Chuck Grant drops three tennis balls in an aquarium half-filled with water, then reaches in and dunks the balls a couple of times to make sure they're soaked. A minute later Grant, who is vice-president of Dri-Ball Inc., pulls one ball out and bounces it a couple of times on the carpeting of his office in Dedham, Mass. The ball makes a dull thunk and leaves a wet circle where it struck the floor.
Grant drops a second ball fresh from the aquarium into a plastic bag containing the mysterious Dri-Ball compound, white and blue crystals that resemble a laundry detergent. He shakes the bag back and forth, up and down, for perhaps fifteen "Mississippis." Then, smiling, he digs the ball out of the bag and hands it to a member of the group on hand for the demonstration.
"Dry?" he asks.
"Bone dry," a spectator answers.
Someone nods, as if in agreement that, yes, this is a clear demonstration of human progress. But there's also a yearning to put the Dri-Ball powder to a stiffer test. If it can dry a tennis ball, maybe it can dry—what?—a pup tent, perhaps, or a football in a rainstorm? Or maybe it can dry a pair of hiking boots or hockey pads, or a bag of baseballs after batting practice on a muddy diamond. The possibilities seem limitless, but right now the company is focusing on using the product for football, particularly high school and college football.
Football is the raison d'�tre for Dri-Ball. It was developed at Walpole (Mass.) High by offensive backfield coach Gary Procaccini, working with Grant, the defensive backfield coach. Facing an upcoming game against the more powerful Brockton High for the 1981 state championship, Procaccini knew his team's passing game was its only prayer. Walpole had an excellent quarterback named Ken Moriarty, who would eventually go on to play backup to Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie at Boston College. Unfortunately, snow was forecast for game day, which would make it difficult for Moriarty to get a firm grip on the ball.
Enter Laurie Petrovick, a friend of Grant's who was a chemistry major at the University of Rhode Island. The problem was explained, the solution determined: Petrovick suggested that a silica-based gel could be used to keep the ball dry, and she said that the stuff was inexpensive and readily available. Ta-dah! Dri-Ball was born. And Walpole won the game in the snow.
Over the next five years Grant and Procaccini incorporated and began to sell the product in a kit containing two silver packets of the Dri-Ball compound. One packet, about the size of a doggie bag, is sufficient for half a football game played in a monsoon. The packet is emptied into the accompanying plastic "shaker" bag; a wet football is then placed in the bag and shaken; fifteen seconds later, the ball is completely dry. When the compound begins to weaken, the blue crystals fade and turn clear. Whereupon the second packet can be used—perhaps for the second half of a game. The whole kit costs $19.95—considerably less than it costs to replace a waterlogged ball.
Local high schools were Dri-Ball's first customers, but the company received its biggest break last November, during a Michigan-Minnesota game played in the rain. On a local telecast, the camera shifted to the Michigan sideline, where Jon Falk, the Wolverines' head equipment manager, was seen shaking a Dri-Ball bag. He recommended the stuff during a sideline interview, and word of mouth took it from there. Dri-Ball is now in use at Texas A & M, Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and Grambling, and the list is growing. High schools from Hawaii to Maine have put it into play.
Grant and Procaccini, the company's president, have tried, unsuccessfully, to sign up a prominent pro player as a spokesperson for the product. Although there have been several nibbles, top pro players want top money or a share in the profits in exchange for endorsements, neither of which the company can afford to give. So for the time being, at least, Grant and Procaccini make do with testimonials from equipment managers around the country. Two NFL teams—the Cleveland Browns and the New England Patriots—use the product during practice. Browns equipment manager Chuck Cusick wrote to the company to say, "It's definitely my feeling that Dri-Ball has a place on NFL sidelines."