NFL Odd Jobs: The Rams' master of game ball preparation
- Even before it became a topic of national intrigue, game ball preparation was a secretive, specialized craft. Meet the man who gets each football just the way the Rams' QB—whoever that may be—likes it.
Magicians don’t share secrets, so of course Matt Litzsinger won’t give away his process, but he will tell you the ingredients. A football, hot water, a brush shaped like a whiteboard eraser, a small white towel and a good chunk of mud. Others have gone wild trying to recreate Litzsinger’s wizardry. They’ve used coffee grinds. Machine dryers. Shoes. You name it. And by now they know not to ask Smack—that’s how Litzsinger introduces himself—for advice. Have you considered using bubble gum? he’ll reply, grinning.
Wilson Sporting Goods won’t share its secrets either, which is why Litzsinger, a former Rams groundscrewman who now works for the team from home, has been engaged in a decade-long battle of guess-and-check with the company’s products. Former St. Louis quarterback Gus Frerotte used to help him, and every Rams QB since has pitched in, too. Because, you see, a football is a quarterback’s tool—the mystical key to fame and fortune, a fickle friend that too often has a mind of its own—and Litzsinger? He knows footballs.
At this point, it’s worth clarifying that Litzsinger’s special talents have nothing to do with PSI, stadium bathrooms, or anything John Jastremski and Jim McNally did or did not do for Tom Brady before the 2015 AFC Championship Game. Instead, Litzsinger’s work starts in March each year, when he receives 30 six-ball cases from Wilson and begins the long process of selecting the worthy candidates—each ball is handmade, and therefore different—and preparing them for play. That means soaking and scrubbing the ball to the point where the protective wax is removed but the valuable nubs remain. That’s just the basic explanation though. Litzsinger has also worked out ways to control the ball’s color, shape and stickiness. Some of this work, he admits, falls somewhere between aesthetic and superstitious. But, his quarterbacking clients assert, much of it is invaluable. “It’s a huge piece of the game that nobody talks about,” says former Rams QB Dave Barr, who was around one year before Litzsinger’s time with the team began.
Back when Barr played in the 1990s, the home team was responsible for providing all game balls. The Titans were known for having slick, fresh out of the box balls, which Steve McNair and his large hands could handle better than most opponents. The same was the case in St. Louis in the early 2000s with a gloved Kurt Warner at the helm. In 2006, Peyton Manning and 21 other QBs, (yes, including Brady) successfully lobbied the league to allow visiting teams to bring 12 of their own balls each week. “What difference does it make what football they’re playing with?” Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said at the time. If only he knew.
That same year, Gus Frerotte joined the Rams to back up Marc Bulger. Frerotte had previously fallen in love with the way one of his former teams, the Vikings, prepared their footballs. “You want to make sure it’s the way you like it,” he says. “It’s no different than an artist’s favorite paintbrush.” So he was crestfallen when he saw how little the Rams staff knew about the craft. “I was like, ‘That’s not going to cut it,’” he says. “I got there and I was able to show them how it’s done.”
Frerotte found a willing lab partner in Litzsinger, who started out with the Rams in 1996 on the grounds crew but quickly became a do-anything man for the equipment staff, serving as a ball boy, putting stickers on helmets pre-game and often sleeping at the team’s facility in order to get everything done. Kurt Warner wore gloves and Bulger was never vocal about the footballs, but once Frerotte arrived, Litzsinger started seriously working on them.
For weeks, he and Frerotte went back and forth. Smack would present a football, Frerotte would critique its look and texture, and then Litzsinger would tweak his process, taking balls home with him when necessary. After six months, Frerotte finally gave his approval. But Litzsinger kept tweaking, working to perfect the ball for each successive quarterback that came to St. Louis.
There was Sam Bradford, who Litzsinger remembers as quiet at first. But eventually the rookie opened up and said he wanted no tack at all on the ball. His 9 1/2-inch hands had no problem holding onto the thing. The two delved further into nuances of ball preparation as Bradford spent time in Litzsinger’s office nearly every week.
