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Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson on being the cover athlete for Madden NFL 21

After surpassing Michael Vick last season as the fastest QB in Madden history, the reigning NFL MVP is now the face of the video game

Remember that powerful image from the 2018 NFL draft green room of Lamar Jackson and his mother, Felicia Jones, waiting to hear his name called?

That night, even though Jackson fell in the first round before the Baltimore Ravens selected him with the 32nd overall pick, developers for Madden NFL considered doing the unthinkable: making Jackson the fastest quarterback on Madden — even faster than Madden 04 Michael Vick, who’s widely considered the greatest of all time of the game. That’s how much respect football’s marquee video game had for the promising young signal-caller.

“Really what it came down to was, we know this guy has unreal speed,” Clint Oldenburg, a former NFL offensive lineman-turned-gameplay producer at EA Sports, told The Undefeated in November. “We know eventually he’s going to be electric. Let’s not just give away this rating that’s potentially going to unbalance the game. Let’s see what he has and make sure he earns it.”

By Week 12 of the 2019 NFL season, Jackson was presented with a speed rating of 96 — one point higher than Vick’s quarterback record 95 rating that he held for more than 15 years. After that moment, it was only a matter of time before Jackson received the game’s highest honor, like Vick did for Madden 04.

Now, it’s official. On Monday, EA Sports announced Jackson as the cover athlete for Madden NFL 21. It comes after his NFL MVP season, during which he led the Ravens to an AFC North division title, led the league in passing touchdowns (36) and broke Vick’s 13-year-old record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season, with 1,206 on 6.9 yards per carry.

Jackson’s mother, who manages her son’s career, was the one who delivered the news, which he unintentionally broke himself on a conference call with Baltimore reporters back in April.

When the game drops on Aug. 28, Jackson, at 23 years old, will be the third-youngest player to grace the cover, behind Odell Beckham Jr. on Madden 16 and Vick on Madden 04. He’s also the ninth quarterback — and sixth black quarterback — to cover the game, following Daunte Culpepper (Madden 02), Vick (04), Donovan McNabb (06), Vince Young (08), Brett Favre (09), Drew Brees (11), Tom Brady (18) and Patrick Mahomes (20). Ahead of the announcement, The Undefeated spoke to Jackson about achieving the milestone he’s dreamed of for as long as he’s played the game.

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted towards the end of May before George Floyd’s death sparked a worldwide movement of protest against racial injustice and police brutality in the United States.

How did you find out that you were going to be on the cover of Madden NFL 21 — and what was going through your mind?

My manager told me Madden was interested in me being on the cover. I was very excited. That’s a kid’s dream and I’m a grown man now. From getting drafted two years ago to winning MVP, it feels like everything has happened so fast. Now, I’m happy to be a part of this, just like all the other greats who have been on the cover.

Did you have a feeling this was coming after your MVP season?

Honestly, no. Because there were so many other dynamic players in the NFL who also had great seasons, from Michael Thomas to Christian McCaffrey. I really didn’t know who was going to be on the front cover. It wasn’t really on my mind until my manager told me Madden was interested.

In April, you broke the news yourself. Was that on purpose?

That was an accident! I hate it! I wish I could rewind time and not say anything. I would’ve said, ‘Next question.’

How did you tell your mom about being named the Madden cover athlete?

She told me! She got the email. She called me and was telling me that I couldn’t talk about it. No one else knew but me and her until I did the interview and that’s when everybody else found out about it. But she’s the one who told me. She was very happy. But no one is happier than I am.

Take me back to the beginning — how did you first start playing Madden?

I’ve had Madden for a long time. The first Madden I remember is the one with Michael Vick on the cover in 2004. He was unbelievable. I’d play with him. I’d play with Ricky Williams on the Dolphins. I’d go back and forth with those guys, but I just remember Vick doing all this crazy stuff. He was unstoppable. No one could ever beat the Falcons. I just remember how dynamic he was in the game — how unreal he was.

How would you describe how good Vick’s player was in Madden 04, particularly his speed?

Ridiculous. He was burning everybody. You know how sometimes on Madden the lineman will catch the quarterback? Not on Madden 04. No one was catching Michael Vick. The lineman wasn’t catching him. The defensive back wasn’t catching him. He was unstoppable.

As a kid, how much did Michael Vick inspire you as a football player?

A lot. He was just different. He was one of the guys who represented a kid coming out of poverty, just tryna make it out. That’s what he was to us — our idol. He was a big bro to a lot of us.

Do you consider yourself the next generation’s Michael Vick?

I really just try to play the game my way. And it’s Michael Vick. It’s dope to hear the comparisons, but he’s one of a kind.

Last season, in Week 12 against the Rams, Vick passed the torch to you as the fastest QB in Madden history. What do you remember from that night?

