Evolution of the Football: From 1869 to 2022

American football has seen significant changes throughout its history, but few aspects of the game have undergone more change than the ball itself. How did the traditional "pigskin" evolve into the aerodynamic ball we use today? Here's a walk through the evolution of the football.

American Football's Ancestors

Football as we know it today draws inspiration from two parents: soccer and rugby. Back in the mid-1800s, players used a spherical ball made of a pig's bladder and sewn together with calfskin — hence the nickname pigskin.

Soccer and rugby made their way to North America during the Industrial Revolution, where the quickly expanding United States joined in the trend. In true American fashion, the athletes combined soccer and rugby and organized their own style of football. They still made the ball from pig bladder because it was durable and easy to find.

The first official American football game took place in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton, but it still looked like soccer. The players could only kick the ball, and each score was worth one point. Still, this game made it clear to everyone that the football needed an update. The teams supposedly had to re-inflate the bladder several times and eventually finished the game with a half-deflated ball, which resembled an oval.

Modernizing the Sport

Schools across the country began establishing football programs from 1869 onward, and the game adopted new rules. The most important was the forward pass, which largely eliminated the rugby-style lateral passes and made the game more vertical than soccer. This gave American football its own unique identity.

Manufacturers added laces, which tightened the pigskin and prevented the ball from bursting during play. The ball also took on a more aerodynamic oval-like shape, which allowed players to throw it over longer distances.

Eventually, rubber became the primary material used to make footballs. It was lighter and didn't burst as easily as pig bladder. The calfskin casing remained the same because it gave the players sufficient grip, along with the laces.

The National Football League (NFL) was established in 1920. It experimented with footballs for two decades until it found a reliable manufacturer, the Wilson Sporting Goods Co., in 1941. Wilson made its footballs with high-quality pebble cowhide and hand-sewed each one with lock-stitch seams, which set its product firmly apart from any other before it.

Players quickly took a liking to Wilson's football, nicknaming it "The Duke" after Wellington Mara, the son of New York Giants owner Tim Mara. The two organizations have been business partners ever since, and the handmade production process continues today.

Inside the Production Process

Wilson has seen no reason to change its production method throughout the years. The company relies on about 120 employees in a factory in Ada, Ohio, to make each ball from scratch. The workers stitch the ball together using four pieces of pebbled leather from nearby farms in Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. Then, they add a single piece of vinyl to make the lace.

The process is fairly straightforward, but the only secret is the tanning phase. No one knows what Wilson does to give its footballs their signature rustic look, but it certainly seems to be working. After stitching the leather around the rubber bladder, tanning the ball and attaching the lace, workers paint the lines and add the Wilson logo, among other inscriptions, onto the encasing.

Wilson's hard-working employees create about 4,000 footballs a day, and the NFL needs every one of them. Each game uses about 54 footballs, equating to 864 across the NFL in just one weekend. Teams use more than 54 in each practice, so every football eventually sees some action.

Creating the "Standard" Football

NCAA and NFL football are extremely lucrative and high-stakes businesses. Athletes got stronger and more physical, so they needed to set specifications for their footballs to make them as durable and consistent as possible. This is what every college and professional football looks like:

* 11 to 11.5 inches long
* 28-28.5-inch circumference at its widest point
* 20¾ to 21¼ inches at its narrowest points
* 14 to 15 ounces in weight

The NCAA can use a slightly smaller football, but most teams use the NFL-sized version to prepare their athletes for the professional ranks. The NFL also doesn't paint its footballs with white stripes, which can be another learning curve for rookie players.

Football is Still Growing

Football is the most popular sport in North America and is only beginning to gain traction globally. However, one thing about the sport that has likely reached its peak is the football itself. With exceptional leather, tight laces, and a firm grip in any weather conditions, you'd be hard-pressed to create a football of finer quality than today's.

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