As I've said before, whenever news happens in sports, my first thoughts turn to how I can recreate it in a video game. It was no different when, like millions, I read that Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend, whose tragedy underlined his world-beating performances in Notre Dame's undefeated regular season this past year, was proven to be a hoax.
But longtime players of the NCAA Football series know that having a fake girlfriend to burnish your Heisman campaign is nothing new. After all, EA Sports hooked us up with them eight years ago.
The goth. The librarian. The hayseed. The supermodel. If you played the new "Race for the Heisman" mode on NCAA Football 06 on the Xbox or PlayStation 2, you "dated" one of these, if not all of them. Their pictures were tacked on the virtual dorm room bulletin board that "Race for the Heisman" gave you in its main menu, and the better you played, the better looking they got.
No, really. They did.
It was one of the first role-playing features sports video games offered as they started pushing into the fantasy offered today by career modes like "My Player," in NBA 2K or "Be a Pro" in FIFA or "Road to the Show" in MLB The Show.
I remember my first NCAA 06 girlfriend. I had enrolled at Indiana, determined to take the woebegone Hoosiers to their first Rose Bowl since 1968. She was the farm girl, chewing on a straw. In my first playthrough, I didn't see the picture and think her looks were somehow a grade of my performance. I figured my player went to Bloomington still faithful to his high school sweetheart. I really thought her picture was supposed to remind me of home, not be a benchmark of my fame.
But once I made first string, the photo changed. It changed again when I made all-freshman, and again when I made all-America. Success had changed me, whether I liked it or not. By my senior year, I wasn't dating my sweetheart from Indianapolis. Nor was I seeing the editor of the school paper. Now I was going out with a Penthouse Pet. See for yourself above.
There were 17 girlfriends in all in that edition of the game. Playing it years ago, I think I saw about nine of them. Today, the game is out of print, and GameStop, in fact, has issued a destroy order for all used copies of NCAA 06 in light of the fact the PlayStation 2 has gone out of production. I know, because I tried to find a copy of this game within driving distance after the Te'o fiasco broke, to refresh my recollection. There were none within two hours of where I live.
The "Girlfriend" feature of Race for the Heisman was literally nothing more than a picture you could zoom in on, so it's easy to see why this novelty may have been overlooked at the time by the College Licensing Company, which wielded approval over NCAA Football 06. But it's not hard to see why it was doomed after a single year. (It was replaced in NCAA 07 by a photograph of your player's dog.) Even if Johnny Manziel or AJ McCarron are dating very attractive women, it's very rude to suggest they're as much a trophy as the Heisman you were ostensibly chasing in NCAA 06.
There was no way to pick your player's girlfriend, though. There was no way to keep one either. Like Te'o's fiction, it was a relationship designed to satisfy external expectations. Once the story became part of your public persona, you had no say in the matter. You just had a great game and then came home to a new hotty.
When I collected my Heisman in NCAA 06, it was such a foregone conclusion as to be almost a hollow victory. I remember going back to my dorm before the Rose Bowl. I didn't even recognize the picture staring back at me. Of course she was gorgeous. But my real fantasy was that I stayed true to the girl from Indiana.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.