Decades ago, the NFL draft dialed up its ‘pizazz’ on giant helmet phones

Jim Steeg was hired in early 1979 as the NFL’s vice president of special events, a wide-ranging gig that included overseeing the physical setup of the draft. It was a pivotal moment: The following year, revamping what had been a relatively unattended, entirely untelevised, decidedly unspecial affair, the league held its 1980 edition in a cavernous midtown Manhattan hotel ballroom that once served as an indoor swimming pool. More than 750 fans filled a wraparound balcony - previously the pool deck - and a new network named ESPN broadcast live from the floor below.

Thanks to those big choices, the early 1980s brought many smaller alterations to the scenery behind the action. Some were necessary upgrades, such as replacing overhead projectors with digital monitors to display the names of chosen players. Others aimed to add drama, like the scoreboard-sized clock that counted down the seconds remaining before each pick. But the NFL’s most memorable addition from this transformative era was dialed up for maybe the least serious reason of all.

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“We were looking for something that added a little flavor to those handheld, low-level camera shots of [team officials] on the phone, where the only identification they had was a sign above each table,” Steeg said. “It was so much better when the phone they were holding was a helmet phone.”

Debuting leaguewide during the 1983 draft, these team-branded, regulation-sized, facemask-and-all helmets - complete with a corded Princess telephone embedded in the skull - quickly turned into familiar fixtures. They played a supporting role in a frequent sight at the annual event: a stern-faced NFL team official sitting at a ballroom table, neck cocked and ear pressed to the landline’s receiver, maintaining a constant line of communication with the rest of his front office.

The helmet phones are a far cry - a long-distance call, even - from the marketing pomp that surrounds the NFL’s modern draft festivities, which more than 54 million people watched on television and another 312,000 attended last year. Beer vendors host pop-up bars. Orthodontic companies sponsor photo booths. In 2016, a Skittles-themed replica football locker room featured a life-size “hot tub” full of hard-coated candies that fans in Chicago were encouraged to climb inside (fully clothed, presumably) to pose for pictures.

But while they may seem quaint in comparison the helmet phones helped shape league history in greater ways than their playful nature suggests.

“I don’t want to say the draft was sleepy, because it was still important to the teams’ future, but it was certainly quieter in terms of public awareness,” said Gene Goldberg, former special projects manager for NFL Properties, the league’s licensing division. “But this gave a little pizazz to the draft in its own way. It made perfect sense, because the draft was all about the phones.”

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Given the relative lack of on-site reports from its nascent years, it is hard to say for sure whether the NFL draft, which began in 1936, has always been about the phones. But landlines were rooted into the landscape by 1962, when the Baltimore Sun’s Paul Menton devoted part of a dispatch from the Chicago Sheraton to describing the event’s distinct soundtrack.

“On the main floor the subdued ringing of telephones went on all day and most of the night,” Menton wrote. “There was hardly a table where at least one person didn’t have the receiver to his ear.” Two years later, a black-and-white Associated Press photo captured a similar scene: a ballroom that resembled a telemarketing center, with rotary phones perched atop each team’s table and cable wires strung from the ceiling like cobwebs.

For decades, as in 1943, the NFL draft was a relatively unattended, entirely untelevised affair. (Harry L. Hall/AP)
For decades, as in 1943, the NFL draft was a relatively unattended, entirely untelevised affair. (Harry L. Hall/AP)
By 1964, telephones were an inescapable part of the draft. (John Lindsay/AP)
By 1964, telephones were an inescapable part of the draft. (John Lindsay/AP)

The technological mise-en-scène stayed just as staid for almost the next two decades - until NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and ESPN head Chet Simmons collaborated to put the 1980 draft on national airwaves. “Most [team officials] would just stay on the phone the whole time, and at the beginning, they got billed for the cost of the long-distance line,” Steeg said. “One of the cheaper clubs, the [St. Louis] Cardinals, decided that because the draft was on TV, they’d just call their guy whenever the picks were in. So, in the mid-’80s, we said to hell with it, we’ll just pay for it so it’s equal.”

By that point, all 28 NFL teams were also equal in the sense that all of their calls were made on helmet phones. The products first appeared on the floor in 1982, but only for the Bengals and 49ers, who had faced off in the most recent Super Bowl. “The teams had the option of using them or not using them,” Steeg said. “We didn’t know how successful they’d be. That’s why we dipped our toes in the water. And then they just exploded.”

The phones were the brainchild of a Bears fan named Bernie Paul, who reportedly built a prototype after watching a game and then networked his way to the NFL’s attention. “The simplicity of the Princess phone buried in the top of the helmet was brilliant,” Goldberg said. “Your eyes were drawn to it.” Manufactured in Illinois by Paul’s company, Nardi Enterprises, the phones also received ringing endorsements from football personnel thanks to one of their more functional features.

“Some guys didn’t want to hold the phone to their ear the whole time, so we worked with the company to rig a way to attach a headset,” Steeg said. “It became more than decorative. Guys really liked it.”

So, apparently, did ESPN viewers when the helmet phones expanded to every team table at the 1983 draft. “Every time they leave from a commercial break, they would show the phone,” Paul’s son, Bernard Jr., told Yahoo in 2014. “Chris Berman even said something like, ‘Please don’t call us about the helmet phones. They’re custom-made for the NFL.’ ” But it wasn’t long before mounting consumer demand put an end to the phones’ exclusivity.

