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 NEW YORK (AP) -The opposition was throwing the ball all over the place when Marshall Faulk watched his son's football game last year.
Afterward, the 12-year-old lamented that his team didn't use the cover-2 defense.
Faulk, the 2000 NFL MVP, considers such moments the greatest influence of the ``Madden NFL Football'' video game, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. He overhears his son and his friends casually tossing around such football terminology as cover-2 or 4-3 defense, concepts they learned from maneuvering virtual players.
``I know I didn't teach it to them,'' Faulk said, ``because they haven't asked me.''
To the guys for whom those terms are part of their jobs, ``Madden,'' whose 2009 edition was released Tuesday, is an institution. Younger NFL stars like 25-year-old Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young have been playing the game practically since they were old enough to hold a controller.
Last year, Young was on the cover. It's a distinction today's players regard with great pride.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, called his turn on the cover ``one of the greatest honors I think I've ever had.''
Granted, Lewis' declaration came during a celebration of the anniversary in June that included fellow former cover stars Faulk, Young, Daunte Culpepper and Shaun Alexander.
But there's no doubt how seriously NFL players take the game.
``Even if you're not on the cover, you look at your rankings and stats and always question them,'' Faulk said of the ratings for various abilities players are given in each year's edition. ``You want to make sure you show 'em.''
Lewis will check the ratings and think: ``Huh? This guy is faster than me? I ain't never lost to this guy.''
``What do they rate me off of?'' he huffed. ``My career? Last year?''
Culpepper noticed he was treated differently around the league after his cover appearance.
``Everywhere I went, people wanted to challenge me,'' he said.
Alexander's 13-year-old cousin didn't acknowledge that the Seahawks running back, the 2005 NFL MVP, was ``pretty good'' until he graced the front of ``Madden.''
Said Young, ``When I was overseas in March, people noticed me just because of the 'Madden' cover.''
Faulk has run into hard-core gamers who ``tell you what new little trick, nuances, what attributes you had, the way they used you.''
Then again, many of his fellow pro football players could share the same tidbits. Culpepper estimated that many in the NFL play the game three to four hours a day during the offseason. Once the season starts, the volume decreases - to about three to four times a week.
NFL players with their blazing competitive streaks find the rivalries of the game irresistible.
That means lots of trash-talking and the kinds of bets only millionaires can make.
Young conceded that he has ``lost a lot of money, broke a lot of controllers, probably broke a PlayStation 2.''
Culpepper has ``won some mortgage payments, lost some mortgage payments.''
Faulk once agreed to a wager with a lower-paid teammate. If Faulk won, the teammate had to wash his Bentley for a month. If the teammate won, he got to drive Faulk's Bentley for a week.
Faulk lost.
Sometimes the bets don't involve money or fancy cars. Alexander wagered with his teenage brother-in-law over the right to make the other drop and do 10 push-ups or sit-ups at any time.
``My little brother to this day owes me 2,500 push-ups,'' Lewis said.
``Madden'' is so pervasive that it has its own curse. Players who appear on the cover always seem to get injured afterward - or so the myth goes.
The five former cover stars scoffed at the curse talk. Any injuries reflect the physical nature of the sport, they insisted - nothing more, nothing less.
Alexander summed it up: ``You run into knuckleheads like Ray here.''

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