In a century and a half since the first game of American football, the sport has evolved from a grind-it-out ground war to the passing-dominated aerial assault that is NFL football in 2018.
But the evolution of playcalling tactics isn’t the only factor that brought us here. You can credit technological innovation, too. The long bombs you might see in the Super Bowl as Tom Brady chucks the official Wilson game ball downfield wouldn’t even have been possible during the early days of the game, when the odd size and shape of early footballs made passing impossible.
From Round to Not
The football has evolved steadily since the first game was played at Rutgers University in New Jersey on Nov. 6, 1869. But even though the forward pass was legalized in 1906, until the ball took on its present size and shape in 1935, the pass was a nonplay. The ball used in the very first game was round, like a soccer ball. It was tough to carry, and awkward to throw. Then, in 1874, a rugby-type ball was used in a contest between McGill University Foot-Ball-Club and Harvard University Football Club. This new ball looked like a watermelon and wasn’t much easier to throw. But laterals and short flips were becoming common.
Despite the contemporizing of the game, there was still a big problem that had plagued football manufacturers for 50 years. The air continuously leaked out of the rubber bladder inside the ball. In fact, during the second game between Rutgers and Princeton University in 1869, the ball kept deflating and losing its shape. Play had to be stopped several times, and a key that unlocked the small nozzle tucked inside the ball had to be brought in. The players took turns blowing up the ball.
Over time, inflating the ball became easier, but retaining the air did not. In 1886, the Peck & Snyder Sporting Goods catalog offered a syringe-like device that was called, appropriately, the New Patent Foot Ball Inflator. With it, a football could be inflated in 5 minutes. The old way took half an hour. Eventually, metal stem valves like those on automobile tires were replaced with less dangerous rubber valves. But, around 1920, the development of prelacing was an even greater improvement. Suddenly, a ball did not have to be unlaced to be inflated.
Wilson Sporting Goods Co., with the help of famed Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne, developed a new double-lined football in 1924. The following year, the first valve-inflated football eliminated the need for a stem, which had always caused a lump under the laces. With Rockne’s name on the ball, the “KR,” as it was known, was easier to throw in a tight spiral, and it paved the way for the modern passing game.
In 1935, the NFL shortened the ball’s short axis to between 21-1/4 and 21-1/2 in. The ball’s length was shortened that year to between 11 and 11-1/4 in., and the amount of air that it could hold was set at 12.5 to 13.5 psi. Its long axis of 28 to 28-1/2 in., however, did not change. These dimensions remain today, as does the ball’s shape, which has been called a “prolate spheroid” since 1890.
In 1941, with “Slingin'” Sammy Baugh of the Washington Redskins fast becoming the NFL’s first great passing quarterback, Wilson purchased “The Duke” name from rival Spalding. Ever since, Wilson has been the official manufacturer of all NFL footballs. The Duke, also used by the American Football League from 1960 to 1969, received a name change in 1969 when the two leagues merged. It is now simply called the NFL ball. Wilson continued to improve the ball with such innovations as hand-sewn ends, triple lining and lock-stitch seams. In 1951, rubber footballs were tried briefly, and in 1956, the NFL approved the use of easier-to-see white footballs for night games. This evolved into special night footballs with white stripes around each end—banned in 1976 because the paint made the balls slick.
In 1955, Wilson developed the TD football, which featured a new Tanned-in-Tack material, also known as Grip-Tite. This material has a tacky feel that makes the ball easier to grip, especially when wet. The exclusive Tanned-in-Tack cowhide leather is supplied by the Horween Leather Co., and has been since 1941. That’s right. No pigskin.
In 1981, a new Ultra Pebble design for the leather, which further enhanced the grip, was introduced. Inside the ball is a high-tech three-ply polyurethane bladder. Two of the layers are standard polyurethane but the third is a unique material, which is secret. In fact, Wilson’s bladder recipe is such a well-kept secret that factory tours in that area of the facility are forbidden. The lacing, once fragile cotton, like shoelaces, is now made of an extruded polyvinyl chloride, which is more durable.