by | Jan 21, 1998 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SAN DIEGO — I worry about things. I can’t help it. It is my nature. If someone says
“chance of rain,” I start looking at the sky. If someone says “mad cow disease,” I throw away my hamburger.

And if someone here in San Diego says, “The radio helmets at this year’s Super Bowl might be interfered with by Mexican radio stations,” well, let me tell you, I can hardly concentrate. I might have to put down the cocoa butter and leave the beach altogether.

I learned of this latest potential Super Bowl disaster after reading a newspaper piece here in Southern California. It spoke of frequency interruption. It spoke of Mexico. It claimed certain radio stations in Mexico don’t exactly follow the stringent rules that U.S. radio stations do.

And since we are just across the border from Mexico, it is possible — not likely, but possible — that sometime Sunday, during Super Bowl XXXII, the football championship of the world, we could have this:

BRETT FAVRE (signaling): “What’s the play?”

COACH (talking into headset): “Red leaf 28, X-dog, left.”

WHAT FAVRE HEARS IN HELMET: “Si, la musica de Julio Iglesias! . . .”

So now, as if figuring out the point spread weren’t hard enough, I have to worry about Mexico. I remember, in the early ’60s, they sent Wolfman Jack’s broadcast out of Mexico, which is why his signal was so strong. And there is currently a U.S. sports station whose tower is in Mexico, and it booms all the way through Los Angeles.

According to one of the men who developed the radio helmet, “The attitude in Mexico is that it’s a free-for-all. Few people follow the (broadcasting) rules.”

No offense, but I don’t think John Elway came all this way to hear Richie Valens music.

What’s the frequency?

So I called a Mr. Jay Gerber, who is the NFL’s frequency coordinator.

(This only shows you how far football has come. Once upon a time, the NFL had three jobs: player, coach, commissioner. Now they have a frequency coordinator. And I bet he has an assistant.)

Anyhow, I asked Mr. Gerber the question that all us decent, God-fearing, football-crazy Americans want to know: Can Brett Favre order a pizza through his helmet?

“Well, not exactly,” he said. “There is a 99-and-9/10ths chance that nothing like that will happen.”

He then proved the power of 1/10th percent by relating a story from two years ago, in which, on the day before the Dallas-Pittsburgh Super Bowl, he and his staff discovered someone talking on the Cowboys designated radio helmet frequency. And it wasn’t a Cowboy.

“It was a businessman. And he was on an illegal cell phone talking to his workers on walkie-talkies. We said, ‘How did this guy get on our frequency?’

“Fortunately, he left a phone number for one of his workers. So I called him. And I said, “Sir, you happen to be on the Dallas Cowboys’ frequency.”

Wow. Now there’s a call you don’t get every day. I mean, how many people can say that they are on the Dallas Cowboys’ frequency? Barry Switzer can’t.

“What did he do?” I asked.

“He apologized,” Gerber said.

Well, sure, he apologized. Who wants Leon Lett coming to your office and eating your furniture? But what good would that do during a game? Mr. Gerber admits that all kinds of radio and cellular frequencies could potentially interfere with the radio helmets — which, of course, were invented to allow the quarterback to hear his coach, not Bill Gates. And given the air traffic in Southern California, where your first bicycle comes with a cell phone, you can only imagine the potential trouble.

“Two guys could get walkie-talkies at Radio Shack,” Gerber said, “come to the game, sit in different sections, and just by fluke, interfere with the Green Bay Packers’ frequency. Or a TV guy with an IFB earpiece. Or a nearby taxi service.”

A taxi service?

FAVRE: “What’s the play?”

HELMET: “Pickup at 12th and Elm . . .”

FAVRE: “What?”

HELMET: “With pepperoni . . .”


HELMET: “Check out the blonde in Row 12 . . .”

FAVRE: “Where?”

Technology marches on

Now, I don’t mean to cause alarm. Players walked around media day Tuesday as if this was the most normal thing in the world. Elway laughed it off. Favre shook it off. So just because I worry is no reason for them — or you — to worry. Mr. Gerber assured me that even if this very, very highly unlikely event that actually happened two years ago should occur, the NFL is prepared.

“We can instantly track down where the interfering frequency is coming from to within two feet.”

I can see it now. NFL helicopters swooping down on a Mexican cab driver.

“Sir, will you please shut off your radio? It’s third down!”

Of course, all this is part of the march of technology that symbolizes the NFL’s growth. Instant Replay. Direct TV. Making Frank Gifford look good.

And, yes, the radio helmet.

Personally, I never liked this invention. I tried one once. I had a Lions equipment man call plays in my ear from 20 years away. Every play sounded like this:

“Redmrzzplyzp …28hhhsst …on three!”

Why quarterbacks like Favre and Elway would trust such devices is beyond me. I prefer human beings. I enjoy watching one man race onto the field with the play, like some Roman messenger bringing the latest strategy to the front lines.

Of course, the Romans never had a guy come running in gasping, “Coach says your batteries are dead! …”

But that’s just worry-wart me. Expect the worst, no matter what.

I am sure I am wrong. I am sure the Super Bowl will go without a hitch. I am sure, despite our perilous proximity to the land of renegade radio frequencies
— where anybody with a walkie-talkie can change the call on the most important play of the game — that there is absolutely nothing to worry about.

Then again, come Sunday, if Favre steps to the line, leans over center, and yells, “A-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-BAMBA! . . .” you’ll know what happened.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.


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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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