Then, when Bradford was traded for Nick Foles in 2015, Litzsinger was nervous. If Foles came to town and didn’t like the way the footballs were prepared, Litzsinger would have to start back from square one. “The worst scenario ever is you do a football for a guy and he doesn’t like it. Then you’re like, ‘Well I don’t know where to go from here.’ There’s not a lot that can be done. I’ve got it down to where I can do a couple of things, but it’s not freaking rocket science.” Fortunately, Foles liked the ball just about the same.
Case Keenum was also easy to work with. Coming from Houston, the QB was surprised by how much care and pride Litzsinger took in the process. “Smack may know how I like it better than I do,” Keenum says. They bonded outside of the team facility, too, going fishing together. “I would say as good as he is with footballs,” Keenum says, “He might be better with bass.”
And now Litzsinger has a new project: appeasing rookie Jared Goff, who was named the starter this week. He’s still waiting to hear back about what Goff thinks of the latest batch.
When Barr returned to St. Louis this summer for a Rams alumni appreciation game before the team moved to Los Angeles, he saw how far Litzsinger has taken the craft. “Matt came out and unzipped this bag of worked-over official game balls,” Barr recalls. “I couldn’t believe it. To me, the difference was going from throwing a softball to a baseball. It was that big of a difference. What he is doing is just awesome.”
So awesome, in fact, that head equipment manager Jim Lake wanted to make sure the team did not lose Litzsinger in its transition to L.A. Smack turned down the relocation offer, unwilling to uproot his family from St. Louis, but agreed to keep prepping the balls from afar. “He’s the best without a doubt,” Lake says. “We wouldn’t be sending these balls cross-country if he wasn’t.”
Now on his own and free of any other equipment duties, Litzsinger set out to turn his craft into a business. He created a simple website, footballplus-smk.com (smk as in Smack) and quickly added a second client: UCLA. Bruins equipment manager Brendan Berger previously prepared game balls for the Jets, where he grew an appreciation for Litzsinger’s expertise. Now in a managerial role, Berger does not have the time to work over the balls properly, so he leapt at the chance to enlist Litzsinger. “I don’t want one of my students to do it because they don’t put as much love on the ball as Smack can,” he says. “There are a few things that we actually touch and do that can make a difference in the game and honestly a football—it might sound silly—but if you have it prepped the right way with the right texture, it definitely makes a difference.”
Litzsinger, who is currently doing this job out of his kitchen, limited himself to those two clients for year one, waiting to make sure he could handle the logistics of his new business before expanding. But he is already talking to several interested parties and expects to hear from more during the off-season. As a form of marketing, he sent former Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins a worked-up kicking ball to take to a camp in Iowa. Wilkins, who retired in 2007, responded, “Holy s--- Smack, what are you doing to these balls? You don’t even have to write a letter to someone. Just send them a football.”
Of course, expanding the business comes with its own challenges. For one, it will probably require moving operations outside of his house, given that there are nearly two dozen boxes of football already occupying the dining room and even more in the basement. Turning Pandora on in the living room and then working over the kitchen sink has its perks, but it’s hardly sustainable. Eventually, it will also mean sharing the secrets Litzsinger has held so dear with a coworker-to-be. Given the amount of TLC Litzsinger applies to each ball, he knows he might not have time to service everyone who is interested. This Wednesday, for instance, he worked on four balls from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. before letting them dry. And they still are not quite up to his standard. Plus, “I don’t see myself scrubbing footballs the rest of my life,” Litzsinger says.
But hiring someone is daunting. And having to teach them the craft is even scarier. Litzsinger got a taste this off-season when he sat down with a Rams employee to show them the ropes for when the work needs to be done on-site during the year. “I literally sat right next to him and tried to teach him and I just can’t,” Litzsinger says. “I don’t know what I do. I just do it. I can see things on footballs he can’t see. I’d say, ‘See this right here?’ and he’d go, ‘What the hell are you looking at?’”
Fortunately, one natural candidate has already emerged. Litzsinger’s six-year-old daughter, Ellie, shows the same passion her dad does. Just about every time a new batch of balls arrives on the family’s doorstep, she’s there with him to rip open the box. They both peer in. One of these balls might help Goff score a touchdown. One could even end up in a case in Canton, Ohio. Of course they’ll need a lot of elbow grease and a bit of Litzsinger’s magic to get there. But first, the prime candidates need to be plucked out of the collection. “This one,” Ellie will say, reaching in. “This is a good one.”