It’s Super Bowl weekend, and time to once again dust the cobwebs off an old Wisch List column from my book that’s just perfect for the occasion.
So, take a few minutes and dive into what I guarantee like Joe Namath is the best — and quirkiest — Illinois football story that you’ve never heard of …
How to win with frequency
The WISCH LIST
Jan. 21, 2003
When the coaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders are busy barking plays into their quarterbacks’ helmets via high-tech headsets this Super Bowl Sunday in San Diego, wouldn’t it be nice if they stopped, just for a moment, and reflected a bit about those who blazed the trail of technology before them?
Like, you know, the Ottawa Pirates.
“We were ahead of our time,” former Ottawa Township High School assistant football coach Dean Riley said this past weekend, recalling Ottawa’s Golden Age of Radio.
Yes, it turns out that the town where Lincoln walked is also the place where the Pirates talked.
On a radio-equipped football helmet.
In the 1960s.
And ended up getting the dang thing outlawed by the Illinois High School Association.
“Yeah, a Chicago police deputy came down and served me and (legendary Pirates football coach) Bill (Novak) before the game with a restraining order,” former OTHS electronics teacher and pigskin pioneer Bob Poggi said about the 1966 season opener at Ottawa’s King Field against bitter rival La Salle-Peru.
“So, we shut down the helmet,” Poggi continued. “… And in (Illinois) high school today, you still can’t use electronic communication.”
That’s the end of this tasty tale, though. The beginning came four seasons earlier in 1961 when the Pirates had just wrapped up a perfect 9-0 campaign and had already set their sights on the next year.
“The quarterback situation wasn’t clear for 1962,” explained Riley, the team’s offensive coordinator. “Our (upcoming) senior quarterback was hurt and we didn’t have a quarterback in the junior class for some reason.
“So, Danny Battles had been the freshman QB, and we were going to bring him up to the varsity (the next year) even though he had never even played in a sophomore game.”
Understandably, the Pirates’ football brain trust was a bit jittery about having such an inexperienced QB leading what was expected to be another loaded team in ’62. So, the brainiest of them all – Poggi, the school’s electronics teacher – came up with a solution.
“I said to Novak, kind of kiddingly,” Poggi recalled, “that I could probably put a radio in Battles’ helmet.
“And that was all it took.”
With Novak’s less-than-subtle nudge, Poggi – a 1950 OTHS grad who had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois – immediately went to work. He ended up developing an innovative design in which he laid out radio wiring in a mesh form and glued it to the top of a football helmet before replacing the helmet’s foam lining.
Then, in the top of the helmet, he drilled a small hole for the radio’s coil and topped it off by installing a transmit-receive speaker in the earflap.
Voila, you had a prequel to Nextel.
“You could press the ear pad and talk just like you can on your cell phone,” Poggi said. “I thought (the radio helmet) was a good idea. It stopped people from running in and out (to get the plays from the sideline).”
It also helped the Pirates stop their opponents. As a sophomore, Battles – with valuable guidance pumped into his helmet from the sideline – led Ottawa to another 9-0 mark in ’62, and the Pirates racked up a record of 21-3-3 over the following three seasons.
In fact, so successful w as Poggi’s radio helmet – a cruder form of which the NFL had banned in 1956 (its use was reinstated in 1994), but the IHSA and NCAA had no rules against – that word about it even leaked out to colleges such as Iowa, Purdue and Navy.
Of course, word eventually leaked out to Ottawa’s opponents, too.
“Once, we were laying in Mendota,” Riley recalled. “My brother-in-law taught there was in charge of security. During the game, a policeman came up to him and said he was picking up our play calls in his squad car.
“My brother-in-law said, ‘No, they wouldn’t be doing that.’ But then he got in the car and heard us.
“I had a hard time explaining that one.”
Cops, it turned out, weren’t the only ones tuning in the Pirates on the radio dial. Opposing fans figured out how to do it, too.
“People tried a lot of different things to screw up the reception,” said Jay Bernadoni, the Pirates’ QB in 1965. “I remember we were playing (Spring Valley) Hall at Hall and some kids had gotten our frequency and they were reading their geometry book back to me.
“After that game, I had my geometry done for the year.”
It wasn’t always opposing fans who were burning Bernadoni during games, though. Sometimes, it was even his own coach.
“(The helmet) was a tutorial for Coach Novak,” Bernadoni said with a laugh, explaining how the hard-nosed Novak would often grab the radio’s phone from Riley and yell into his QB’s ear – in mid-play.
“He would use it to expound on all his football knowledge,” Bernadoni continued. “… A few times (the radio) got broken because I also played linebacker. But a few times, it got broken because I pulled the wiring out.”
Eventually, the Pirates’ whole system broke down when it is believed that La Salle-Peru coach Ed Bender blew the whistle on Ottawa just before the ’66 opener and persuaded the IHSA to outlaw the radio helmet.
“Bill (Novak) was pretty upset,” recalled Poggi, who has now lost track of the old helmet. “But we quit using it.”
Didn’t matter much. The Pirates still beat L-P in ’66 and finished 9-0, piling up a remarkable 43-2 record – sans helmet – in Novak’s final six seasons.
Today, nearly 40 years after the fall of Ottawa’s Radio Revolution, Poggi’s contribution to Pirate football lore is still appreciated by the players and coaches from that era.
“A guy like Mr. Poggi was way ahead of his time with electronics,” Bernadoni said. “To devise something that was, not only compact enough, but durable enough to withstand the punishment it took, that was incredible.
“The coaches put it all together. And that’s pretty remarkable for a little town like this to have had something like that.”