Whenever I play Madden, I turn off injuries. I figure that real-life is depressing enough without having to simulate season-ending injuries.
That was all I could think as I read the news today that Vikings starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater went down with a full ACL tear during practice, ending his season and casting a pall over what had been a very promising 2016 for the Vikings. This is the absolute worst in ways that I can't even begin to describe. It's moments like these that make you realize that the universe is a cold, unfeeling place where careers can live or die based on a roll of the cosmic dice.
Teddy went down on a routine dropback. No one even touched him. That's how unlucky he is to have suffered the injury that is apt to change his life and career forever.
So as you probably know, I am a fan of the Minnesota Vikings. I've followed them for most of my life, riding the intense highs and lows of being a fan of one of the NFL's most snakebitten franchises. The Vikings, of course, have never won a Super Bowl; and whenever they get close, they tend to fail in the most agonizing way possible. Having their starting quarterback go down before the season has even begun is truly some next level pain.
As bad as I feel, though, I feel even worse for Bridgewater. I actually met Teddy at the Madden Bowl earlier this year, where I got to shake his hand and thank him for what had been a fantastic season. Teddy is by all accounts a very smart and talented guy - a true class act - which definitely came through as he answered some questions about being a Madden fan and posed for a picture with me. I can't imagine how he must feel right now.
There's really no other way to say it: This really sucks. I've been a Teddy Bridgewater fan from Day 1 - I bought his jersey the second he was drafted by the Vikings - and I've always believed in his ability to mature into a special quarterback. Since hearing the news, I've been in a mostly zombie-like state, cursing my bad luck while feeling selfish and guilty for making it all about me.
Really deep breath.
Anyway, this is nothing new for me. The first year I started watching sports was in 1998, when a stint in my high school's marching band coincided with the best Vikings season ever. I was sure they would win the Super Bowl that year. But then Gary Anderson's kick sailed wide left, and I was officially indoctrinated as a Vikings fan.
Since then, sports have mostly been a kick in the teeth for me. I watched a number of great Minnesota Twins get unceremoniously swept by the New York Yankees. I watched the Wild get crushed year after year by the Blackhawks. But the thing about sports is that there's always the hope that next year will be better; and in the case of the Vikings, it was going to be better. With a loaded defense and a new stadium, it looked as if the Vikings would have a real shot at another crushing loss in the NFC Championship Game. Instead, it's (probably) another lost year.
It's times like these that my outlet has always been sports sims - a medium where I have some modicum of control over my fate. If Blair Walsh misses a kick, it's because I choked and screwed up the input. If Brett Favre throws a gut-wrenching interception, it's because I panicked or made the wrong read. I can control the rosters and the depth charts. I don't have to be a passive observer.
The first sports sim I played was NFL 2K1 - the year that the Vikings unceremoniously flamed out of the NFC Championship Game in a 41-0 loss to the Giants. In my numbness and irritation, I picked up a copy of the game for the Dreamcast and started working my way toward the Super Bowl. In the years that have followed, I've often gone back to sports games to work out the frustration of so many unhappy endings. If the real Vikings couldn't beat the Saints in the NFC title game, I could always drop 70 points on them in a video game. Just last night, I wrapped up a successful season in my offline Madden franchise in which I claimed the division and a playoff bye. Before heading to bed, I fast-forwarded to the divisional round and found that I would be taking on the Packers - Minnesota's arch-rival.
In the alternate universe that I've created, Teddy Bridgewater's knee is just fine, and the talented Vikings are a regular playoff contender (curious ratings decisions aside). Win or lose, it offers some solace from the real world, where Minnesota's once-promising season is now hanging from a thread. I've written before about sports sims being a form of wish fulfillment - they're also a form of consolation for the less fortunate sports fans out there.
It's times like these - when fate conspires to end a season before it's even really begun - that all I can really do is dive into Madden or FIFA or NBA 2K and just win. True, it's not the same - actual sports success brings with it great memories, a real sense of community, and a bit of validation for your hometown - but the sense of accomplishment is real. Winning a Super Bowl with the Vikings in a league of 31 other players is a memory I will always relish. The same can be said for my run to glory with West Ham in FIFA 15, where I spent six seasons building a team that could win a quadruple.
Truth be told, I don't know why I invest so much of myself in these games. Maybe it's my pride in my hometown and my desire to see it do well. Maybe it's my natural sense of competitiveness and the fact that I have a giant inferiority complex. When I look over this piece, I find myself cringing because I know I care way too much. But for better worse, I want the collection of professional athletes representing my home state to succeed. I want to know what it's like to see a team that I follow actually raise a trophy.
Tonight, I will go and kick the ever-loving crap out of the CPU-controlled Packers: a small comfort, but a comfort nonetheless. Yes, I'm deeply jealous of the Packers and their historical success and national following. Yes, it's kind of sad. But it makes it that much satisfying to run up the score against Green Bay's virtual counterparts.
In the end, this is why we need franchise mode to continue thriving in sports games. For success-starved fans like myself, they are the only way to experience how the other half lives, however briefly. Ultimate Team won't do that. Playing online against pigskinz69 won't do that. Franchise mode is where people like me can lose themselves for a moment and pretend that all is well in the sportsverse.
And so that's what I'll be doing for the next few days and months (or years). In a few hours, Virtual Teddy will be lifting the Virtual Lombardi at long last. And while the happens, I'll be having a stiff drink. But at least I'll be smiling.