Grading the Class of 2004 Cover Athletes

How did the 2004 crop of sports game cover athletes fare in the real world? Our look at this year's Class of 2004 cover stars has the inside scoop!

By Brian Ekberg

Appearing on the cover of a sports video game is undeniably a plum position to be in for a pro athlete. The exposure and celebrity an athlete can garner from such a high-profile spot can lead to extremely lucrative financial rewards. Negotiating cover status can keep big-time sports agents working the cell phones for weeks on end as they try to land their star client on the hottest titles of the year. For the athletes, the idea of lending their image to a game series that they grew up with is the ultimate status symbol, marking their arrival on the profitable sports scene and, in some cases, cementing their legacy for years to come. Whether for financial gain, props from their peers, or simple bragging rights, athletes aren't content to simply be in the latest NHL or NBA title, they want to be on the cover as well.

Of course, the game publishers aren't dummies; they benefit by nailing down the brightest stars in a particular sport for not only the face of a particular release, but also for instant, expert endorsers. If Ray Lewis says that Madden 2005 plays extremely tough defense--even if he's being paid huge sums to do so--who are we to argue with him? Press announcements of cover athletes carry nearly as much fanfare as the announcements of the games themselves. The thinking is simple: The right athlete on the cover of the right game can do wonders for a game's word of mouth and sales figures.

Yet there can be a downside to the fortune and fame. The ominous Madden Curse, as its commonly known, portends that any athlete appearing on the cover of an iteration of the Madden NFL series will have a decidedly subpar year at best, and may even suffer injury. One needs to look no further than Michael Vick (Madden NFL 2004), Marshall Faulk (Madden NFL 2003), and Eddie George (Madden NFL 2001) to see that there may be some truth to the so-called curse.

To that end, we thought we'd take a look at the cover athletes of all the major sports game releases in 2004 to see how their on-the-field performances improved or declined between last season and this, their cover-boy year. As you'll see, some athletes faired well this year, truly performing up to their all-star expectations. Others had years that were perhaps better forgotten. Finally, the jury is still out on how a particular cover boy will perform. The NBA, for instance, just tipped off its regular season this week, and even Nostradamus himself couldn't accurately predict the next time we'll see a real live NHL game. In these cases, we focused on each athlete's 2003 season to find out how they ended up on their respective video game cover in the first place.

In the end, practically any athlete would be overjoyed to appear on the cover of a major sports title these days. The stigma of video games as a hobby fit for nerds is largely absent from the sports genre, as a large population of the younger pro athletes are gamers themselves. As real sports and high-profile video games converge, expect to see this trend continue in earnest.

Now, on to the games!


A gifted linebacker, a gifted pregame dancer; Ray Lewis can do it all.

Madden NFL 2005 - Ray Lewis (Baltimore Ravens)


Analysis: Lewis is still the most dominant linebacker in the NFL, and so far he seems to have survived the so-called Madden Curse with no negative effects. His forced fumble and interception numbers are down from the previous year, but his tackle numbers seem right on track. With half the season still to play, he has plenty of time to rally his stats. Look for Lewis to lay the "hit stick" on plenty of ballcarriers over the coming weeks.
Grade: B+

T.O. catches touchdowns as quickly as McNabb can toss them his way. Could the Eagles be Super Bowl-bound?

ESPN NFL 2K5 - Terrell Owens (Philadelphia Eagles)

YearGSRec.Yds. Rec.Avg. YPCTD

Analysis: Owens has already caught more touchdowns at the halfway point of the 2004 season than he did the previous year with the San Francisco 49ers, due in no small part to having a reliable quarterback throwing to him. A recent match against his old nemesis, Jeff Garcia, saw Owens' Eagles come out on top. This could be a career year for T.O. in the stats columns. Could it also be the year he leads his team to greatness? Only time will tell.
Grade: A

Where is Ricky heading? The Miami Dolphins Hall of Shame, that's where.

NFL Street - Ricky Williams (Miami Dolphins)

YearGSYds. RushAvg. Yds.TD

Analysis: Practically moments before the NFL regular season kicked off, the Dolphins running back stunned his teammates and coaches with a surprise retirement announcement. Williams said he needed to clear his head and move on with a life beyond the NFL, but perhaps a more accurate description would have been that he wanted to partake in the smoking of certain illegal substances here in the US. A few weeks later, Williams said that he wanted to be reinstated and play for the Oakland Raiders, further signs of a drug-addled mind. Now the Dolphins say Williams owes millions for opting out of his cruddy contract, even though he turned right around and applied for reinstatement. Whatever angle you choose to look at the ever-changing Ricky Williams situation, one thing is certain: the guy is a train wreck.
Grade: F

Larry Fitzgerald makes everything--even playing for the Arizona Cardinals--look easy.

