by | Sep 23, 1994 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

New this season! Men slapping their heads!

You haven’t noticed? Watch any NFL game. Sooner or later, the quarterback will pop out of the huddle, spin toward the sidelines and whack his helmet as if his hair were on fire.

What could this be? A new dance step? A wasp in his ear hole? He confused his shampoo with Preparation H?

No. It’s the increasing reaction to the latest gizmo in the NFL, or Newest Fangled League: the radio helmet.

“BLUEzzzzzzzplt…8 screEEEYY…got it?”

That is sort of what you hear in the radio helmet. At least when it isn’t working, which is more often than you think. Coaches are supposed to send plays via walkie-talkie, straight to the quarterback’s ear. But when something goes wrong — static, bad battery, a Russian cruise missile — the quarterback

has no choice but to signal the sideline that he is not getting the signal. This is signaled by the slapping- your-head signal, which is followed by more signals, and then the new signals, and then more head-slapping, and then some aspirin.

The league approved the radio helmet because: 1) Crowd noise was becoming a problem; and 2) It furthers the idea that football is war.

QUARTERBACK: What’s the play?

COACH (via radio): Roger, Mad Dog, do you copy? You have air support, ground support, we’re going in, repeat, we are going in, now . . . now! . . . TORA! TORA! TORA!

The experiment has had mixed reaction. Some quarterbacks like it. Some hate it. Some, like Dallas’ Troy Aikman, stick with the old system of hand signals. This is smart — given how Troy played Monday night — because coaches can’t say “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” in hand signals.

They can yell that into a radio helmet. If the helmet is working.

“In the Atlanta game this year, mine kept going on and off,” says Scott Mitchell, the Lions’ quarterback. “And one time, down near the goal line, I couldn’t hear anything. It just went hap-hap-hap-hap-hap, like that.”

“What did you do?”

“I told my receivers, ‘You go here, you go here.’ “

He threw a touchdown to Anthony Carter.

They call that the hap-hap-happy play. Ouch! In one ear and out the other

In an effort to better appreciate the situation, I asked the Lions to let me try the radio helmet. They agreed — even though the helmets cost $3,000 apiece. (And you wonder why quarterbacks don’t throw their helmets anymore.)

We went to the field, and one of the Lions’ staff members, Charlie Coffin, wired himself up the way Dave Levy, the Lions’ offensive coordinator, does Sundays — with a special utility belt, a walkie-talkie, headset, cords, adjustable microphone.

“Are we invading Haiti?” I asked.

Charlie told me to pull on the helmet. I walked downfield, then yelled at him to call a play. For a second, I heard static, like when the pilot is about to speak on an airplane. And then Charlie’s voice. I think it was Charlie’s voice.




This is either a new play, or Charlie speaks Hungarian.

Suddenly, my whole head shook.


Marc Spindler, the defensive lineman, had gotten hold of the microphone and was screaming into it. I saw him laughing. I couldn’t hear him laughing, because I was temporarily deaf.

Still, this raises the interesting possibility: What if someone besides the coach grabs the headset during a game?

“OK, Scott, draw play, on thr–“

“HELLO, SCOTT? It’s your Uncle Milton! We got tickets up in Section 305. Wave to your Aunt Becky! You see her? In the yellow hat? . . . “

There are other problems. For example, the radio works only until 15 seconds before the play clock expires. Then, communications are shut off. League rule. This means there isn’t much time, and a quarterback needs silence in the huddle.

“Hey, Scott, hit me, man! I’m open!”

“Shhh! I’m trying to hear the–“

“zzzzrrpp 38 . . . “


“I said, ‘Hit me, man, I’m open!’ “


“Repeat, please . . . zzzpt”

“Not you, I’m talking to my receiver here.”

“Repeat . . . zzkkllll . . . grlysssp”

“Oh, nuts, not again.”

“Damn, Scott, I only asked you twice.”

“Not you, this helmet!”

“zzzrpp ELP! ELP! . . . RED DOG . . . S . . . OTT?”

“Forget it, everybody go long. Break!” Radios make for more mobile backups

You see the problems. Football failed to handle even instant replay, and that didn’t involve batteries.

True, when used correctly, the radio helmet, Mitchell admits, “can be a very efficient system. It saves time. But sometimes, when it doesn’t work, you just have to wing it.”

Dave Krieg, the backup (who hears everything because all the quarterback helmets are wired for sound), says, “Try listening to it with 70,000 people screaming.”

Good point. Still, Chuck Long, the other backup, says the helmet does have advantages. “Now we don’t have to stand next to coaches to know what’s going on. We can move around a little.”

This is particularly helpful if the coach ate salami the night before.

Or if Uncle Milton shows up.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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