there.
“I remember thinking, ‘Okay, there’s got to be something to write about there,’ ” she said. “Do the first two guys have something in common?”
It turns out they did. The second player, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, experienced a knee injury the year following his cover appearance. When she found out St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk would be next on the cover, she started to cook up a pitch for the editors at ESPN The Magazine.
“I’d grown up with the Sports Illustrated cover curse,” Roenigk said. “And so I said, ‘Okay, there’s a good chance, just statistically, that if you have a good enough season, a season that would land you on the cover of this video game, that the next year is not going to be statistically as good.’ ”
The pitch was approved, and an argument ensued about the name: Her editors wanted to use a headline that called it “The Madden Jinx,” instead of the Madden Curse, which is how it is described throughout the piece. Ultimately, the Curse prevailed.
The piece ran in ESPN The Magazine in 2002, and it resonated with more readers than Roenigk could have ever imagined. Today, sports fans and gamers alike debate the Madden Curse, a phenomenon that has endured for two decades and claimed the likes of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander.
The curse was a scourge that appeared to annually plague players until this year. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes graced the cover of Madden 20. And his most impressive achievement, in a season in which he led three double-digit comebacks in the playoffs, including in the Super Bowl on Sunday night, may have been besting the Curse. Mahomes became the second Madden cover athlete to win the Super Bowl, but when Rob Gronkowski won it with the New England Patriots in 2017, he missed the game with an injury.
But did Mahomes break the curse for good? Asked whether she thinks the curse will continue despite Mahomes’s triumph, Roenigk said “yes,” noting that some players have ducked the associated injuries and statistical downturns before 2020.
“I do think in some respects Drew Brees would be the first athlete I consider having broken the curse,” she said, citing the New Orleans Saints quarterback’s Madden NFL 11 cover. “But also, yes, I do think the curse will continue.”
When Roenigk interviewed Faulk for her initial magazine story, she couldn’t have anticipated how Faulk’s career prospects would pivot after his appearance. The season of his cover appearance, Faulk suffered an ankle injury, hobbling off the field and missing multiple games.
“The question I asked Marshall Faulk in it is, ‘Are you nervous about the Madden curse?’ ” Roenigk recalled. “And he says, ‘No way, you’re just trying to start something.’ And I guess I did.”