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Just For Kicks
Jack McCallum
October 04, 1999
The NFL's new K ball has kickers and punters fuming—and owning up to the extreme steps they used to take to doctor the pigskin and make it easier to boot
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October 04, 1999

Just For Kicks

The NFL's new K ball has kickers and punters fuming—and owning up to the extreme steps they used to take to doctor the pigskin and make it easier to boot

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The process was taken a step further last season after Sauerbrun was injured and the Bears acquired 39-year-old veteran Mike Horan, who, as special teams coach Keith Armstrong put it, "went scientific on us." Horan, who got a degree in mechanical engineering at Long Beach State, showed up with a homemade, skateboard-sized contraption. "He and Jeff would take a ball down to about eight pounds, put it on the board and put a 100-pound dumbbell on it," says Armstrong. "They'd just roll it back and forth, back and forth. It took hours."

Kickers and quarterbacks would sometimes disagree about the results achieved by even the most skilled football doctorers. That happened frequently when Minnesota kicker Anderson and Tennessee Titans quarterback Neil O'Donnell were teammates in Pittsburgh several seasons ago. "Gary liked those beach balls," says O'Donnell, "the ones you needed two hands to throw down the field." New York Giants equipment manager Ed Wagner Jr. says that on his team, kickers were never allowed to mess with the balls because quarterbacks didn't want them to. Dallas Cowboys kickers are more fortunate. Whatever Troy Aikman wants, Troy Aikman gets, and what the Cowboys passer wants is a dirty, roughed-up, kicker-type ball.

But it's unlikely that Aikman or any other quarterback was ever seen hunching, Horan-like, over a workbench. Quarterbacks have other things to do, such as date models, cash big checks and film commercials. It's these sidewinding scientists, the guys who "study balls like crazy," as Berger puts it, who spend quality time with the pigskin.

The league says it began hearing reports of excessively doctored balls several years ago. So before the 1997 season the NFL instituted a fine of $10,000 for any player who was found to have tampered with balls. A year later the fine was increased to as much as $25,000. The reports didn't stop, and from time to time referees found themselves handling a muddy-looking wreck or a ball inflated into the shape of a pumpkin. "We'd go on the road," says Buffalo Bills kicker Steve Christie, "and you'd be hitting balls that looked as if they came out of a rugby union." No fines were imposed because, evidently, the perps could not be identified. But when the matter came up several months ago, the competition committee decided to do something about it. The committee came up with the K ball solution, passing it by an 8-0 vote.

If NFL execs thought that would end the controversy, they were badly mistaken. Several questions remain in the air, and they hang over the league office like a booming Berger punt.

Is the K ball rule in place because of ball tampering or because the powers that be wanted to take some foot out of football? Young swears it's the former, but he's being a bit disingenuous. Minnesota vice president and coach Dennis Green, who's on the competition committee, acknowledges that K rations are being fed to the kickers partly because kickoff men, field goal kickers and punters had become so formidable. "I think the NFL wants returns to be part of the game," says Green. "They want shorter field goals, and they want more [uncertainty] when it comes to field goals."

K balls are supposed to be worked over by the officials after they are taken out of the plastic bags, but many kickers and coaches say it's either being done differently from crew to crew or not being done at all. "I know I've kicked balls that have not been touched by an official," says New England Patriots punter Lee Johnson. Jerry Seeman, a former ref who is the NFL's senior director of officiating, says that his charges have been instructed to wipe down each K ball with a moist towel for one minute. "Believe me," says Seeman, "we are taking this seriously." However, neither the length of the preparation time nor the specificity of the directive satisfies kicking specialists, who are admittedly hard to satisfy. Some kickers would like to see each ball's four panels wiped for at least 30 seconds apiece and brushing made mandatory.

Another intriguing question: Because ball boy subterfuge was sometimes required to get doctored balls into the game in seasons past, what's to stop ball boys from replacing new K balls (which they usually keep in a black mesh bag on their left hip) with doctored K balls? Should the NFL be posting signs in banks: BEWARE OF BALL BOYS MAKING LARGE CASH DEPOSITS? Seeman says the system is ball-boy-proof. Before each game, K balls are inscribed with a code so they can't be used after that game. On obvious kicking situations, officials have been instructed to get ready for the kicking ball, and, when the decision to kick is made and the ball is thrown in, they assiduously search the valve area for that special K, which is stamped on at the Wilson factory.

Kickers have other concerns. Delays bringing the K ball into the game, they say, sometimes result in hurried kicks. And all special teams players are dreading the coming of winter, when the already unforgiving K ball will become positively Old Testament. "I think you're going to see some bad, bad snaps with that new ball," says Saints kicker Doug Brien. He looked over at his good buddy, long snapper Kendall Gammon. "Oh, sorry."

"No," said Gammon, "it's going to happen."

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