Welcome to Memory Card. Here, we embark on one final—maybe even fatal—playthrough of the forgotten games of our past. Just like the old days, we might pull some all nighters, we might lose a friend or two, we might resort to eating too many Hot Pockets. Let’s see how far we’ve come. Or regressed.
I was 12 years old when NFL Head Coach turned me into a tweenage Billy Beane and ruined my life in a way I’m only now starting to comprehend.
When NFL Head Coach debuted in 2006, EA Sports’ Madden series was at its peak, thanks to one of its most popular game modes: Franchise mode. In the game, you become pseudo-GM and guide a team through 30-some years, trading players, signing free agents, and playing your way to the Super Bowl. Franchise mode, for the uninitiated, is a blast—especially when it was brand new, and you finally had more things to do than tackle and throw passes. I’m assuming the next (logical, admittedly) step began as a shower thought from an EA Sports bigwig:
What if… you were only the coach?
Thus, NFL Head Coach, the world’s greatest office simulator for jocks, was born. It was a game where you became, yes, an NFL Head Coach, in the most realistic—like I-can’t-believe-someone-actually-made-this realistic—way. Meaning you had large boardroom meetings, an email inbox and calendar you needed to manage, weekly meetings with your boss, practice (where you told the players what to do and watched them do it), and games (where you… told the players what to do and watched them do it). There was also a health bar that tracked your job security—get too low, and you were out of a job.
Back then, I should’ve been chasing perfect games in Wii Sports bowling or brandishing Tommy guns in Call of Duty like a well-adjusted seventh-grader, but instead, I locked myself in my dad’s office and obsessed over signing decisions and scouting reports. I’m still not sure what compelled me to want a virtual office job when most other shy little boys were starting to get hormones, but hey—sometimes a kid just needs to tell a computer-generated grown-up to practice his slot routes. Anyway. With the Super Bowl approaching, I thought it was the perfect time for one last, nostalgic run at something that once gave me so much joy, so I played through NFL Head Coach.
I became Timothy O’Leary (a computer-generated name, though I shortened the first name to Timmy), a windbreaker-wearing man with action-toy catchphrases like “Perfect,” or “We’re in business,” or “I LIKE IT!” In the first five minutes of his doomed existence, Timmy met with his owner/boss, who told him, “If I don’t trust you, you can expect to be unemployed at the end of the season.” Timmy never forgot that.
Next, Timmy looked at his schedule. Day One: MANAGEMENT MTG, OFFICE HOURS, WEEKLY STAFF MTG, OFFICE HOURS. Day Two looked similar. Actually, so did every day in the almost 200 days leading up to the NFL Regular Season. Timmy had more meetings in a week as an NFL Head Coach than I have had in a single month of my adult working life. In one of the first meetings, Timmy sat in a large conference room with his fellow coaches and talked to them one by one, going around in a circle first-day-of-school style. Instead of icebreakers, he decided whether they were allowed to keep their jobs or not. He fired the linebackers coach, John Hufnagel. It hurt. John Hufnagel probably had a wife. Children. Timmy O’Leary would learn, over time, to be less sensitive to these things as he adjusted to the life of an NFL Head Coach.
After roughly hundreds of meetings and blocks of office hours (for reading emails, calling up other NFL Head Coaches and making trade offers, pondering your artificial existence), it came time for Timmy to coach his first game. Coaching an actual game in NFL Head Coach is like if you had to play The Legend of Zelda by merely suggesting to Link what you think he should do, and more often than not, having the little bastard disagree and do something wholly random and unexpected, like playing “Macarena” on his Ocarina or jumping off a cliff. There is very little coaching to be done in NFL Head Coach. Pick a play, watch helplessly as it sputters out of control, repeat. Timmy lost his first game and received an email from his owner:
SUBJECT LINE: I’M DISAPPOINTED COACH.
I THOUGHT WE HAD THAT GAME. WHAT HAPPENED OUT THERE? THE TEAM JUST FELL APART OUT THERE. CAN WE TAKE CARE OF THESE ISSUES FOR NEXT WEEK PLEASE.
Timmy felt sick. He had failed the orders of the biblical NFL Head Coach loading screens, which pulled famous quotes from other famous NFL Head Coaches, all of which endorsed a work-until-you-die attitude:
A winner never whines.
Get the job done.
One thing I never want to be accused of is not working.
But Timmy lost the next game. And the next one. And the next one after that. His job security bar was low and he was tracking toward unemployment. When he said, “We’re in business,” he didn’t mean it anymore.
A month into the regular season, there were only a few things keeping Timmy alive. One of them was the strangely uplifting soundtrack, which the game cribs from the marching band anthems used in those corny NFL Films documentaries. It’s what Football: The Musical!* would sound like. “Salute to Courage” was a true favorite of Timmy’s, and it saved him from using his oversized desk lamp to inflict a work injury on himself so severe that he could collect a worker’s compensation check large enough to free him from the burden of being an NFL Head Coach.
He was getting sick of his dickhead offensive coordinator, Kevin Gilbride, telling him who to draft and what to do. Who the hell was that guy? He’d surely be fired at the next meeting. When was that? What year was it? Had Timmy been fired? Was life now one large block of office hours?
Timmy quit before the answers found him.
It took a while to shed the last bits of Timmy O’Leary from myself. My tortured playthrough of NFL Head Coach was not only boring, but also painful. I found myself getting that same anxious ping when an email arrived as I do in real life, the same need to impress my superiors, and same resentment I feel for dickish coworkers. Did NFL Head Coach instill any of this in me? I don’t know. When I was a kid, I thought that having an office job in NFL Head Coach was the coolest thing. Now, I’m thinking that it traumatized me for life and made me overthink all my interactions as an adult.
They say write what you know, so I’m guessing NFL Head Coach was made by programmers who, like me, obsessed over their work, so they built a game about the minutiae of it. NFL Head Coach never reached Madden levels of hype. It earned one sequel, the painfully similar NFL Head Coach 09. The sports video game world learned that mahogany desks and passive-aggressive emails are best left in the real world. We’ll probably never see a game like NFL Head Coach again.
I’ve learned what my hell—or, what used to be my heaven—looks like: The date is Monday, March 3, 2031. It’s Timmy’s 26th season as an NFL Head Coach. Up today are SCOUT PLAYERS, OFFICE HOURS, MANAGEMENT MTG, OFFICE HOURS. He’s a few million dollars away from going over the salary cap, and his job security bar is running low. There are 12 unopened emails from the owner. “Salute to Courage” swells in the background. He stares at his khakis. In that instant, Timmy knows that everything he loved as a child has been turned to pixels, megabytes, and an unmanaged calendar.
*I’d imagine that Football: The Musical! tells the Little Women-esque saga of the Manning family: Peyton, the lovable and square-headed champion; the awkward, underachieving Eli; Cooper, the outcast; and the disapproving patriarch, Archie. In the grand finale, Saquon Barkley (played by Leslie Odom Jr.), leads a choir outfitted in Giants uniforms singing a Tony-winning rendition of “Salute to Courage” as Eli (played by Ben Platt) finally stands up to Peyton (played by Nathan Lane). Eli screams, “I don’t need your love, dammit!” and disappears into the marshland outside MetLife Stadium. Curtains.