By Simon Carroll
When referring to the home of football, your first thoughts may be directed to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. And rightly so; it’s where every bit of nostalgia throughout the decades of the sport is preserved and immortalized for generations of fans to enjoy.
And yet, for each memory made throughout the NFL’s history, there has been one constant. Whether it’s Franco Harris’ ‘immaculate reception’, David Tyree’s ‘helmet catch’ or Tom Brady famously giving birth to the ‘tuck rule’ in the New England snow; every highlight the game has ever produced has involved Wilson’s iconic football. And for that, you have to head approximately 3 hours West of Canton to the small village of Ada, Ohio – where the story begins for every moment on the gridiron that has been, or is yet to come.
Decades of Dedication
According to the 2020 census, Ada has a population of just 5,334 people. And incredibly, around 130 of them work in the same place. The Wilson football factory at 217 Liberty Street has been the sole provider of footballs to the NFL since 1941 – a brand partnership tenure that no other that the league does business with comes anywhere close to. Approximately 2,500 balls are made each day in the factory – incredibly, despite the advancement in technology over the past eight decades, each one is still individually hand made. And yet, the hard working staff don’t mind one bit; the average worker at the Ada plant has been there approximately twenty years.
The process actually begins back in Chicago, where the company was founded. Four panels of genuine cowhide leather, sourced from the Horween Leather Company situated on the Windy City’s Elston Street, are cut to size and inspected, before having the various logos, slogans and emblems impressed on them. From there, each panel is sewn together – to meticulous standards, before being turned right-side out. An airtight bladder is inserted and then the ball is laced by hand and inflated to 100 psi, before being deflated back down to 13 psi – the pressure required for the NFL. Before being sent out, each ball is thoroughly checked multiple times to ensure that it meets Wilson’s exacting standards – something of which the workforce and the town are incredibly proud of.
Approximately 700,000 footballs leave the Wilson factory each year – from your standard NFL gameday ball, to team specific ones, to commemorative Super Bowl designs. And yet, through all the tweaks and changes, one aspect of the ball never changes…
The NFL football has had a host of nicknames in it’s history. Obvious ones like ‘the rock’ or ‘pigskin’ have come and gone, but one moniker has stood the test of time – not least because it has been emblazoned on the side of every ball since 2006. ‘The Duke’ has been the official and unofficial name of the NFLs football dating back to the 1940’s, when Giants owner and founder Tim Mara organized the first contract with Wilson to produce them. George Halas, the owner and coach of the Chicago Bears (who actually helped source the leather from Horween from which the balls are still made) implored Wilson to name the ball after Mara’s son Wellington, as a reward for negotiating the contract. Wellington’s nickname, somewhat obviously, was Duke. The company obliged, and the legend of ‘The Duke’ was born.
Whilst many have referred to the football as ‘The Duke’ since this moment, there was actually a 36-year hiatus where the ball no longer carried the name. After the NFL merged with the AFL in 1970 the classic slogan was removed from the leather, most likely to appease the AFL in what was something of a hostile marriage between the two entities. Despite the aesthetic amendment, the sentiment of ‘The Duke’ and the craftsmanship with which they were produced never changed.
Finally, in 2006, the name came back. Following the death of Wellington Mara the year before, who had gone on to succeed his father as owner of the Giants, the league reinstated ‘The Duke’ logo on the football in his memory – and every ball since that moment has proudly carried the slogan once more.
Standing the Test of Time
Football is a game that requires hard work, a keen eye for small detail, and precision. So it is apt that it is played with a ball that is produced with all those hallmarks. Holding one of the thousands of NFL balls made this year in my hand, you can feel the passion that the Ada factory workers pour into their craft. From the glossy NFL shield to the delicate stitching that brings it all together, every aspect of The Duke is perfect.
You feel privileged to throw this football – in fact, I would say that my arm probably did not do it justice! But unlike a soccer ball that has been changed with such alarming regularity there is little prestige in what lies at your feet, The Duke stands the test of time. In a sport that abandons history at the drop of a hat with franchises relocating, rules changing and uniforms being tweaked, it is the one thing that endures. It feels so regal to look at and touch, it disturbs me that Josh Allen slings it 70 yards without flinching. Mine will be retiring to a plinth on my bookcase – a permanent reminder of what the sport I love stands for.
And as for Wilson? Well, they continue strong as ever, officially breaking ground on a new production facility in Ada earlier this year, that will span 80,000 square feet. The new space will expand football production even further, while leaving room for growth as technology develops. The new facility, which will include a retail store, is expected to be completed by May 2024.
The game moves on, both on and off the field. But ‘The Duke’ is here to stay.
‘The Duke’ is available for all UK fans via the Fanatics website, where you can currently enjoy a 30% discount. Click here to get yours today!
PREVIOUSLY THE FOUNDER OF NFL DRAFT UK, SIMON HAS BEEN COVERING COLLEGE FOOTBALL AND THE NFL DRAFT SINCE 2009. BASED IN MANCHESTER, SIMON IS ALSO CO-CREATOR & WEEKLY GUEST OF THE COLLAPSING POCKET PODCAST.