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Role play off the pitch helps Eagles on it


PHILADELPHIA — When safety CJ Gardner-Johnson arrived at the Eagles in a trade with the New Orleans Saints a week before the regular season, there was one thing he struggled to understand about his new team. .

It was a word his teammates Haason Reddick, Shaun Bradley and Miles Sanders used to describe almost everything: “jawn”. The term, which is Philadelphia slang for a person, place, or thing, baffled him, and its use sometimes still does.

“I really never understood what it was,” said Gardner-Johnson, who grew up in a town outside of Orlando, Florida. But he said playing an RPG version of Grand Theft Auto V, a popular first-person action-adventure game, helped him bond with his new Eagles teammates. More importantly, he can better understand what his teammates are saying on the pitch and in conversation.

Over the 11 weeks of the regular season, the Eagles (9-1) have the best record in the NFL for several reasons: improving third-year quarterback Jalen Hurts; a defense ranked in the top 10 in the league; and new players who made an impact. The time they spent playing a video game became an unlikely bonding forum for the rising Eagles.

“It’s kind of like our secret sauce,” Gardner-Johnson said.

After all the practice, film study and weightlifting, several Eagles players have said, they can’t wait to spend their free time living the life of anyone but a football player. So, for hours, they play a modified, multiplayer version of the video game.

In Grand Theft Auto V, a user navigates a fictional city, Los Santos, as the main character who must complete missions to progress. In the role-playing version, players act as civilians – clerks, doctors, taxi drivers, policemen and lawyers – who earn money for completing tasks in their role to buy clothes, cars, restaurants and whatever they desire. There is no greater mission to accomplish or progress to be made. And while the game can be played on a variety of gaming consoles, like PlayStation and Xbox, the modded version can only be played with a PC setup.

Users must join a user-created server, or start their own, to enter a custom world, and they can communicate through headsets where they talk to each other using their character names or risk jail and other consequences for violating the rules of the game.

Like most NFL locker rooms, Eagles players are grouped by position they play so they can easily discuss the ins and outs of their particular job. They’re also grouped that way — with a handful of the same guys — at movie review sessions and position meetings. It can be difficult for teammates to build relationships with each other outside of these clusters.

But the play was a way for Eagles players who line up all over the field to hang on. Defensive backs Darius Slay and Avonte Maddox are avid players, as are Reddick and Bradley, who are linebackers. Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell, who play running back, are diehards, and Gardner-Johnson said he persuaded offensive tackle Jordan Mailata to join them.

“It just builds a friendship at the end of the day,” said Reddick, a peak carrier with seven and a half sacks this season. “Then when you get on the pitch, we’re all happy for each other, and we all want each other to feel good.” He added: “And we get to talk about other topics; we don’t have to talk about football among ourselves.

The amount of time Eagles players spend on the game varies, but Gardner-Johnson and Gainwell might be the most avid players on the team, regularly streaming hours of live gameplay each day on Twitch. They both have their own servers (Sanders’ character was in jail on Gardner-Johnson’s server at the time of an interview earlier this season) and have drawn teammates into their worlds.

“A lot of people, especially me, are just at home doing nothing,” Sanders said. “Since I got my PC, I’ve been more on the game and calling people more.”

The basement of the Gardner-Johnson Townhouse serves as the gaming and football headquarters. The piece features his football memorabilia – cleats, game balls and a shelf with two footballs he intercepted from Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady. Tucked across the room is his gaming oasis, which costs $10,000, he said.

The setup includes two monitors, a gaming keyboard, headphones and wall sconces that spell “2X,” a reference to one of Gardner-Johnson’s nicknames, which he says is a reminder to give twice as much energy. effort in any task. It’s also the name of the esports team he owns, 2X Global.

The football slips into the play area in two places: a circular screen that sits inside the Gardner-Johnson PC that displays a GIF of him taunting Brady during a Saints win, and his gaming chair, which he took from the Eagles locker room. He says he “has to wear” his Balenciaga furry slippers when performing, switching between two characters, Lil Juvie, a business owner, and Cameron Rooks, a police officer.

On the field, Gardner-Johnson is having the best year of his career, leading the NFL with six interceptions and having 59 tackles, the second-highest total of his career with seven games remaining. In a corner of the basement is a whiteboard with his goals for the season, many of which he exceeded, such as having at least five interceptions and 50 tackles in the Eagles’ game against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night.

Gardner-Johnson said he was ‘probably the cockiest player you’ll ever meet’, and he earned a reputation for being a stirrer for his on-court antics, which include goaded receivers he covered punches; energetically kicking and punching the Atlanta Falcons logo, a rival team, after a victory last season; and taunt Brady.

But his interactions with video games — not only with fellow gamers, but also with gamers who can’t afford the high-end equipment he uses — have humbled him, he said, and changed his approach to football. He has a large framed photo in his basement next to his football goals for the season that reads “Kill Your Ego” as a daily reminder.

“That’s why I haven’t been so vocal this year,” Gardner-Johnson said, noting that he’s cut back on his trash talk this season. “I was just, like, calm and relaxed.” He added: “I just want to play football, go home and play video games.”




nytimes sport

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