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Published: Sunday, 5/6/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

Can Johnson avoid curse?

Lions' star not worried about being on Madden game cover

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson holds a large print of the cover of the Madden NFL 13 video game. The honor seems to bring some bad luck with it. Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson holds a large print of the cover of the Madden NFL 13 video game. The honor seems to bring some bad luck with it.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

Be afraid, Lions fans. Be very afraid.

The Madden NFL cover curse is no imaginary thing, not unless you believe in extraordinary coincidence.

"There's a few things that happened this year that made me believe in curses," said Peyton Hillis, last season's cover boy, and a bust of video-game proportions for the Browns during his Madden season. "Ain't no doubt about it."

Lions fans, of course, have been here before.

They may remember that one of the first Madden NFL video game covers featuring someone other than popular broadcaster John Madden had Barry Sanders in the background cover art. That game was dated as Madden 2000, but like all of the series it actually was released before the previous season, in this case 1999.

Sometime between the cover announcement and the start of the '99 season, arguably the greatest Lion of all time decided to retire.

Barry Sanders never carried the ball again, never added to his 15,269 career rushing yards.

That was unlucky for the game, perhaps. Few would argue it was unlucky for the Lions, who spent the next decade being irrelevant on their good days.

And there has been little luck for the players who have appeared on subsequent covers.

Now, Madden 13 will feature Lions receiver Calvin Johnson on the cover.

Johnson said he was "honored" by the fan vote that resulted in his selection. Yes, even with its dark history, the cover is for the most part a coveted destination for NFL players.

Shaun Alexander of the Seahawks once said that if the choice is between being injured or being injured and on the cover, he'd take the latter.

And that's exactly what he got. After scoring a then-record 28 touchdowns and playing in the Super Bowl during the 2005 season, Alexander was cover boy material for the following season's Madden game. He fractured his foot, played in just 10 games, and scored but seven touchdowns.

Injuries have haunted many of the Madden cover subjects and none like Michael Vick in 2003. One day after the game was released -- the very next day! -- Vick broke his leg in a preseason game and missed the first 11 games of the regular season.

Fans began noticing a disturbing trend in 2000, when the cover went to former Ohio State star Eddie George, who was coming off a career year with 1,962 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. During his cover season, he finished with less than 1,000 yards and just five TDs.

Daunte Culpepper went into a two-year slump, Marshall Faulk was slowed by an ankle injury and was never the same, and Vick broke his leg before and later went to jail.

Donovan McNabb experienced multiple injuries and missed almost half the season when he was on the cover and then came Alexander.

No wonder, in 2007, LaDainian Tomlinson turned down the Madden cover, although he insisted contract issues, not the curse prompted his decision. The honor went instead to young Tennessee quarterback Vince Young.

"I done prayed about it," Young said at the time. "We'll see what happens."

What happened is that he threw nine TDs and 17 interceptions in 2007 and started just one game the following season. That was Brett Favre's cover year, originally intended to be a retirement tribute. But he came back with the Jets, had things going swimmingly, and then played with a torn biceps tendon. He threw nine picks and just two touchdown passes in the last five games and the Jets lost four of them.

It hasn't been all gloom and doom. Ray Lewis had a solid season in 2004, although the Ravens missed the playoffs and Lewis missed 10 games in '05. It was a split decision in 2009 when Troy Polamalu and Larry Fitzgerald shared the cover. Polamalu was bounced by a knee injury and Fitzgerald was unaffected, although he experienced a career low in TD passes a year later. Drew Brees had decent numbers in 2010, but played with a torn knee ligament.

And that brings us to Hillis of the Browns in 2011. One year after looking like a power runner from another era, all grit and mud and all business, after rushing for 1,177 yards, adding 477 receiving yards, and scoring 13 touchdowns, Hillis had but 717 total yards and found the end zone just three times.

There was a hamstring injury, a contract hassle, and the infamous strep throat. At season's end, the Browns were content to let him escape to Kansas City via free agency.

Detroit's Johnson doesn't have any contract issues to worry about.

But Lions fans, at least those who never walk under ladders and cringe at black cats, have plenty to worry about with Megatron's face on the cover of Madden NFL 13.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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