Randy May is a sound-system designer helping to fine-tune the Elton John-Billy Joel extravaganza that will play to millions this summer. But it's a Washington Redskin-Buffalo Bill exhibition game that really has him nervous. May, 42, is the inventor of the Audiblizer, an amplification system that lets a quarterback's cadences be heard over noisy fans regardless of a stadium's acoustics.
"So far we haven't had many glitches," says May. "But the game on August 8 at Buffalo is on Monday Night Football. If anything goes wrong, a lot of people will see it."
A quarterback activates the Audiblizer when he decides he will have to scream his snap count over a loud crowd. He presses a button on the left side of his helmet and calls the play into a tiny microphone in his chin strap.
The quarterback's voice is amplified by a cluster of speakers located on either side of both 15-yard lines. The Audiblizer has been designed to cover the field inside the 30-yard markers. So if you're the opposing quarterback calling signals at mid-field in Seattle's Kingdome, and the crowd is going wild, and Seahawk defensive lineman Cortez Kennedy is glaring at you, you're out of luck. The NFLs Competition Committee decided that only the area within the 30-yard lines needs to be within the Audiblizer's range.
Despite that questionable call, the league's latest innovation has received resounding applause. The Audiblizer debuted last August in three of the NFL's loudest venues: the Kingdome, Houston's Astrodome and Minneapolis's Metrodome. Seahawk quarterback Rick Mirer, the first to use the Audiblizer, experienced the best and worst of the device. On Aug. 21 in Seattle, Mirer's voice tube—the link between his microphone and the transmitter in his shoulder pads—disconnected. The Audiblizer's debut was almost as short-lived as the Seahawks' drive. A week later, Mirer shut out Oiler fans in Houston by activating the device and leading Seattle to a scoring drive.
"We don't want to discourage fans from rooting for their teams," says Jan Van Duser, the NFL's Director of Game Operations. "But at the same time we want all teams to have an equal chance to compete on the field."
Among the Audiblizer's benefits is that it will surely improve the league's chances of keeping its games under three hours. Says Miami Dolphin coach Don Shula, a member of the Competition Committee: "If this can end the timeouts and penalties that stall the game when the crowd is wild, especially in the domed stadiums, then I'm all for it."
May is a former high school football player from Houston with a degree in music from the University of Houston. His own experiences on the field led him to weatherproof and football-proof his baby. Neither snow nor rain nor gang tackling should hurt the Audiblizer. Starting and backup quarterbacks will be hooked up to the speakers an hour before game time. Speaker clusters are padded to absorb out-of-bounds collisions.
Because the NFL's teams must test the new system before it is okayed for regular-season use, 20 of August's 56 exhibition games will serve as the Audiblizer's final exam. If it passes, the NFL's Competition Committee expects to give the project the green light for the 1995 season.
The Audiblizer has been May's labor of love since 1992, when he heard the NFL was looking for a way to overcome crowd noise without asking fans to keep quiet. "My accountants tried to talk me out of this," says May. "They sensed an out-of-control passion on my part and thought I needed a commitment from the league."
Last summer there was only one Audiblizer. For this year's trial run May's company, which is based in Huntington Beach, Calif., has built five. If the NFL approves it for the 1995 season, May will make however many he needs to. The NFL has an agreement with May not to disclose the cost of developing his invention. Says May, "We're still in the prototype stage. We're not really sure how much this will wind up costing, but the league knows it will be cost-effective. This isn't Star Wars."
Among the NFL's players, offensive linemen seem to be the happiest about the game's latest innovation. "It would be real nice," says veteran Los Angeles Ram tackle Jackie Slater, "to be able to hear my quarterback sometime before I'm done with the game."
Christopher Botta is a freelance writer based in Rockville Centre, N.Y.