When one looks at the early history of the National Football League, it can be fascinating to see how Ohio has played a pivotal role in the early days of the league. The league was started at a car dealership in Canton. The first game? Held in 1920 right down the road in Dayton. The league’s first office? A nondescript two-room office in a building in downtown Columbus.
And while that history is fascinating, that history is actually still being made and not too far from here. In an unassuming factory located in the sleepy college town of Ada is the Wilson Sporting Goods Factory. The factory that employs around a hundred people has the responsibility of making the star of each NFL game, the ball. Since 1931, this company has been making “The Duke” model football using the highest quality of leather and each one literally made by hand.
Recently, I had the opportunity to take a trip through this factory. Upon entering, one enters a small lobby clad in old wood paneling. Whisked through a couple of halls, I found myself on the floor of a manufacturing facility. One would expect the facility to be thoroughly modern, but this place had more of a cozy and nostalgic feel. Old machines interspersed with newer pieces of machinery. All of this in a factory that was not designed for large tours. And of course the day my tour was there, a crew from Sports Illustrated was there doing a story. Never a boring day in this factory.
One of the newest pieces of equipment is a large laser-cutting table. Cameras take pictures of the large sheets of leather rawhide and precision cut the panels necessary to make footballs. The waste that is created is nearly non existent. However, this machine can not be used for the balls you see on Sunday; that machine was made and imported from Germany. Wilson is dedicated to make sure the NFL balls are clearly Made in America.
So for the NFL footballs, workers, take large sheets of leather and cut out panels using large presses and “cookie cutters.” After the panels are made, they are shaved, stamped, laced, bladdered and blown up. Each football is imprinted with logos that are made in this country. Two laces, which are soon to be supplied by a company in Portsmouth, is carefully woven into each football. An experienced “lacer” can lace up a football in about three minutes; each day there is a goal of lacing 150 footballs per person.
At the end, there is a team of ladies inspecting each football. Armed with tape measures these ladies make sure that they are ready for play. Some of those approved balls will go to an NFL stadium near you, the rest of those balls will be sold to the general public. There is virtually no difference between “The Duke” football you can get at your local sportings good store and the ones used on game day.
However, this one difference, some of the newer balls, especially the ones used for college football, are actually being fitted with microchips. These chips can interact with transponders in the field and in the stadium and can give coaching staffs a whole new level of data. Ball speed, angle, velocity can all be measured and analyzed to find those hidden nuggets of data that can help make their team a winner. Think of Moneyball on a whole new level. Does it matter? According to the staff of the factory, Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer felt that the data provided by the Wilson Football helped his team win at least one National Championship.
So, what do the folks that actually make the footballs think of the game? On our tour, guide/retired employee Sharon confided that she hates the game, but made it know that she is clearly in the minority. “Most everyone here are huge fans and they get a kick out of playing a role in the games they watch,” she said.
I also asked what is the best part of working the factory. Sharon said, “Well, this is a family shop. We have all been for years, and many times, their folks had worked here, too.”
William “Bill” Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.