Jerome Bettis was unstoppable. He twisted out of tackles. He plunged over piles of players. He dented the helmets of defenders who stood in his path. He wasn't just the star running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was a tireless touchdown machine.
Eventually, however, he had to climb off the couch and return to the real world.
That's when he shelved his joystick and gave up the Madden NFL video game for good.
"I had to quit cold turkey three years ago," Bettis said. "I was up all night, all day. I just realized that, hey, I've got to do some other things with my time. It can be an addiction, man."
Since 2001, Madden has been the top-selling video game in North America. Now, NFL players themselves are showing signs of obsession -- some of them complaining directly to John Madden when they thought the game had shortchanged their skill level.
Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick recently complained to the company that he, not Oakland receiver Randy Moss, should be the fastest player in the game. New England running back Corey Dillon says he thinks his overall rating is far too low. And Tampa Bay receiver Michael Clayton has argued that his tackling number should be higher -- in case he ever is required to tackle a player.
The Madden game has become a staple on the NFL scene.
In Jacksonville, where the Jaguars play it on a four-man machine in their lounge, players become so absorbed by the game that some have been known to dart out in a mad scramble to make their meetings on time. On the team plane, they play Madden against one another on hand-held devices with wireless connections.
"One guy's sitting in the front row and the other guy's in the back, and they'll be playing each other," said Marcellus Wiley, a Jaguar defensive end. "You're trying to sleep. The guy will jump up in the front of the plane and say, 'No way, man! That's a penalty!' "
Named for the ABC announcer and former Super Bowl-winning coach of the Oakland Raiders, the Electronic Arts game is produced for eight different consoles -- among them the Xbox, PlayStation and GameCube -- and sells for $30 to $60. EA has exclusive rights to the NFL for at least the next four years.
Sales over the last 15 years have reached $1.5 billion, propelled by ever-more-sophisticated graphics and features, as well as the popularity of pro football.
Using a controller or a keyboard, the gamer can compete against another player or the computer. Via the Internet, rivals thousands of miles apart can square off in real time. The gamer can pick all the plays on offense and defense, then control individual players.
A new mode introduced this year allows the gamer to "live the life" of a budding NFL superstar, not only by assuming the role on the field, but by picking the virtual player's agent, his barber -- even his tattoo artist.
"A player comes in the league and he's been playing Madden since probably grammar school, all the way through high school, and they still play it when they're in the pros," said Madden, who participates in each step of the game's production. "Then when they get in the [video] game, that's another thing for them. They love that, to see themselves in the game."
EA produced a new edition to coincide with the release last month of the Xbox 360. Every seat at every NFL stadium is represented. So is every bulb in every video board -- a few of which are burned out.
Three-dimensional head scans were taken of more than 100 players, capturing facial details that include childhood scars and razor burns. In an editing mode, it's possible to zoom in close enough to read the fine print on the warning stickers adhered to the back of the players' helmets, or to spot the shiny silver food warmers in the luxury suites.
As realistic as the game looks, however, many NFL players would argue their individual ratings are off the mark. Each player is rated on a scale of one to 99 in several categories, among them speed, strength, agility and awareness. Those numbers are compiled to form an overall rating, which helps determine how effective that player is in the video game.
"Every player says that they don't have enough juice," Madden said, referring loosely to players' overall effectiveness. "And some of them I do something about. Remember when [Kansas City's] Dante Hall was having a big year as a kick returner? He didn't have enough juice. He was kidding with me before a game; he said, 'I'm slower than everyone. Those big linemen run faster than me.'
"He said, 'There's an injury on the field and the trainers and the doctors and the equipment guy run out on the field and they run faster than me.' And so I called and we gave him a little more juice."
The only player to concede that his character was better in the video game than he was in real life was running back Emmitt Smith.
"It was when he was going wild with the Cowboys," Madden said. "He had just come from watching some guys play, one guy was playing as the Cowboys and playing as him and Emmitt says, 'I'm not that good.' "