Who knew? Who knew that footballs had such a turbulent secret life? Volumes have been written about scuffed or juiced-up baseballs, paeans have been sung to red-white-and-blue basketballs, entire belief systems have been tied to titanium-filled golf balls, but until recently all we thought about footballs was that they are damned hard to dribble. It turns out that the Wilson football, which NFL teams have been kicking around since 1941, has quite a checkered past, one that heretofore had been whispered about only in equipment rooms. Footballs have been steam-bathed, baked in aluminum foil, dunked in water, brushed with wire, bonked with hammers, buffed with strips of artificial turf, jumped on, shot out of Jugs machines, pounded into me walls or racquetball courts, inflated and deflated more often than Oprah Winfrey, Armor All-ed, shoe-polished and lemonaded, crushed under weightlifting plates and, like a female wrestler at a county fair, dunked in evaporated milk. Maybe even microwaved.
These revelations have come to light in this, the first season of the K ball. Alarmed that kickers, in clandestine cahoots with equipment men, ball boys and quarterbacks, were doing everything but sautéing footballs and plating them up with a nice port wine reduction, the NFL's competition committee took action before this season. It passed a measure mandating that 12 game balls, inscribed with the letter K and sent out in boxes sealed with antitampering tape, would be used exclusively by punters and kickers during games. A box of the balls is delivered to the officials' room about 2½ hours before kick-off, and only then are the balls removed from their individual plastic bags.
The results have not been dramatic, but that hasn't stopped kickers from worrying, particularly after two titans of toes, the Atlanta Falcons' Morten Andersen and the Minnesota Vikings' Gary Anderson, missed a combined seven field goals in the first two weeks of the season. The new balls have the most impact on kickoffs; through the first three weeks of the season there were only 69 touchbacks, as opposed to 90 at this time last season. Anyway, it doesn't take much to fuel the paranoia of kickers, who in recent seasons have seen kickoffs moved back from the 35-yard-line to the 30 and have been ordered to kick with a one-inch tee instead of the old three-incher. "Eventually they're going to have just one upright," says Indianapolis Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, "and if you hit it and make a little bell go off, you get a field goal. If not, it doesn't count."
Says Philadelphia Eagles kicker Norm Johnson, "In the NBA do they go to Sports Authority, buy a basketball off the shelf, pump it up and play with it? It's ridiculous."
The league office says the kicking fraternity is overreacting. "What we want is for kickers to kick a regulation ball that's the same for everyone," says NFL senior vice president of football operations George Young, who supervises the competition committee. "The rule is not about discriminating against kickers. It's about leveling the playing field."
This football-finagling business has long been the game's dirty little secret. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher recalls asking former punter Mark Royals, who kicked for the team from 1992 to '94, how balls were doctored, and Royals's response was, "Do you really want to know?" Cowher said no, "because I figured what I did not know, I could not be indicted for." St. Louis Rams equipment manager Todd Hewitt remembers stopping by the Cleveland Browns' locker room several years ago before a scrimmage game and surprising a veritable Santa's workshop of elves slaving over balls. "It looked like I had just broken up a gambling ring or something," Hewitt remembers. " 'Relax,' I told them. 'Everybody does it.' "
Here's why everybody does it (or did it): Almost no player who has to touch a football with his hand or foot likes brand-new Wilsons out of the box, just as fielders don't like spanking new baseball gloves. New footballs are hard, unforgiving, smallish (with a correspondingly small sweet spot) and coated with a film that makes them slippery. They don't travel as far as game-worn balls, and they can't be "guided" as accurately as roundish, softer balls. When you see a kicker squeeze a ball, it's because he wants to soften it and make it rounder. So it became a ritual in many NFL locker rooms, usually on Friday or Saturday before a home game (the home team supplies game balls), that the 36 game balls were taken out of their boxes and roughed up.
New Orleans Saints equipment manager Dan Simmons says his routine has been unchanged for 27 years. "Scrub each ball hard with a wet towel, inflate them all to the regulation 13 pounds, wipe them again, then brush them down," says Simmons. (The horsehair brush is supplied by Wilson Wiping and brushing not only soften a ball and remove the film but also bring to the surface what Wilson Sporting Goods vice president-business director Dennis Grapenthin calls the "tackified substance" that makes a ball easier to handle. All this was, and still is, perfectly legal. Simmons would then hand off the balls to the quarterbacks and kickers for testing, also legal. Until three seasons ago there were no explicit rules about how balls could be tested, though there was an implicit understanding that they would be thrown around the locker room or perhaps just outside it. To ensure that the Wilsons would look fresh on game day, it was assumed that they would not be practiced with or kicked—and certainly not dragged into some mad scientist's laboratory.
That, however, is frequently what happened. Though most claim innocence, many kickers are aware of the various methods that make the oblate spheroid easier to boot. Of those techniques, only the football in the microwave seems to be an urban legend. Minnesota punter and kickoff specialist Mitch Berger labels it ridiculous and says that one of his kicker cronies (he won't say who) tried it a couple of weeks ago, and the ball blew up.
Chicago Bears kicker Jeff Jaeger and punter Todd Sauerbrun describe a recipe for ball preparation that would satisfy any anal-retentive chef: Fill ball with as much air as possible, leave alone for three days, deflate to about eight pounds, push ends of ball repeatedly into corner of table, overinflate again, throw into laundry sack with wet towels and place in clothes dryer. "Ten minutes was all it would take to get them real hot," says Sauerbrun. "They'd bang around in the dryer, and then we'd brush them off." If the balls weren't screaming for mercy by then, Jaeger and Sauerbrun would deflate them and put them under hot water.