NCAA Football 2005 - Larry Fitzgerald (Pittsburgh Panthers/Arizona Cardinals)

YearGSRec.Yds. Rec.Avg. YPCTD

Analysis: Fitzgerald was a dominant receiving force in college, despite getting jobbed for the Heisman Trophy in 2003. He's now in the NFL, and he has represented himself fairly well on a second-rate Arizona Cardinals team. It's scary to think what he could do if he had someone other than Josh McCown throwing to him. Perhaps when Fitzgerald's contract is up in Arizona, we'll truly find out what he is capable of.
Grade: C+


Ben and his 'fro look to repeat the Pistons' NBA domination this year.

ESPN NBA 2K5 - Ben Wallace (Detroit Pistons)


Analysis: In addition to some great numbers, Wallace and his Pistons pulled off what few thought possible: beating the Los Angeles Lakers in convincing fashion to bring the NBA crown back to D-town. In many categories, Wallace's numbers were actually down from his career year of 2002/2003. Bringing back the NBA Championship Trophy to the Eastern Conference, however, more than makes up for it.
Grade: A

Carmelo Anthony is doing what many thought impossible: reviving basketball fans in Denver.

NBA Live 2005 - Carmelo Anthony (Denver Nuggets)


Analysis: 'Melo's arrival in Denver may have played second fiddle to King James' coronation in Cleveland, but he still managed to put up good numbers for the Nuggets, even besting LeBron in PPG and assists. Were it not for LeBron, Anthony might have easily wrapped up rookie of the year honors as well. Things turned sour for the NBA Live cover star this year during the 2004 Summer Olympics, however, since he spent most of his time riding pine while his teammates eked out a measly bronze medal.
Grade: B-

Emeka Okafor has no fear of Shaq-fu.

NCAA March Madness 2005 - Emeka Okafor (Charlotte Bobcats/UCONN Huskies)


Analysis: Okafor gave a heroic performance in Connecticut's win over Georgia Tech in the 2004 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Tournament, scoring 24 points to give his team the college crown. As the second overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft, Okafor will be doing something as a member of the Charlotte Bobcats that he doesn't have much experience in: losing. Okafor vowed to dunk the ball on Shaquille O'Neal when the Bobcats met up with Diesel's Miami Heat, at which time he got a chance to work on his flexibility--by inserting his foot into his mouth. As for his on-court performance this year, well, we're hoping for the best.
Grade: B-

The good news: you're a millionaire; the bad news: you're a millionaire playing for the Atlanta Hawks.

ESPN College Hoops 2K5 - Josh Childress (Atlanta Hawks/Stanford Cardinal)


Analysis: Childress' Stanford Cardinal team was upset in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament. Since that disappointment, Childress has moved onto a team all too familiar with failure: the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. There's still an entire regular season to go for this first-round draft pick, but clearly he has a lot of developing to do.
Grade: C-


Eric Chavez is your prototypical infielder, with his perfect blend of batting skill and fielding expertise.

MLB 2005 - Eric Chavez (Oakland Athletics)


Analysis: Despite suffering a broken bone in his right hand, which caused him to miss most of June, Chavez's power numbers seemed to be up in 2004. He hit 29 home runs in both 2003 and 2004, despite playing in 31 fewer games than in 2003, and he seemed on track to beat his RBI total from the same year. His team, however, didn't fare as well, missing the play-offs for the first time in four years.
Grade: B

A terrible performance was punctuated by some unfortunate medical news for Jason Giambi, making 2004 his worst year in memory.

ESPN Baseball - Jason Giambi (New York Yankees)


Analysis: Those back-to-back, 41 home run seasons must seem like a lifetime ago to Giambi, who suffered the most disastrous year of his career in 2004. Hampered by fatigue for most of the season, Giambi's numbers slipped across the board, leaving many Yankee fans to wonder why their team shelled out millions for such lackluster performance. It wasn't until reports surfaced of a benign tumor on Giambi's pituitary gland that people started taking the situation seriously. Without a doubt, 2004 will be a season to forget for JG.
Grade: D

Jeter can do no wrong in the eyes of Yankees fans. That is, until New York drops another World Series chance.

