Just For Kicks The NFL's new K ball has kickers and punters fuming--and owning up to the extreme steps they used to take to doctor the pigskin and make it easier to boot

October 03, 1999

Who knew? Who knew that footballs had such a turbulent secret
life? Volumes have been written about scuffed or juiced-up
baseballs, paeans have been sung to red-white-and-blue
basketballs, entire belief systems have been tied to
titanium-filled golf balls, but until recently all we thought
about footballs was that they are damned hard to dribble. It
turns out that the Wilson football, which NFL teams have been
kicking around since 1941, has quite a checkered past, one that
heretofore had been whispered about only in equipment rooms.
Footballs have been steam-bathed, baked in aluminum foil, dunked
in water, brushed with wire, bonked with hammers, buffed with
strips of artificial turf, jumped on, shot out of Jugs machines,
pounded into the walls of racquetball courts, inflated and
deflated more often than Oprah Winfrey, Armor All-ed,
shoe-polished and lemonaded, crushed under weightlifting plates
and, like a female wrestler at a county fair, dunked in
evaporated milk. Maybe even microwaved.

These revelations have come to light in this, the first season
of the K ball. Alarmed that kickers, in clandestine cahoots with
equipment men, ball boys and quarterbacks, were doing everything
but sauteing footballs and plating them up with a nice port wine
reduction, the NFL's competition committee took action before
this season. It passed a measure mandating that 12 game balls,
inscribed with the letter K and sent out in boxes sealed with
antitampering tape, would be used exclusively by punters and
kickers during games. A box of the balls is delivered to the
officials' room about 2 1/2 hours before kickoff, and only then
are the balls removed from their individual plastic bags.

The results have not been dramatic, but that hasn't stopped
kickers from worrying, particularly after two titans of toes,
the Atlanta Falcons' Morten Andersen and the Minnesota Vikings'
Gary Anderson, missed a combined seven field goals in the first
two weeks of the season. The new balls have the most impact on
kickoffs; through the first three weeks of the season there were
only 69 touchbacks, as opposed to 90 at this time last season.
Anyway, it doesn't take much to fuel the paranoia of kickers,
who in recent seasons have seen kickoffs moved back from the
35-yard-line to the 30 and have been ordered to kick with a
one-inch tee instead of the old three-incher. "Eventually
they're going to have just one upright," says Indianapolis Colts
kicker Mike Vanderjagt, "and if you hit it and make a little
bell go off, you get a field goal. If not, it doesn't count."

Says Philadelphia Eagles kicker Norm Johnson, "In the NBA do
they go to Sports Authority, buy a basketball off the shelf,
pump it up and play with it? It's ridiculous."

The league office says the kicking fraternity is overreacting.
"What we want is for kickers to kick a regulation ball that's
the same for everyone," says NFL senior vice president of
football operations George Young, who supervises the competition
committee. "The rule is not about discriminating against
kickers. It's about leveling the playing field."

This football-finagling business has long been the game's dirty
little secret. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher recalls
asking former punter Mark Royals, who kicked for the team from
1992 to '94, how balls were doctored, and Royals's response was,
"Do you really want to know?" Cowher said no, "because I figured
what I did not know, I could not be indicted for." St. Louis
Rams equipment manager Todd Hewitt remembers stopping by the
Cleveland Browns' locker room several years ago before a
scrimmage game and surprising a veritable Santa's workshop of
elves slaving over balls. "It looked like I had just broken up a
gambling ring or something," Hewitt remembers. "'Relax,' I told
them. 'Everybody does it.'"

Here's why everybody does it (or did it): Almost no player who
has to touch a football with his hand or foot likes brand-new
Wilsons out of the box, just as fielders don't like spanking new
baseball gloves. New footballs are hard, unforgiving, smallish
(with a correspondingly small sweet spot) and coated with a film
that makes them slippery. They don't travel as far as game-worn
balls, and they can't be "guided" as accurately as roundish,
softer balls. When you see a kicker squeeze a ball, it's because
he wants to soften it and make it rounder. So it became a ritual
in many NFL locker rooms, usually on Friday or Saturday before a
home game (the home team supplies game balls), that the 36 game
balls were taken out of their boxes and roughed up.

New Orleans Saints equipment manager Dan Simmons says his
routine has been unchanged for 27 years. "Scrub each ball hard
with a wet towel, inflate them all to the regulation 13 pounds,
wipe them again, then brush them down," says Simmons. (The
horsehair brush is supplied by Wilson.) Wiping and brushing not
only soften a ball and remove the film but also bring to the
surface what Wilson Sporting Goods vice president-business
director Dennis Grapenthin calls the "tackified substance" that
makes a ball easier to handle. All this was, and still is,
perfectly legal. Simmons would then hand off the balls to the
quarterbacks and kickers for testing, also legal. Until three
seasons ago there were no explicit rules about how balls could
be tested, though there was an implicit understanding that they
would be thrown around the locker room or perhaps just outside
it. To ensure that the Wilsons would look fresh on game day, it
was assumed that they would not be practiced with or kicked--and
certainly not dragged into some mad scientist's laboratory.

That, however, is frequently what happened. Though most claim
innocence, many kickers are aware of the various methods that
make the oblate spheroid easier to boot. Of those techniques,
only the football in the microwave seems to be an urban legend.
Minnesota punter and kickoff specialist Mitch Berger labels it
ridiculous and says that one of his kicker cronies (he won't say
who) tried it a couple of weeks ago, and the ball blew up.

