NEW YORK – Thirty-five years ago, a Chicago Bears fan bought a Mickey Mouse phone and got an idea.
Bernie Paul, a service manager for Sharp Electronics, was watching a game with his five sons in suburban Chicago when he thought: if you put a working phone into a Bears helmet, people would probably want to buy it. He sent one of his boys out to Sportmart to buy a helmet, and by the end of that Sunday, the man had his prototype.
Many NFL fans have no recollection of a phone inside a football helmet, as many fans don't have a recollection of a phone that can't fit in a pocket. But back in the 1980s, Bernie Paul's helmet phones became one of the iconic images of the NFL draft. Although the technology is now obsolete, the tale of a small family business and its rise to stardom is timeless.
Paul died in 2012 from a long illness, but one of his sons, Bernie Jr., picked up the office phone at Nardi Enterprises last week and happily told the story of his dad's invention. Once the family had its Bears helmet phone, it tried to get the NFL to license it. The league, ever conservative, wanted to see some marketability. So the Pauls hit the road to some colleges in the area with helmet phones designed to sell to those schools.
"We built half-a-dozen phones," said Paul Jr., who was a sales manager at a radio station at the time. "We would go to Ann Arbor and walk through the parking lot. Same with Illinois, Nebraska, Iowa. We found there was a demand for them.
"We'd sell them for $200. Sometimes it was $175 and a couple of beers and brats."
The NFL still wouldn't bite. Back then, the league didn't sell its memorabilia for outrageous prices. Football was much more about football than it was about branding. But the Pauls found someone who was willing to throw them a lifeline: Bears owner George Halas.
The legend known as "Papa Bear" liked the phones and offered to share a directory of his team's season ticket holders. He didn't ask for anything in return. The Pauls went to work, and the phones started to sell. Soon, the family made contact with Jim Steeg, director of special events for the NFL, and he had an idea for the 1982 draft in New York.
ESPN had recently started broadcasting the draft, so optics were getting important. There wasn't much interesting about a bunch of team officials sitting around picking players. So Steeg asked Bernie Paul to make helmet phones for the two Super Bowl teams: San Francisco and Cincinnati. The phones were placed on the tables assigned to each team at the Sheraton in Midtown Manhattan where the draft was held.
The cameras came on, and ESPN's phones lit up.
"Every time they'd leave from a commercial break," Paul Jr. said, "they would show the phone. Chris Berman even said something like, 'Please don't call us about the helmet phones. They're custom-made for the NFL.' "
After that draft, the NFL realized it was onto something. People would spend a lot of money on licensed products. The following year, in 1983, the Pauls came to New York with helmet phones for every team.
"We used to go to the draft and set them up ourselves," Paul Jr. says. "We had an idea of selling the actual draft day phones for $1,000. We put together a direct response commercial offering the standard phone for $249 or the draft day version for $1,000."
Again, the demand was there. To this day, Paul Jr. wishes he had dozens of Dallas Cowboys draft day phones instead of just one. The phone used to draft Troy Aikman was auctioned for $3,000.
The business took off, and soon the family was making helmet phones (and lamp phones and wall plaques) for Major League Baseball and college football teams. The '80s were good to the Pauls.
Then the '90s came along, and things were different. The MLB strike in 1994 hurt business badly. But it was more than that.
"In the early '90s, the business started to change," Paul Jr. said. "A lot of the mass merchants – big box stores – started to get interested. The price points for our stuff didn't work for them."
The Pauls invented a smaller "Teamphone," which did well, but trends kept shifting away from them – to smaller phones and bigger stores.
"We were reluctant to produce product overseas," Paul Jr. said. "We preferred to build things ourselves. We couldn't do that and remain competitive."
The end of the helmet phone came in 2000, a few months after 382 helmet phones were auctioned off. The league wanted to work with Nardi Enterprises to at least save the machinery that built the phones, but that didn't happen, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an email to Yahoo Sports. The league says it has no helmet phones left.
And, sadly, neither does Bernie Jr.
"I wish I had one Bears phone," he said. "There's not a stitch of NFL product in here. You have to go to eBay."
Paul actually did so, during the phone interview, and scrolled through some of the products he made with his dad and brothers.
"Oh, does this bring back memories," he said.
Nardi Enterprises ("Nardi" was Bernie Jr.'s great-grandfather's nickname) is still in business, except now it's mainly in office construction. It builds acoustic panels for cubicles, among other products. Bernie's boys are still in suburban Chicago, and are still Bears fans.
This time of year is bittersweet.
"I miss going to the draft," Paul Jr. said. "But I really miss the relationships."
Every now and then, someone finds a number for the company and calls the Loves Park, Ill., office looking for a helmet phone. A couple years ago, ESPN wanted to reproduce the 1983 draft for a documentary, and called Paul Jr., now 60, to see if he could help bring history back to life with some helmet phones.
"I wish I could," he said.
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