Going overtime at Wilson football factory

Originally Published: January 31, 2011
By Paul Lukas | Page 2

It all started about a month ago with a random question from a friend: "Hey, do you think they've made the footballs for the Super Bowl yet?"

"Probably," I said. "That seems like something they'd take care of way in advance, right?"

"Yeah," he agreed. "Especially since they're probably made in China or something."

And that could have been the end of that. But a little voice in the back of my head whispered, "Maybe you should double-check on that." So I did.

And that's how I found myself watching the AFC Championship Game and eating pizza with a bunch of factory workers on a bitterly cold night in rural Ohio.

Here's the deal: I'd forgotten that the Super Bowl footballs have the names of the two competing teams stamped into the leather. So Wilson, which manufactures all the NFL footballs -- and makes them in America, not in China -- can't make the Super Bowl balls until after the two conference championship games.

Uni Watch

"Wow," I said to Molly Wallace, the Wilson publicist who was explaining all of this to me, "so I guess your football factory must be hopping on the Monday after those games."

"Oh, they don't wait until Monday," she said. "A work crew shows up at the factory during halftime of the second game on Sunday. They have some pizza and soda on hand and make a little TV party out of it. Then, when that game is over and we know who'll be playing in the Super Bowl, they start making footballs."

"Wait a second," I said, checking the playoff schedule and doing some quick math, "that game won't be finished until about 10 p.m."

"That's right," Wallace said. "They work all night, until five or six in the morning. Then a new crew comes in to take over for them."

That sounded like a hoot. So I packed a bag, told Wallace to order an extra pizza for me and made arrangements to visit tiny Ada, Ohio (population 5,300), where Wilson makes all the footballs for the NFL.

If you're thinking, "Where the hell is Ada?" you're not alone. It's in the northwest portion of the state, about halfway between Columbus and Toledo. Along with the usual small-town staples -- a tavern here, a beauty salon there -- it has two notable institutions: the campus of Ohio Northern University (its teams, which compete in Division III, are called the Polar Bears) and the Wilson football factory, which has turned out every single NFL ball since 1955, along with millions of balls for college, high school and youth leagues. Here's how my visit went:

Sunday, Jan. 23, 2 p.m.: After flying to Columbus, renting a car, and driving about 90 miles, I arrive in Ada, where one glance at the local water tower makes it easy to tell I'm in the right place. I check into my hotel, take a quick disco nap and then head to the hotel bar to watch the NFC Championship Game.

3 p.m.: At the bar I meet up with Molly Wallace, the Wilson publicist, who's flown in from Chicago to join me. As we watch her Bears fall flat against the Packers, she explains that the factory will need to produce 216 footballs by the end of Monday. Half of those will be overnighted to AFC's Super Bowl team, the other half to the NFC team. The teams will then set aside half of their allotment -- 54 balls per team -- to bring to Dallas as their official game balls. They'll use the other balls for practice.

Wilson will also produce a dozen "K" balls, to be used on kickoffs and place kicks, which will be sent directly to the officiating crew in Dallas. That makes 120 balls for the Super Bowl -- way more than for an ordinary game. That's because many of the balls will be taken out of play during the game and sent to the Hall of Fame, or given back to the teams for their trophy cases, and so on.

Once the game balls are manufactured, the Ada factory will begin making 10,000 to 20,000 Super Bowl balls for retail sale, depending on who's in the game. "If the Jets get in, we'll make more balls, because New York is such a big market," Wallace says. "So I'll be rooting for them -- they're good for business."

4:30 p.m.: During halftime of the Bears-Packers game, I ask Wallace what will happen at the factory if the AFC game turns out to be a blowout. Will the work crew still wait until the game is over, just to be safe?

"Actually, no," she says. "If it's pretty obvious who's going to win, they'll get started before the game ends."

But that's no fun. Personally, I'm hoping for overtime, just to prolong the suspense.

6:15 p.m.: The Packers defeat the Bears. One team down, one to go.

7:15 p.m. With the Jets-Steelers game in progress, it's time to head to the factory, which is just a few blocks from the hotel. "We make nothing but footballs here," Wallace says. I probably could have guessed that from the parking lot nameplates, the shelf displays, the posters, the decorative wall trim and even the artwork from kids who visited on class field trips. It's football-o-rama.

Wallace introduces me to plant manager Dan Riegle. Like many of his employees, he's worked here a long time -- 29 years, in his case -- so he's an old hand at these Super Bowl production runs. "It was easier back when both of the conference championship games started in the afternoon," he tells me. "But now that they've pushed the second game into prime time, it means we have to wait longer. Makes things a little more interesting, you might say."

[+] EnlargeWilson Football
Paul Lukas/ESPN.comStamping dies were prepared for each team so production could begin as soon as the championship games ended.

Before today's games started, Riegle had prepared stamping dies for every potential combination of Super Bowl teams. With the Bears now out of the mix, he's displayed two footballs in the room where we'll be watching the Jets-Steelers game -- one for each possible outcome. I wonder if the ball with the losing team will become a high-priced collector's item on eBay. Then I pick up one of the balls and realize that won't be happening.

