The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside a high school football coach’s headset: A mix of strategy, screaming and jargon

Mount Vernon Coach Monty Fritts talks to assistant coaches on the sidelines while the trio communicates with coaches in the press box during a game vs. Hayfield. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
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Mount Vernon Coach Monty Fritts stood near his team’s 30-yard line, flipping the microphone down to his mouth and shouting the words, “Water bucket, water bucket, water bucket! Get ready, get ready!”

The offensive play call early in the third quarter against Hayfield was heard loud and clear by the two offensive assistant coaches on the sidelines wearing their headsets, as well as the offensive assistant coach at the top of the press box wearing his.

With the “talk” button lit green, Fritts got his players who were standing on the sideline lined up shoulder to shoulder. On the field, all his players got into a tight formation, except for one. Mount Vernon junior tailback Jordyn Reid sprinted over toward the sideline but stopped short on the field, standing in a relaxed position.

The seven Mount Vernon coaches paused, staring at the field as they waited to see what would happen next. Their headsets, the communication devices they used to detail their offensive and defensive play calls and relay opponents’ formations and tendencies, went silent.

Headsets may not play as prominent a role in high school football coaching as they do in college or the NFL, but they still are integral to a team’s ability to execute a detailed game plan each week. There is no limit to how many headsets a team’s coaching staff can use, per the National Federation of State High School Associations, just one critical rule: No communication devices can be used by players.

A listen into any team’s headset communication offers a mix of chaotic jargon (the kind that only that team’s coaches and players will understand), profanity, enthusiastic yelling, strategy discussions and open-ended questions that may go without an answer.

“For us, it’s usually pretty straightforward, short play calls,” Mount Vernon offensive line coach Mike Graham said of the offense’s headset communication. “You’ll hear a lot more chatter and stuff on the defensive side with those guys over there.”

Back on the field, the silence was gone as the crowd erupted into a deafening roar. Mount Vernon quarterback Fonnae Webb had snapped the ball, trailing 21-3 in the third quarter, and thrown to Reid who, as part of the trick play, had been pretending to be out of bounds but was now wide open down the right sideline. The speedy tailback sprinted for a 70-yard touchdown, and the Majors were back in the game, down just 11 points.

The Mount Vernon coaches’ headsets lit up with chatter: “Man, that was a cannon!” one coach yelled. “Yes, Jordyn!” screamed another.

Flip to the defensive channel, and the coaches there were already well into a conversation of their own. “Well, now we got to get a stop,” said defensive assistant coach Brandon Gladney from atop the press box.

“Count ’em out, count ’em out,” said defensive assistant coach Cameron Lewis, referring to the number of players on the field for the ensuing kickoff.

“I’m counting them out now, coach,” responded Gladney. “One, two . . . 10, 11. We good, coach! We good!”

Three seasons ago, Fritts took over as head coach of Mount Vernon, which had gone 2-18 over the previous two years. His first purchase for the team was the CoachComm Connex headset system, which cost $5,000. The headset system has two channels for communication — offense and defense. Mount Vernon uses seven headsets during the game, five on the field and two above it.

Fritts considers the system a critical component to the team’s success — the school is 6-2 this season — as he can get input from his assistants before communicating play calls to his players, either by shouting them from the sidelines or using hand signals. The counsel he gets from his fellow coaches often mirrors this in-game exchange between Fritts and offensive assistant Stanley Riley:

Fritts: “Hey, are we still getting man [coverage] up top?”

Riley: “Yep.”

Fritts: “I just don’t want to throw a pick . . . I don’t want to throw to anyone but Kofi right now. G left then back to slant for Kofi? Want to do it?”

Riley: “Just G right, G right.”

Next play: Touchdown.

At the collegiate level, the NCAA approved a new rule in May that limited the number of communication devices to 20 per team. It drew the ire of high-profile coaches such as Alabama’s Nick Saban and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, who argued that the limitation of headsets would hurt the team’s ability to fully communicate during games.

In the NFL, headset transmission used by coaches extends to a one-way radio inside the helmet of the quarterback and a designated defensive player, providing the primary function of play-calling. Additionally, the NFL licensed an exclusive frequency from the Federal Communications Commission in 2015 for the wireless communication.

But in high school, a normal 2.4 gigahertz frequency with no FCC license required will have to do.

For Mount Vernon, the two coaches stationed above the field are key for the other coaches on the sidelines. With the “best view in the house,” according to Fritts, the assistants help dictate the plays. Coaches like Gladney also like to add a little color commentary of their own: “Woo, Sammy is having a game . . . Here comes the Sammy and Bradford show. Here we go. No. 13 over there, he already knows he’s getting the ball. Hey, tell Kwame to move to No. 10!”

But with any technology, communication via headsets aren’t always perfect, and on this Friday night at Mount Vernon, the headsets malfunctioned five minutes before halftime. The coaches fixed things at the half, but despite a valiant comeback effort, the team ended up falling short, losing to Hayfield by a score of 34-18.

In the waning minutes of the game, Fritts let out a sigh, and chatter on the headsets fell mostly silent. He flipped his mic back to the corner of his mouth and spoke one of the last words of advice to his coaches listening in, focused not on strategy but on the in-person coaching they would all need to be providing their players postgame.

“Well, we’re going to have to do a good job of keeping everyone together tonight,” Fritts said.

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