- Matt Wong, NBA
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Mike Vick is lounging in his hotel room. Sprawled out on the couch, he looks in serious need of a nap, but he's ready to do yet another interview about EA's Madden 2004. My ESPN Gamer colleague begins firing questions over the air conditioner blasting in the background.
Me? I'm shooting stares at the PS2 directly in front of me, waiting for a chance to try out the game.
Finally, the challenge is placed on the table, right next to a tray of oatmeal raisin cookies. Having just walked a half-mile in blistering sun, I'm definitely in for some friendly competition and any kind of mindless relaxation to make the trip worth my while. Vick isn't passing, either. (But don't tell that to his receivers.)
So the showdown is on: The 2004 Madden cover boy against yours truly. My gaming skills are average, but clearly I'm a huge underdog to the Atlanta Falcons superstar QB, for obvious reasons:
1.) He's played the game all day, if not already mastered it. I haven't even seen the game before, nor have I been very good on the cyber gridiron since Joe Montana Football on the Sega Genesis.
2.) He's an NFL quarterback. He's well-schooled in the X's and O's and even had a hand in creating the playbook for Madden. I've yet to find "Run to the garbage can and cut" in any video game playbook, and my knack for annunciating every syllable in "Miss-iss-i-ppi" really does me no good here.
3.) He's in the game -- meaning he's likely to take more pride in his play. His cyber-double looks and moves like him. "He even has my strut," Vick boasts. My create-a-me resides only in my PS2, hooping it up in NBA Street Vol. 2, jumping over backboards and resembling a black guy. When I pinch myself, though, I'm still short and Chinese.
The only thing working for me? My one Lloyd Christmas "So-you're-telling-me-there's-a-chance" shot? Vick is so tired he appears ready to pass out.
An EA rep sets up Falcons vs. Bucs. After reading that Vick doesn't use himself in games, I'm expecting to play as Atlanta -- to see if Mike Vick could stop Mike Vick, or even muster up the courage to lay a hit on his likeness. But he gives me one of his patented jukes, and suddenly I'm left alone with the Super Bowl champs -- a team that, after months of celebration, might be as sober as Captain Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean."
The control pad's finally in my grasp. My arms are resting on my legs, my back is arched slightly, and I'm ready to go. I glance over at Vick. He's sporting shorts and a polo shirt. I take a peek at his calves. They're the size of my thighs! Good thing we weren't playing Nintendo's World Class Track Meet on the Power Pad. With no muscles to flex, I serve up some trash talk. Something completely incoherent stumbles out of my mouth. If his eyes weren't half-shut, I'm sure you would've seen fear in them.
It's Falcons ball. I go with the 4-3. No way he's throwing on first down after watching what my D did to Rich Gannon. Vick snaps the ball. He's passing! I'm passing gas. I'm panicking.
I'm making Derrick Brooks do the Electric Slide. Vick launches the mother of all flings right into the outstretched hands of his receiver running a deep out on the right side. It's Peerless Price! And as if I'm introducing the new Falcon, I provide a strobe light effect while toggling through defenders. With Ronde Barber laying on the ground and Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson laying out in the Arizona sun, Price strolls in for the TD.
"Man, you barely know him," I complain out loud. Vick, all the while doing the interview, pays me no attention. Play stands, all 70 yards of it. Extra point is good. Falcons 7, Bucs 0.
Vick is talking about his little brother. He says Marcus is the only one who can beat him at Madden. He says this in an unbelieving-but-proud-older-brother way. He says this as if I'm not even in the room! Apparently being up by a touchdown not only has his team in the lead, but has him way ahead of himself. I'm impressed by his ability to multi-task, though.
I wave off his first-play fluke to rust. To nerves. To my inability to play defense in football games. Surely it has nothing to do with the All-Pro quarterback sitting to my left. Surely he can't be freakishly good at everything. Surely that wouldn't be fair. I ready myself to receive the kick.
On first down, we line up in the I-Formation. We're gonna run the ball all day, Sweep Right all the way to the end zone. Michael Pittman gets the ball. Michael Pittman gets stopped for no gain. Michael Pittman gets no touches for the rest of the game. (When did that play become completely useless by the way?)
I press the X button repeatedly, fast forwarding to the next screen and minimizing my embarrassment. In doing so, I trigger the panic button -- I'm scrapping the plan and turning the game over to Brad Johnson.
He throws two incomplete passes.
My confidence is crumbling like the cookie Vick just put in his mouth. I'm begging my friend to turn up the heat on the questions. I'm so flustered that I do the unthinkable, the unforgivable, the inexcusable, the ultimate sign of weakness -- I punt. Never in my right mind, would I do that, not even on fourth-and-99. Really, I can't explain what happened. All I know is Vick and I were both left with our mouths open -- I was in shock, he was yawning.
But on the Falcons' next possession they go three-and-out, and I'm back to feeling good. I'm set to receive. Only problem is Atlanta's special teams is on the sideline ... and Vick is behind center. He's going for it! On fourth down!
What I was supposed to do!
I'm slamming on every button in hopes of calling an audible or a timeout. Too late. Vick snaps the ball, takes a step back and sprints forward through a gaping hole near the left hashmark. My return man is my only hope until he tries to tackle Vick five yards too soon. I'm tapping my buttons like mad now, hoping someone will catch him from behind.
Tapping turns to banging.
Banging turns to hand-to-head-banging as Vick goes untouched for the score.
I would've hurled my controller to the floor, unleashed my rage in full, had it been a few years ago and I was in my dorm losing to my roommate, but that would've been unprofessional, inappropriate and maybe a bit childish.
"I thought you were gonna punt," I say, as if he didn't see the play.
"Nah man. Quarterback draw," he says, as if I hadn't seen the play.
Extra point is good. Falcons 14, Bucs 0
I'm in search of the overrated moral victory now. A completion would be enough to satisfy me, and Keyshawn Johnson running a quick slant should do the trick -- and it would have, had Vick not picked the pass off. I hate this game! I want to press the reset button, but there's no need.
The interview -- and my butt-whooping -- is over. I want to shout, "You're lucky, I had Chris Simms taking over in the second quarter," or "Rematch!" Instead I mumble another incomprehensible sentence. Game over.
I offer my hand, and he takes it without rubbing it in. Hey, the man has grace and humility. I have a handshake and a free cookie, which, by the way, is as stale as my performance. I rush my goodbyes so I can replay the game in my head, recount all of my mistakes, wallow in my wasted opportunity.
I head out the door, down the elevator and onto the sidewalk, where the sun is waiting for me. And, suddenly, I wish I was back in the hotel room, chilling with Michael Vick.
Because, if anything, it was cool.
Matt Wong is an editor for ESPN Gamer.