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How the American Football Got Its Shape

With the shape of footballs receiving lots of attention lately, have you ever wondered why footballs look the way they do in the first place?

This oblong ball with pointy ends is rich in history and its look has changed several times. In fact, the first football did not look like today’s prolate spheroid (that’s the technical name for this ball) at all.

The sport of football evolved in North America by combining rugby and soccer in the 19th century collegiate system. The balls northeast colleges used in the “free-for-all” games between freshman and sophomore men were made out of inflated pig bladders because they were semi-round, durable and easily accessible.

However, these early “balls” were difficult (not to mention gross to blow up) and no two balls took the same shape. In order to prolong the life span of the ball, players encased the pig bladder in calfskin sewn together and sealed up with lacing through eyelets.

football-history[This image comes from smithsonian.com]

 A tale of hearsay from the first intercollegiate football game between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869 suggests the ball evolved from round to oval because of physical exhaustion. The two teams had to stop playing several times to open the leather encasing and reflate the bladder. The players would take turns with the inflation duty. After several game stoppages, the players grew weary of this effort and continued to play with a semi-deflated ball resembling more of an oval.

In 1905, the forward pass was added to the rules in an attempt to curb the series of rough-play fatalities and injuries throughout the collegiate and high school football systems. By this point in time, college football brought in tens of thousands of spectators to most games. The first forward pass was introduced into the sport in a meeting between St. Louis University and Carrol College. That first aerial attempt was incomplete, rendering the new play unpopular. It was not until 1907 when Pop Warner, Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School’s coach, embraced and perfected passing plays, paving the way to make passes the dominant factor in the game we know today.

The success of the passing game created the demand for the ball to become more aerodynamic. The ball took on its prolate spheroid shape, allowing it to be thrown accurately and efficiently as it traveled through the air. The shape also allowed for players to grip the ball with one hand and throw a perfect spiral, reducing drag on the football. The inner pig bladder of the ball was replaced with a vulcanized rubber, but still encased with leather and sewn with vinyl stitching.

Since 1941, the NFL has been using handcrafted footballs supplied by Wilson. To this day these official games balls are handmade by 120 people employed at the Wilson football factory in Ada, Ohio. Nothing is automated on the factory floor. The leather—sourced from cowhides from Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa—is tanned with an exclusive “top secret” football tanning procedure. Each football is made up of four pieces of stamped leather (giving them the pebble grain texture that increase friction and grip on the football) and a synthetic bladder. All are hand-laced with a single piece of vinyl containing no knots. The Wilson factory produces 4,000 of these footballs each day.

Today, official footballs for the NFL must meet certain criteria to be used in a game. The ball must be a hand-selected Wilson, bearing the signature of the Commissioner of the League. It must be the natural tan color without corrugations of any kind. The ball has to be between 11 and 11.25 inches long and have a long circumference of 28 to 28.5 inches and a short circumference of 21 to 21.25 inches. It must weigh between 14 and 15 ounces and be inflated to 12.5 to 13.5 psi.

The NCAA has the choice of using slightly smaller footballs in their games and teams may choose what ball they want to use. Some of the more common balls used are made by Wilson or Nike. Wilson’s collegiate footballs also have a white stripe on the top ends of the ball. This creates greater visibility of the ball during night games. (Up until the1950s, before the advancement of stadium lighting, all balls used in night games were white).

 

Though we commonly refer to the American football as pigskin—history tells us that the ball never used the skin of a pig nor was it originally intended to be a prolate spheroid. It was the evolution of the game and the common acceptance of non-uniform shaped balls that heralded the final shape of the American football.

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