Even as early as halftime, the game was pretty well decided. It was the sort of slog that every NFL playoffs cycle throws at the fans at least once: a game that ends while the pizza’s still hot.
In quiet Ada, Ohio, a dozen or so employees of Wilson Sporting Goods gathered around a TV in the break room and watched the fourth-down punts tick by. As good Midwestern stock, this NFC Championship outing wasn’t going as many of them had hoped. But they couldn’t call it quits on this game just yet. For them, the stakes still ran high.
It was up to these men and women, after all, to make the very footballs that would be passed and punted and rushed into history just two weeks later at Super Bowl LII. These would be custom-stamped with each team’s name, marked by Wilson’s front lines as unique and official, and it wasn’t worth cutting a few corners on the late shift and risking an unexpected comeback from the daunted Minnesota Vikings. Stranger things have happened in the NFL.
At any rate, the blowout was enough to prompt a few employees to take the Philadelphia Eagles stamp and at least get it lined up with a good 10 minutes still left on the clock. Nick Foles and his guys had the game locked down, seemed like.
Sure enough, the final score eventually confirmed their lot: The Eagles would face the New England Patriots. As custom and league policy dictates, each team was to receive 108 footballs—54 for practice and 54 for the big game in Minneapolis, with untold thousands more to be made for this singularly American sports retail boom.
Every single NFL football is formed from the ether on these hallowed grounds. The company churns out some 700,000 hand-sewn footballs each year; plant manager Dan Riegle has presided over a good 34 million footballs himself, we’re told, going back to 1982’s Super Bowl XVI (the 49ers beat the Bengals 26-21). And if you see Tom Brady sling a clean spiral to Rob Gronkowski in the big game on Sunday, you can bet that a woman named Pam Boutwell made sure that football met the iconic Wilson standard before it ever left her sight, right here in central Ohio.
The Wilson factory is nestled at the end of a small residential neighborhood in rural Ada, home to about 6,000 residents and the Methodist-affiliated Ohio Northern University. Football is the cultural backbone of this town, where residents gather for a newly instated Super Bowl festival beneath the presence of a water tower emblazoned with the script Wilson logo. At midnight last year, leading into Super Bowl Sunday, the town dropped a 10-foot-long Wilson football as though it were Times Square.
Multiple generations of Hardin County families have come through this building. Parents work alongside their children, and the staff has celebrated more than a few weddings along the way. Employees stay for a good average of 20 years here.
The company officially arrived in Ada in 1955, occupying the same warehouse that William Sonnett had christened 17 years prior as the home of the OK Manufacturing Co. and, later, Sonnett Sporting Goods. Sonnett spent his life crafting leather goods, and he patented the rubber valve that’s used to pump air into footballs.
Sonnett’s story is the crystallization of American enterprise, and Wilson kept his employees on at the Ada plant when it purchased the company in the mid-1950s. The methodical craftsmanship that goes into this leatherwork hasn’t changed much since those days, either.
Baskets of footballs dot the factory floor like hay bales in an Ohio pasture. Machines whir and clank, and the raw rhythms of calloused hands stitch tomorrow’s gridiron glory into being. There is a natural order to things here.
Whole sides of cowhide come into the factory, outlining the profile of stoic cattle from Nebraska or Iowa or Kansas. Their leather is stamped with the football’s characteristic pebble feel and a random smattering of “watermark” Ws before it reaches the factory.
Since 1940, Wilson’s cowhide has been processed by Horween Leather Co. in Chicago. “That’s a family business,” Riegle, the plant manager, says with pride. “Fourth generation.”
Once there, football-shaped stencils are slashed into the hide in four different sizes (peewee; youth; junior and official, which includes high schools players and NFL players and everyone in between). Those ovular panels are stitched with a vinyl lining that will serve as the interior of the football, the tactile support system.
Those four panels are then sewn together, inside-out, with a hearty old Union Lock-Stitch machine that’s loud as a jet engine. The stitches need to be on the inside of the ball, of course, but before the team goes any further in the process they’ve got to get the leather back on the outside. That process is called “turning.”
Jim Gatchell places the ball inside a steam box that softens the leather, allowing him the opportunity to foist the ball onto a steel rod and muscle it right-side-out again. The simplicity of the rod and of Gatchell’s shoe hammer belies the physical difficulty of manipulating a leather football just so. Leaning into the rod, he pulls and twists the thing until its cowhide surface is back on the outside—and it starts to look like the football it will become.
Down the line from Gatchell, Boutwell tapes her fingers in the same way that quarterbacks do. With remarkable precision, she can stitch 150 footballs in one day. When she started, 23 years ago, she was finishing just a few dozen. The rhythm of experience guides her now.
Like others here, Boutwell can take a certain pride during the Super Bowl when her fine stitching glides through the air on a deep fourth-quarter pass to change the course of NFL history.
As the eye of the needle pokes hither and yon along the backbone of the football, Boutwell appears as a Zen master.
Mirroring the ethos of good, thoughtful football, there’s a clarity to the process at Wilson. “We’re really simple here,” Riegle says, offering a mantra. “Sewing, turning, lacing.”
For the grand finale, Rose Sanders places the football inside a gleaming steel machine to mold it. She launches about 120 pounds of air pressure into the pigskin, filling a plastic bladder beneath the leather with resolute firmness and shaping it into the perfect football shape. When the buttons are pressed to initiate the molding, one feels an almost alchemical sense of anticipation.
Then, briefly, the machine sighs and decompresses. What Sanders pulls out is a finished product.
Riegle dons a pair of black-framed glasses and examines the football closely. He eyes the smooth leather stamp of the contenders, the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, these teams that we’ll consider when we look back on this game, and he hefts the ball like a sack of flour.
“This ball looks really good, Rose,” Riegle says. “Congratulations. Good job.”
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