February 1, 2015

WHEN MEN WERE MEN:

NFL KICKERS TALK ABOUT PLAYING WITH THEIR BALLS (Andrew Heisel, 1/26/15, Vice)

[B]efore getting too upset about the present controversy, it's worth remembering those scheming days of yore. For a long time, it was simply assumed that every football had been illegally tweaked in some way. The rules were sacred, but only if someone had an incentive to enforce them.

When kickers discuss their methods during that era, they do so with all the matter-of-fact detail of a craftsman hosting a home improvement show. "Every Monday, I'd go into the equipment room and get 36 balls and I'd break in the noses on a door jamb or end of a table," Husted says, "and then you'd pump them up to maybe 18, 19 psi, get them really hard, and then ... just put them in a sauna for like two days." After that, he'd let the air out and give them some time in the sun. The point was to soften and expand the leather so as to broaden the sweet spot on the ball. Sometimes they'd fill the balls up to 30 psi or higher. The ball would eventually play at the official air pressure, but by that point, the thing had already been transformed.

Kickers had plenty more ways to prepare the ball: bake it, microwave it, put it in the trunk of a car for a few hot days, put it in the dryer with some wet towels, even soak it in lemon juice or evaporated milk. Former Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Mike Hollis told me that after over-inflating balls he'd spend a lot of time rubbing them down with a wet towel. But when he started in the league with the San Diego Chargers, he learned to work them over with weights: "You get a big 45-pound plate and you put the plate on top of the football and then you stand on top of the plate and roll the plate around."

Usually, the first step was brushing the ball. Husted says his former teammate, punter Reggie Roby, really got into that part. He'd sit in the lounge and work the ball over with a piece of Astroturf: "It was kind of like meditation for him." The rubbing removed the protective coating the ball arrived with. If the pebbling was a bit too prominent--"knobby"--they'd have to wear that down as well.

The mental image of these men expending so much effort and ingenuity on a bunch of footballs is kind of silly, but it was a serious and taxing component of their job. "I always dreaded a home game week of preparing the footballs," Hollis says.

It was a Sisyphean effort: labor for days to get these footballs nearly to the point of perfection, and then, because the league mandated new balls each week, start all over on Monday.

But if you're already bending the rules, why stop? After a game ended, refs marked each football to put it out of commission, often by blackening one of the laces. So Husted and others would simply apply a white paint pen or marker and carry it through to the next week. Hollis didn't do this, but he certainly could tell it was going on. "I remember playing a game late in the season looking at a football when the referee handed it to me on a kickoff and just was like, wow; this ball has been used in many, many, many games," he says. The ref either didn't notice or didn't care.

There was a spirit of camaraderie about it all amongst the kickers. "Most guys were cool," Hollis says of meetings with the opposition's kicking unit before games. They'd proudly tell their counterparts, "You're gonna like the game balls this week." Husted remembers the Atlanta Falcons' unit bragging one year in week 11 that they'd managed to keep their footballs in circulation since week 1.

Posted by at February 1, 2015 4:11 PM
  

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