Actually, my coach told me. Coach James Urban, who used to coach Michael Vick on the Philadelphia Eagles. He told me, ‘Vick just dropped you off some cleats. … You’re now the fastest quarterback in the history of Madden.’ They were red on one side for the Falcons, then it had the purple for the Ravens. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah! Bet!’ It was different.

What did it mean to you to receive the honor as the fastest QB in Madden history?

It meant a lot. It felt fake, honestly. Like, you, Lamar Jackson, actually passed Michael Vick? Mannn, it was one of the coolest moments ever.

Was that new 96-speed rating fast enough in your opinion?

I don’t know. I haven’t got caught on the field, so it might not be fast enough. But when the season comes this year, we’re gonna see. Madden might have to bump it up a little bit.

Do you consider yourself the fastest player in the NFL?

I’m not the fastest, but I’m one of the fastest.

Who else comes to mind?

Hollywood [Ravens wide receiver Marquise Brown]. Tyreek Hill. I feel like Tyreek is the fastest in the NFL. There are a lot of athletes in the league who are fast, but Tyreek is different. His acceleration is ridiculous. I feel like he should have a 100-speed rating on Madden.

Rewinding to last year’s game, you began Madden 20 with an overall rating of 76. Did that motivate you throughout the season?

I thought to myself, ‘I don’t like this!’ That the people who do the updates on Madden needed to come to Week 1.

Last season, there was one play you made that felt like it was straight out of a video game. What do you remember most from your 47-yard touchdown run — and spin move — from Week 10 vs. the Cincinnati Bengals?

Up to that point, I had probably only run two or three times in that game, because our receivers and tight ends were working hard, our offensive line was working — we were in a groove. I had a lot of passing yards and a lot of passing first downs. The couple times I ran, Carlos Dunlap was chasing me. When I came back to the line, he said, ‘I wanna see that speed! I wanna see that speed! I almost caught you.’ I’m like, ‘Bruh, if it comes down to it, I’m gonna do what I have to do.’ A play or two later after that, coach called a run play — an option play. I ended up keeping the ball and Carlos Dunlap was one of the first people I saw. I hit one move, cut up the middle, saw the safety, made another cut … made another cut … saw the linebacker, and then the safety, No. 36. I just spun, trying to get to the end zone. And the rest is history.

One of the last times we saw you on the field was during the AFC divisional round of the playoffs against the Tennessee Titans. What did you learn from that 28-12 loss?

You can’t underestimate your opponent. You can’t go in there flat-footed. I like going into the game being the underdog, instead of people hyping us up. That’s what it was all season long: A lot of people were doubting us. But then we got hyped up just to get blown down. So going forward, we gotta let the outside noise stay outside and keep everything amongst each other. Focus on winning games. Not the next game. Focus on the game that’s now — like the Tennessee game — instead of trying to look ahead.

How often do you think about winning a Super Bowl?

Every day. … Nah, I’m foreal. I think about winning a Super Bowl every single day.

Given your journey so far, what did it mean to you to be named the MVP?

Man, that was kind of like the Heisman ceremony. I really didn’t know if it was actually going to happen. There were other great players on the field last year, as well. Russell Wilson, he was making tremendous things happen for the Seahawks. And Michael Thomas, who won offensive player of the year, was making spectacular catches. But I was God-fearing and was honored to win MVP. It was great for the city of Baltimore. It’s great for our organization. I’m just grateful.

Now, you’ve earned another honor. How special is it to you to be the cover athlete of Madden 21? Could you have ever imagined being on the cover?

I’m not gonna lie to you, I never could have imagined being on the cover of Madden. As a kid, you dream about it. But me being on the cover is unreal. I don’t think I’m gonna fully realize it until I’m playing the game and I see it in stores. Then I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, you’re on the cover.’

That brings us to the most important question: Do you believe in the Madden curse?

Nah. I don’t. Because Patrick Mahomes, he won MVP, was put on the cover of Madden then comes back and wins a Super Bowl. So the curse is out the window for me. If that’s the curse, I want it.

So what can we expect from Lamar Jackson on the football field in 2020?

We’re gonna have to see when the season comes. There’s no point in talking about it. I’ll just go out and show it on the field.

What can we expect from Lamar Jackson on Madden 21?

The experts gotta tell you that! But there’s gonna be a faster Lamar on the video game. And I’m pretty fast on the game already.

What do you expect your overall rating to be in the game?

I haven’t gotten it yet. But I don’t know. I just hope it’s over a 95. I’d be cool with that.

Some say you have a chance to surpass 2004 Michael Vick as the greatest player in Madden history. Is that a goal of yours?

I’ve never heard that. But my goal is to be the greatest at everything. And if I’m on the cover of Madden, I want to be the best on the game. I hope I am.

Liner Notes

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Aaron Dodson is a sports and culture writer at Andscape. He primarily writes on sneakers/apparel and hosts the platform’s Sneaker Box video series. During Michael Jordan’s two seasons playing for the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s, the “Flint” Air Jordan 9s sparked his passion for kicks.