8:03 p.m.: The pizza hasn't even been delivered yet and my worst fears are already being realized, as the Steelers have built a 17-0 lead -- so much for the nail-biter I'd been hoping for. Just as I'm thinking this, William Gay returns a Mark Sanchez fumble for a touchdown, making it 24-0. "Looks like we'll be getting to work pretty early," Riegle says.

8:16 p.m.: The Jets manage a field goal just before halftime. As a deliveryman shows up with the pizza, I try to convince myself that the game could still be competitive.

8:25 p.m.: The 15 factory employees who'll be working tonight begin to file in and help themselves to pizza. Like me, they're hoping for a Jets comeback, although their motivations are different from mine. "Heck, the longer we sit here, the longer we're gettin' paid to watch football!" one of them tells me. And besides, this being Ohio, most of the workers are Browns fans, so rooting against the Steelers comes naturally to them.

9:22 p.m.: With the score now 24-10 and the Jets driving, LaDainian Tomlinson is stuffed just shy of the goal line on fourth down, which appears to put a fork in the Jets. The workers, who'd been getting excited about the Jets' chances, are visibly bummed out. Riegle takes out his cell phone and jokes about texting Roger Goodell to see if they should start making footballs. I grab one more slice of pizza, figuring I better finish it quickly.

9:25 p.m.: But wait! The Steelers fumble in their own end zone, giving the Jets a safety and a glimmer of hope. The room springs back to life. I take my time with my pizza slice.

9:35 p.m.: Jerricho Cotchery catches a touchdown pass, bringing the Jets to within 24-19 with three minutes left. It's turned out to be a nail-biter after all.

9:49 p.m.: Ben Roethlisberger takes a knee and the clock runs out on the Jets. Now that the staff knows which stamping die they'll be using, it's time to go to work.

10:05 p.m.: With the factory now humming with activity, I begin a guided tour of the football manufacturing process, which begins with big sheets of cowhide (the term "pigskin" is an anachronism that dates back to very early balls made from pigs' bladders). After the hides have been cured, tanned and pebbled to Wilson's specifications, they're sent to Ada. I watch as Donna Putnam, who's worked at the plant for 25 years, uses a die -- basically a giant cookie cutter -- to cut elongated panels from the leather. Four of these panels will make one football.

Next stop: the stamping station, where Loretta Hicks (42 years at the plant) is feeding the cut panels into a turntable-like machine that imprints type onto the leather. This is the part of the process that couldn't be done until the two Super Bowl teams were determined. The machine, which looks pretty old, makes this incredible series of noises: a clank, a grind and a phoooosh, over and over. If you could distill the essence of factory sound effects down to one piece of equipment, this would be it. It's a very cool sound -- for about 20 seconds. Then it's kind of annoying. Then it's really annoying. I scurry off to the next station, wondering if Loretta hears the machinery in her sleep.

The top two panels of the ball are fed into a machine that punches holes for the laces, and then the panels have to be sewn together into a football. This is done on sewing machines that look like they date back to the Hoover administration. "They're old, but they work," says Jim Jenkins (29 years) as he sews four panels together.

But wait -- Jenkins has sewn the ball inside out. Why? To protect the stitches and hide the seams. So now the ball has to be turned right-side out. You'd think they'd have invented a machine to do this, but they haven't. Instead, the ball is briefly put in a steam box to soften it up a bit and is then wrestled into its proper orientation by one strong guy and a metal rod. "It's the hardest job in the factory," says Bill Scheele (3.5 years) as he demonstrates the proper technique. "Very tough on your arms and hands. Here, try it yourself." A few failed attempts later, we've firmly established that I'm not cut out for this job.

With the ball now right-side out, it can be fitted with a bladder (the part that you inflate) and laced up. Both of these tasks are done by Christina Oakes (14 years). Like many of the staffers at the plant, she wears bandages to protect her fingers from nicks and blisters.

[+] EnlargeWilson Football
Paul Lukas/ESPN.comPlant manager Dan Riegle shows off the finished product.

Now we have something that looks a lot like a football, but it still has to be molded, a process that will give the ball its proper contours. Judy Snyder (41 years) handles this job, putting the balls into a form and filling them with high pressure. When the pressure is brought back down, the result is an official NFL football.

Or at least that's how it looks to me. But first it has to be inspected by Rose Sanders (33 years, plus her mother worked at the plant for 40 years). She weighs the ball, measures it and checks for little flaws that the average person might miss. The seams of the four panels, for example, should meet in a perfect cross at both corners of the ball. If the seams are even slightly out of alignment, that ball will be packaged for retail sale. Only the most perfect balls will be approved for game use.

1:45 a.m.: I'd originally thought about staying at the factory all night. But I'm pooped and I have everything I need for the story, so I decide to call it a night. Before heading back to my hotel, I find Dan Riegle and thank him for his hospitality. He takes out his wallet and gives me a business card, just in case I need to follow up with him on anything. As he puts his wallet away, I notice that it's made from pebbled football leather. The perfect capper to a very football-centric day.

Paul Lukas would like to thank the Wilson workers in Ada, who take justifiable pride in their work. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.

Back to Page 2

• Philbrick: Page 2's Greatest Hits, 2000-2012
• Caple: Fond memories of a road warrior
• Snibbe: An illustrated history of Page 2
Philbrick, Gallo: Farewell podcast Listen