“On the ESPN telecast of the NFL draft,” the Miami Herald wrote in July 1984, “the league offered official NFL team helmet telephones for only $200 each, or $1,000 if you wanted the actual helmet phone used by your favorite team during the draft festivities. … Within a few days, the league had sold 286 of the phones, including 13 of the $1,000 models.” (Adjusted for inflation, $1,000 in 1984 equates to about $3,000 today, or roughly the cost of three iPhone 15 Pros.)

Not everyone was a fan. Cranky newspaper columnists found an easy target in the frequent commercials that hawked the phone number for fans to dial on their current phone to place an order for their new one. “The big question I had was ‘Who in the world would buy such ridiculous-looking phones?’ ” the Austin American-Statesman wrote that year. Added the Greenville (Ohio) Daily Advocate: “I guess they were catering to the elite when they thought up that idea. I have a lot better things to do with $250 or $1,000 than to buy a phone.”

For the self-dubbed Worldwide Leader in Sports - which in 1984 began paying the NFL to air the draft after four years of rights fee-free broadcasts - the helmet phones brought valuable attention. “I remember people making jokes, but I think they were a fun element,” said Mike Soltys, who joined the network in 1980 and eventually became vice president of communications before leaving last year. “Plus they gave people another thing … to talk about with ESPN, and a really important thing for ESPN in the early ’80s was people talking about it, because that’d lead people giving it a chance and signing up for cable.”

Against the broader backdrop of the parallel ascents of the nation’s biggest sports network and its biggest sports league, Soltys emphasized, the phones barely played a bigger part than the tables, lamps or any other piece of set decor.

“Once ESPN started to do the draft and then got in enough homes, it became such a pretty big thing so quickly that I think it would’ve been on an upward trajectory regardless,” he said. “Helmet phones or not.”

Helmet phones were already ubiquitous by the 1985 draft, presided over by Commissioner Pete Rozelle. (David Pickoff/AP)

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Not long before the 1991 NFL draft, as his family was planning to host a watch party at its home outside Philadelphia, Joe Valerio was approached by his older brother with a surprise gift to mark the occasion. “He said, ‘I’m going to get you a helmet phone for when the call comes in,’ ” recalled Valerio, then a star offensive lineman for the University of Pennsylvania. “I said, ‘What are you going to do, get one for each team?’ He said, ‘No, I’m going to get a Giants one, and you’re going to get some stickers from your equipment manager!’ ”

And so it was that Valerio, having successfully fetched a pack of red and white Quakers decals to match the (approximately) Penn-blue helmet phone, found himself on the other end of that familiar draft-day image when he picked up the receiver and heard the voice of Chiefs offensive line coach Howard Mudd informing him that Kansas City had taken him with the 50th pick. “We hooked it up, ran a wire from the wall to a tray table in the dining room,” Valerio said. “It made us feel like we were there, part of that whole draft schema.”

While the helmet phones were hallmarks of the ballroom vibe to Valerio and his family, their ubiquity through the late ’80s and early ’90s came to mean something else to others. In May 1985, the San Bernardino County Sun wrote that the NFL was “shamelessly peddling” these products, which served as proof that the league “must really be in trouble at the bank.” Two years later, reporting on the “at least 17 tacky times” ESPN ran commercials for “the helmet phone shtick” during its 1987 broadcast, the New York Daily News decried them as the latest example of the draft “becoming a shill-a-minute affair.”

The constant draft presence helped Nardi Enterprises score contracts with the NBA, NHL, MLB and various NCAA programs to pump out more officially licensed novelties. But this golden age didn’t last; Bernard Paul Jr. told Yahoo the company was reluctant to product products overseas, and couldn’t remain competitive while manufacturing items itself. And soon the helmet phones were hung up for good, fading from the draft floor following the 2000 edition - though not before 382 more sold via auction, per Yahoo.

Nearly a quarter-century into retirement, the phones are mostly remembered as metaphorical. “It was a humble beginning, but also a symbol of what the future could bring,” Goldberg said. Added Charles Taylor, a professor of marketing at Villanova University who specializes in sports advertising: “It’s a quaint reminder of the evolution. Those helmet phones were a way to draw attention, but the draft has wisely evolved into this really glitzy event.”

Many of the actual phones remain out there, unhooked yet intact. Several are for sale on auction sites, including the one the Giants used to relay their 1997 picks of Tiki Barber and Ike Hilliard, complete with a certificate of authenticity signed by Steeg and Paul Sr. and listed for “$4,995.95 or best offer.”

Valerio’s brother still lives in the same house where the makeshift Penn phone fielded its first fateful call, but the former Chiefs lineman wasn’t sure if it survived multiple rounds of spring cleaning. “I think my brother actually used it for a while,” Valerio said. As a big Jets fan, meanwhile, Goldberg once kept a green-and-white version in his office as a (literal) conversation piece, but he eventually gave it away.

“Maybe it just took up too much space, or it was time to modernize,” the ex-NFL executive said. “But I’m sure there’s plenty of man caves out there that have them, and no doubt it brings back a touch of nostalgia.”

As for Steeg, who left the league in 2005 and now works as a self-employed consultant, the decorative flavor of his Chapel Hill, N.C. home features not one but two: a football helmet phone from his alma mater, Miami (Ohio) University, in the bonus room, and a Red Sox batting helmet phone in his office. Technically speaking, though, Steeg couldn’t place a call on either if he wanted.

“I’ve got the cord, all that stuff,” he said, “but I don’t have access to a landline hookup.”

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