All-Star Baseball 2005 - Derek Jeter (New York Yankees)


Analysis: Ho hum, another year, another solid performance from the Yankee's golden boy. There's more than one reason Jeter has a virtual death grip on the hearts and minds of New York sports fans--charisma, great talent, a voracious appetite for winning, and a relatively ego-free approach to the game. Jeter's 2004 performance was as close to his career year of 1999 as he'll likely ever see again. It's just too bad the team surrounding him couldn't have repeated their 1999 World Series championship.
Grade: B+

A tale of two Pujols: team MVP in the regular season, a no-show in the World Series.

MVP Baseball 2004 - Albert Pujols (St. Louis Cardinals)


Analysis: The cover boy for MVP Baseball 2004 looked to live up to the game's name during the 2004 MLB regular season, posting his fourth straight year of hitting more than 120 RBIs and 30 home runs. The 2004 postseason, however, was a much different story for Pujols. Basically invisible during the Cardinals' World Series loss to the Red Sox, Pujols managed just five hits and zero RBIs. A postseason that Pujols, and the rest of his St. Louis teammates, will put behind them.
Grade: A (regular season), C- (postseason)

Sammy Sosa's days in Chicago may be drawing to a close after a dismal 2004.

MLB Slugfest: Loaded - Sammy Sosa (Chicago Cubs)


Analysis: Baseball games looking to further enhance their simulation aspects for 2005 should consider adding a "whine" button for whenever Sammy Sosa appears onscreen. The slugger, once known for his genial personality, has become the proverbial red-ass since the infamous "corked bat" scandal of 2003. This year, Sosa missed games because of sneeze-related injuries; he spread around blame quicker than a Vegas blackjack dealer; and walked out of the park early during the last regular season Cubs game. Is it any wonder Chicago is looking to off-load the 35-year-old posthaste?
Grade: C-

Martin St. Louis brought the Stanley Cup to Tampa Bay. They should rename the city after him.


ESPN NHL 2K5 - Martin St. Louis (Tampa Bay Lightning)


Analysis: Much like Ben Wallace in the NBA, Martin St. Louis' season was marked by his leading the Tampa Bay Lightning to a championship win. Louis topped off his career year by winning the Pearson Award as the NHL's most outstanding player in June of this year. This kind of success has meant one thing for St. Louis during the extended off-season: a long-term contract with the Lightning, which he is still in the process of negotiating. Could St. Louis and the rest of the Lighting successfully defend their Cup in 2004-2005? Apparently Gary Bettman and the NHLPA don't want you to know.
Grade: A

Markus Naslund is one of the best Swedish imports since IKEA furniture.

NHL 2005 - Markus Naslund (Vancouver Canucks)


Analysis: The Canucks' left-winger didn't match his incredible 2002-2003 performance, but an 84-point season is nothing to sneeze at. With the NHL lockout, Naslund has rejected courting offers from Swedish hockey league teams, choosing instead to stay in Canada to train with other Vancouver-based NHL players. Will we see him play again this year? Let's hope so.
Grade: B


Tiger Woods' golf game isn't what it used to be. Could he have already reached his prime?

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005 - Tiger Woods

YearEventsWinsCutsMajor Wins

Analysis: Tiger's golf game has been suffering for more than a while now. Whatever the reasons for the slide--lost focus, a new swing coach, or the simple fact that the competition has elevated its game to Tiger's level--it's clear that the 2004 Tiger is not the same as the Tiger that prowled the links in the late 90s. Let's not forget Tiger's recent nuptials to Swedish model Elin Nordegren, which may also be playing a factor in Tiger's...ahem...distractions.
Grade: C- (golf) A+ (wife)


Harvick has a lot of years, and a lot of left turns, ahead of him.

NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup - Kevin Harvick


Analysis: With two races remaining on the NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule, Harvick looks to come close to, but not surpass, his successful 2003 season, which saw him set a personal earnings record, notch a Brickyard 500 win, and finish fifth overall in the standings. A win drought in 2004 meant that Harvick finished just out of the top 10 slots available for the revamped Nextel Cup chase. A top-15 finish, however, is virtually guaranteed.
Grade: B+

He's not really a rally driver anymore, but that doesn't stop Codemasters from making games with his name on it.

Colin McRae Rally 2005 - Colin McRae


Analysis: He doesn't appear on the cover of the rally game that bears his name, but we like the game so much that we thought we'd include him here. To make matters worse, Colin McRae isn't even a rally driver these days, since he was dropped from the Citroen team at the end of 2003. Whether the Flying Scotsman will find another drive on a championship-caliber WRC team is still up in the air. McRae has still kept his motor sports muscles flexed, however, competing in both the grueling 7,000-mile Paris-Dakar Rally and the famous Le Mans 24-Hour Race endurance event this year.
Grade: B

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