Chicago Bears kicker Jeff Jaeger and punter Todd Sauerbrun
describe a recipe for ball preparation that would satisfy any
anal-retentive chef: Fill ball with as much air as possible,
leave alone for three days, deflate to about eight pounds, push
ends of ball repeatedly into corner of table, overinflate again,
throw into laundry sack with wet towels and place in clothes
dryer. "Ten minutes was all it would take to get them real hot,"
says Sauerbrun. "They'd bang around in the dryer, and then we'd
brush them off." If the balls weren't screaming for mercy by
then, Jaeger and Sauerbrun would deflate them and put them under
hot water.

The process was taken a step further last season after Sauerbrun
was injured and the Bears acquired 39-year-old veteran Mike
Horan, who, as special teams coach Keith Armstrong put it, "went
scientific on us." Horan, who got a degree in mechanical
engineering at Long Beach State, showed up with a homemade,
skateboard-sized contraption. "He and Jeff would take a ball
down to about eight pounds, put it on the board and put a
100-pound dumbbell on it," says Armstrong. "They'd just roll it
back and forth, back and forth. It took hours."

Kickers and quarterbacks would sometimes disagree about the
results achieved by even the most skilled football doctorers.
That happened frequently when Minnesota kicker Anderson and
Tennessee Titans quarterback Neil O'Donnell were teammates in
Pittsburgh several seasons ago. "Gary liked those beach balls,"
says O'Donnell, "the ones you needed two hands to throw down the
field." New York Giants equipment manager Ed Wagner Jr. says
that on his team, kickers were never allowed to mess with the
balls because quarterbacks didn't want them to. Dallas Cowboys
kickers are more fortunate. Whatever Troy Aikman wants, Troy
Aikman gets, and what the Cowboys passer wants is a dirty,
roughed-up, kicker-type ball.

But it's unlikely that Aikman or any other quarterback was ever
seen hunching, Horan-like, over a workbench. Quarterbacks have
other things to do, such as date models, cash big checks and film
commercials. It's these sidewinding scientists, the guys who
"study balls like crazy," as Berger puts it, who spend quality
time with the pigskin.

The league says it began hearing reports of excessively doctored
balls several years ago. So before the 1997 season the NFL
instituted a fine of $10,000 for any player who was found to
have tampered with balls. A year later the fine was increased to
as much as $25,000. The reports didn't stop, and from time to
time referees found themselves handling a muddy-looking wreck or
a ball inflated into the shape of a pumpkin. "We'd go on the
road," says Buffalo Bills kicker Steve Christie, "and you'd be
hitting balls that looked as if they came out of a rugby union."
No fines were imposed because, evidently, the perps could not be
identified. But when the matter came up several months ago, the
competition committee decided to do something about it. The
committee came up with the K ball solution, passing it by an 8-0
vote.

If NFL execs thought that would end the controversy, they were
badly mistaken. Several questions remain in the air, and they
hang over the league office like a booming Berger punt.

Is the K ball rule in place because of ball tampering or because
the powers that be wanted to take some foot out of football?
Young swears it's the former, but he's being a bit disingenuous.
Minnesota vice president and coach Dennis Green, who's on the
competition committee, acknowledges that K rations are being fed
to the kickers partly because kickoff men, field goal kickers
and punters had become so formidable. "I think the NFL wants
returns to be part of the game," says Green. "They want shorter
field goals, and they want more [uncertainty] when it comes to
field goals."

K balls are supposed to be worked over by the officials after
they are taken out of the plastic bags, but many kickers and
coaches say it's either being done differently from crew to crew
or not being done at all. "I know I've kicked balls that have
not been touched by an official," says New England Patriots
punter Lee Johnson. Jerry Seeman, a former ref who is the NFL's
senior director of officiating, says that his charges have been
instructed to wipe down each K ball with a moist towel for one
minute. "Believe me," says Seeman, "we are taking this
seriously." However, neither the length of the preparation time
nor the specificity of the directive satisfies kicking
specialists, who are admittedly hard to satisfy. Some kickers
would like to see each ball's four panels wiped for at least 30
seconds apiece and brushing made mandatory.

Another intriguing question: Because ball boy subterfuge was
sometimes required to get doctored balls into the game in
seasons past, what's to stop ball boys from replacing new K
balls (which they usually keep in a black mesh bag on their left
hip) with doctored K balls? Should the NFL be posting signs in
banks: BEWARE OF BALL BOYS MAKING LARGE CASH DEPOSITS? Seeman
says the system is ball-boy-proof. Before each game, K balls are
inscribed with a code so they can't be used after that game. On
obvious kicking situations, officials have been instructed to
get ready for the kicking ball, and, when the decision to kick
is made and the ball is thrown in, they assiduously search the
valve area for that special K, which is stamped on at the Wilson
factory.

Kickers have other concerns. Delays bringing the K ball into the
game, they say, sometimes result in hurried kicks. And all
special teams players are dreading the coming of winter, when
the already unforgiving K ball will become positively Old
Testament. "I think you're going to see some bad, bad snaps with
that new ball," says Saints kicker Doug Brien. He looked over at
his good buddy, long snapper Kendall Gammon. "Oh, sorry."

"No," said Gammon, "it's going to happen."

With the prospect of disaster in the air, the last word is left
to the Pats' Johnson. "These K balls suck now," he says, "and,
boy, they're really going to suck then."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY MICHAEL WITTE COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY MICHAEL WITTE Airtight security With officials in charge of the K balls, the days of stashing softer, game-worn balls for special occasions are over. COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY MICHAEL WITTE Rounded off "Gary [Anderson] liked those beach balls," says O'Donnell, "the ones you needed two hands to throw down the field."

"The rule is not about discriminating against kickers," says
Young. "It's about leveling the playing field."

Christie recalls kicking balls that looked as if they'd come from
a rugby union.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)