From the beginning, football has been a sport only for the rugged. Since the late 1860s, when rugby and soccer teams got together for a new game they coined “football,” it was rough-and-tumble. As many as 25 players on each side vied to punch and kick the ball across a goal line.
Rutgers took on Princeton in America’s first official game on Nov. 6, 1869. By 1876, football’s popularity demanded that a set of rules be written. Walter Camp, later known as the “Father of American Football,” instated many of the rules used today including a line of scrimmage. Camp also cut the number of players allowed on the field, moved positions and changed scoring.
He is also credited with instituting awards for outstanding players and with introducing the “safety” in play and scoring.
Ironically, the game was unsafe in Camp’s day. The earliest headgear consisted of a few straps of leather that encircled a player’s head but did little to protect what was inside. By the 1920s, there was more padding on an official helmet but it was still rather ineffective. Helmets were required starting in 1943 and throughout the 1940s were made of leather because plastic was prohibited until 1953, when it entered the field and face bars were added. Rumor has it that the latter was created after an unfortunate accident suffered by Cleveland Browns player Otto Graham. Facemask grabbing was illegal almost immediately upon implementation. Radio helmets appeared in the 1950s and were banned only to return in 1995 (they are limited in use today). The double-bar facemask appeared in the early 1960s. Not until this century was foam padding added to helmets.
As for the actual ball, there’s a reason it’s called the “pigskin.” The earliest game balls were made of an inflated pig bladder (or the bladder of another animal) covered in leather. Its shape is accidental, believed to have happened because it was hard to keep a bladder inflated. By the turn of the last century, the iconic spherical shape became somewhat of a standard, although it was elongated and slimmed in the 1930s to accommodate new plays.
Since 1941, Wilson Sporting Goods has been the maker of the official game ball. Nicknamed “The Duke,” in honor of football great Wellington “Duke” Mara, it is brown but without white stripes at either end. According to NFL rules, the ball must be inflated to no more than 13.5 psi. Dimensions are mandated to be 11 to 11.25 inches long, of a length circumference of 28 to 28.5 inches and a width circumference of 21 to 21.25 inches.
Forty-eight footballs are required for the Super Bowl (24 supplied by each team). Game officials designated by a referee inspect each. Despite all the evolution, game balls—and each one of the almost 25,000 Wilson makes for the NFL—are made by hand.