Are you a fan of “throwing around the old pig skin,” as they say? Did you know footballs were actually never made of pig skin? Long before American Football was invented and the NFL was created, the balls were inflated pig bladders. It’s true! I don’t know about you, but I would not want to be the one to blow up the ball in the early days. Since most people didn’t want to blow up an animal bladder, they would instead stuff the ball with straw or other material. Can you image throwing a ball not filled with air?
Pig bladders were in good supply in those days, and they were durable. However, they were not the shape of your typical American football but more like a soccer ball or rugby ball, the sports American football was born from. Eventually, the pig bladder balls were covered with leather and stitched together with laces. Today, the laces are not needed to keep the ball together but are still used to help the players get a better grip.
One of the biggest issues with pig bladder was that each ball varied by shape and size, especially when stuffed. That’s why by the late 1800s, when American Football started taking shape, the balls were made of rubber and cowhides (aka leather). Today the football is much more standardized.
Changes in Shape
Over the years, many changes were made to the ball, including the ends of the ball becoming more prominent. In 1924, Wilson Sporting Goods Co and famed Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne teamed up to develop a new double-lined football to help retain the air. The following year, a valve was added to the ball for inflating instead of a stem under the laces. In 1935, the NFL shortened the ball’s length and the short axis and the amount of air (pounds per square inch or psi) was raised. However, the long axis did not change.
Since 1941, Wilson has been the official manufacturer of all NFL Footballs and has worked to improve the ball with innovations such as hand-sewn ends, triple lining, and lock-stitch seams. White footballs were used for night games starting in 1956 and eventually evolved into special night footballs with white stripes. However, those balls were banned by the NFL in 1976 because the paint made the balls too slick. In 1955, Wilson created a football with Tanned-in-Tack cowhide leather, which gave the football a tacky feeling for better grip. This exclusive Tanned-in-Tack cowhide has been supplied by Horween Leather Co. since 1941. The pebble design on the ball, used to enhance the grip, was introduced in 1981.
More Football Facts:
- Today Wilson makes 700,000 footballs a year by hand.
- Each NFL team uses about 48 balls a game, 6 to 12 of these balls are for the kicker only.
- The footballs, manufactured in the United States, use American cowhides which are selected from feedlots in Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska.
- Cowhides used for the balls come from young steers because the leather is more resistant to stretching.
- It takes 22 cows to create the roughly 120 balls used in the Super Bowl.
Check out how Wilson makes the NFL footballs here.