Ada, Ohio, doesn't stick out on a map. The town with a population of about 6,000 is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Cleveland and is tucked away in the quiet countryside of the Midwest. But there's some significant work happening in Ada ? it's the location of the Wilson factory where NFL footballs are made. Since 1955, every NFL ball has been made in this facility. Today, it employs 120 workers and produces more than 700,000 footballs per year.
Many of the employees at the factory have been at their job for decades. There's a pride that comes from seeing their handiwork in action on the gridiron every Sunday. "To know that those footballs came from a little town in the cornfields of Ohio, that's very special to all of us who work here," says plant manager Daniel Riegle.
Riegle and his staff gave SI KIDS an exclusive look at how the footballs you see on any given Sunday are made.
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MAKING THE CUT
Each month, the factory receives 12,000 cowhides (such as the one above). Before arriving at the plant, the leather on the hide is tanned and pebbled. The first step at the Wilson factory is called cutting. A handheld device is used to slice away panels. Four panels make up one football, and each hide produces 10 balls.
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PILES AND PILES OF PANELS
After panels are cut out of a cowhide, they are stacked on carts. Each cart holds approximately 400 balls worth of panels. "We manufacture approximately 4,000 footballs a day, so in one production day those panels in this photo would probably all be made into balls," says Riegle, who has worked at Wilson for 32 years.
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STAMPS OF APPROVAL
The panels are clamped into a machine that stamps on graphics, such as the NFL logo and commissioner Roger Goodell's signature. The day this photo was taken, the NFL's breast cancer awareness logo was stamped on the balls.
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Next comes a very important step: A sewing machine is used to add a vinyl lining to each panel. "That's what gives the ball all its strength," says Riegle. "Without that lining, the leather would eventually just tear apart."
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HOLES IN ONE
A machine punches lace holes in the panels. Wilson makes four different-sized balls (NFL, NCAA, high school, and pee wee). While the space between holes varies, "every ball has eight holes, whether it's a pee wee or an NFL ball," says Riegle.
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FOOTBALL IS LIFE
Using a heavy-duty sewing machine, the four panels are then attached inside out. The reason for that is purely cosmetic ? it's so the stitches don't appear on the outside of the ball. Fun fact: The woman at this station, Jane Helser, has been working at the Wilson factory for 47 years. She has helped make balls used in every Super Bowl dating back to 1967!
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A GOOD TURNOVER
The balls are flipped right-side out in a process called turning. "That's the first time it looks like a football," says Riegle. After the balls are turned, it's time to put in the bladder, which holds the air. Each football has an opening by the laceholes. The bladder is inserted through that hole and then locked into place. In just a few short steps, the process of making a football will be complete.
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LACE 'EM UP
Laces are attached to the ball by hand. The person manning this station tapes his fingers to prevent injury. "By pulling on those laces all day they can get blisters," says Riegle. "They put tape on their fingers so they don't get hurt."
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FULL OF HOT AIR
This machine pumps 100 pounds of air pressure into the mold of the ball, straightening out its seams and making its shape uniform. The air is then sucked out to 13 pounds of pressure so the ball settles at its game weight of 14 ounces.
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READY FOR ACTION!
After being weighed and measured, the balls are ready to be shipped to NFL teams. "It makes you very proud to know that a product you're making is used by the best professionals in the world in that sport," says Riegle.
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