Football is mired in the past, with its cheerleaders, roman numerals and human beings physically moving. Now that vigorous scientific study is shocking Americans with data showing you can get hurt playing football, America’s sport is likely to change. The Super Bowl will soon seem an antiquated as going to a stadium to see Christians versus lions — which, I believe was the matchup of Super Bowl III. This change is happening so rapidly that I predict, in perhaps just a decade or two, fewer teenage boys will play football than sit at home playing videogames.
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This shift to more sedate sports really opens a lot of opportunity for me. I’m such a bad athlete that my college friends stopped asking me to come to help coach the Little League team we had volunteered to help. But I can totally be a videogame coach. Even at the highest level: The Madden Bowl. In its 19th year, the Madden Bowl gives actual football players tiny controllers and lets them compete three days before Super Bowl Sunday, in front of a crowd at The Bud Light Hotel in New Orleans, followed by performances by Big Boi and Lil Wayne. The Bud Light Hotel is just a normal hotel that, for one week, I’m guessing, is specially rejiggered to smell horrible.
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I volunteered to coach Houston Texan running back Arian Foster. (Drew Brees, Mark Ingram, Jimmy Graham, Victor Cruz and others are also competing this year.) Since I haven’t played videogames for a decade, I figured I should get some tips before I started my coaching. I called Zach Farley, 26, a professional Madden player who makes his money in tournaments and from co-authoring the yearly Official Madden Players Guide. He and his co-author, Stephen Gibbons, played the game nearly constantly at Westfield State College. “We had the time in college,” Farley told me. “That’s the beauty of the education thing: You find out what you like.”
Farley said that, more than anything, Foster needs to dedicate himself to videogames as much as to non-virtual sports. For instance, one day a few weeks ago, Farley and Gibbons spent eight hours trying to figure out how to stop one play. “Steve spends hours debating over whether to play one guy who has an 88 pass rating versus another guy who has 89 pass rating. It’s dedication,” he says. Last year, he and Gibbons went over 2011 Madden Bowl winner Chad Ochocinco’s house to challenge him. “We smashed him,” Farley said. “He knows how to play, based on football. He just doesn’t have the practice.”
I could not allow Foster to make the same mistake. I spoke to him a few days before he played in the non-virtual Pro Bowl in Hawaii and asked him if was doing any kind of thumb exercises, like three-fingered pushups. “I get in various thumb wars with strangers,” he told me. “All across this island you got those big Samoans and Hawaiians; I see one and challenge one to a thumb war and come out victorious.” I bet the Harbaughs don’t take this kind of sass from their players.
He agreed – despite the reputation of gamers and their energy drinks — to avoid caffeine on game day. I also told him not to have sex the night before, but that was just because I’m annoyed at how much sex professional athletes get. And, while he’s mostly vegan, I told him to make sure he had plenty of protein that week. Most importantly, he said he was going to use the trash talking that he brings to the NFL every week. I thought he might go with, “Your mother is such a loser that her son is in New Orleans for the Super Bowl just to play Madden Bowl!” He’s also planning, after every touchdown, to do his Namaste bow. “I might do it to piss off my opponent. It’s a very peaceful gesture, but it means I got the best of them,” he said. It’s as if Foster understood every hot chick in every yoga class in Los Angeles.
I knew Foster was overestimating his ability, however, when he said he didn’t need to carry a towel like the Madden tournament pros do in order to wipe off their sweaty hands. So I gave him a powerful motivational speech, telling him to practice an hour a day, take 100 snaps before bed and study the Carolina playbook, which Farley said, “is easier than other ones with more advanced concepts.” Foster agreed to my regimen. I think I really got through to him. Or he wanted to get off the phone and hang out in Hawaii. But definitely one of those two things.
I think we’ve got a real shot at the Madden Bowl. And if we win, when Foster gets older and has to retire from the NFL, I’m going to have a full-time coaching job.