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Regulations you should know about NFL footballs

Not just any prolate spheroid will do 

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NFL: Pro Bowl-Team Irvin Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The National Football League has rules and restrictions about every aspect of their game. Obviously, they are very protective about the appearance of the shield.

And they should be.

Jerry Jones purchased the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 for $140 million. Since those days, revenue from NFL clubs has skyrocketed and teams are now worth an average of $4.47 billion. That figure is actually 28% more than just a year ago.

For 2022, the Cowboys became the first sports franchise to be worth $8 billion according to Forbes. And with this much going on regarding the financial front, every dot is made and every “T” crossed.

Especially the equipment used in the sport.

The NFL doesn’t simply call the sporting goods store and go buy footballs for the current week’s games. For one, all game and practice footballs are custom-made to fit the league’s rigorous stipulations. Every pebble, stitch, inner section, skin material, and packaging, not to mention the size and shape have all been verbalized, specs drawn out, multiple meetings concerning each aspect discussed, argued, re-drawn, and additions or features deleted.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Detroit Lions Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

And that is just the footballs.

Plus, the NFL has more than one kind of football. Yeh, more meetings.

For every game, each team must provide the game officials brand new game balls two hours and 15 minutes prior to kickoff. How many balls? For an indoor venue, it is 30. A game played in outdoor environs that escalates to 54 footballs.

Each football must be properly pumped up prior to handing them over to the officials with an air pressure of between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds. It is the official’s job to inspect each ball for any defects, check for correct air pressure in each ball, and then imprint a mark specifically for that particular game which signifies that each football has passed inspection and is game ready.

This not only lets the head referee know that this entire process was done properly, but it eliminates the possibility of any practice balls or altered footballs somehow get inserted into the bunch.

The Chicago History Museum Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Wilson Sporting Goods is the official provider of game balls for the NFL. In all, they will sell the league around 27,000 footballs in a single season. The league will purchase additional balls for charitable situations as well.

The Duke is a mainstay

Have you ever wondered why there is an inscription on every NFL football that says, “The Duke”? Why is that? And is this Duke an actual person? English royalty perhaps?

The words “The Duke” have been a part of every NFL football since 2006. Well, not exactly. Let’s say that the inscription was reinstated.

1960s Duke NFL football

Back in 1941, New York Football Giants owner Tim Mara negotiated a contract with Wilson to supply game balls. George Halas, the owner of the Chicago Bears, wanted to show Mara some appreciation for his contract work and urged Wilson to place Mara’s son’s name on each ball. His son, Wellington Mara, was named after the Duke of Wellington. Therefore, everyone who knew Well called him “Duke” instead.

From 1941 to 1970 each NFL football had “The Duke” etched on it. When the merger occurred with the American Football League (AFL) beginning in 1970, the name was dropped so as not to offend the former AFL owners and instead project a sign of unity.

2005 “The Duke” NFL football

Wellington over the years became an instrumental man within the league as an owner and on various sub-committees. When he passed away in 2005, “The Duke” was returned in an attempt to honor him. This is reminiscent of when Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi passed and the NFL then named the Super Bowl trophy to recognize his achievements.


Wilson produces the NFL footballs in Ada, Ohio by skilled men and women. The ones ordered via the link are as close to the game day balls as one can expect; however, footballs used for official league games have additional digital technology with very strict quality controls.

On the sixth day, God created the K-Ball

The game is called American Football, but in all actuality, there is very little action during the game that involves the foot.

There are field goals and punts and kickoffs and points after the kick, but really, these events happen only every so often.

But don’t misunderstand the overall importance of a player kicking the ball during a game. The punter is a crucial portion of the offense or else the opposing team would garner great field position consistently. The game begins with a kickoff which is also how the ball is put into play after any score is made. Field goals are a method to add points as is the PAT. Not that anyone performs this anymore, but the drop kick remains legal and adds points as well.

With all the time involved in any contest, the actual kicking with the foot is minimal. To be truthful, American Football is called “football” because it originated from soccer, which is actually called football and always has been. So every game that was invented and adapted from soccer, was called their sport “football” such as Rugby Football, Gaelic Football, Australian Rules Football, American Football, and Canadian Football.

Soccer’s official name for their rules is named “Association Football.”

Cleveland Browns Training Camp
Lou “The Toe” Groza of the Browns

From the origins of American Football, points scored from field goals and dropkicks were from close range. There weren’t any kicking specialists on rosters. The kicker was usually the center or some other big guy while a lot of quarterbacks were also punters.

In the 1960s, kicker Pete Gogolak invented the soccer-style kick which allowed the kicker to make kicks from much further out because of how the ball was struck. He was also the very first kicking specialist on a pro football roster. As time went along, more and more kicking athletes were added to rosters to do just that: just kick. Punters became stronger and kickers could kick further.

So, the game evolved. The goalposts were moved back 10 yards. Kickoffs were also moved back. So were extra point attempts. Onside kick rules were altered. New rules were made because kickers and punters were suddenly booming their craft from longer distances.

And because of all this, the league had to come up with ways to make it more difficult for the kicking game in almost every aspect. The league wants high-scoring, but crowds love touchdowns instead of field goals.

The origins of the game allowed a kicker to make a mound of the earth surrounding where he was about to kick off or attempt to make a field goal. Because the mound became taller as the seasons fell off the calendar, a three-inch high rule was adopted. Then three inches became one inch high, then no ground was used whatsoever but instead a standardized rubber tee.

Plus, kickers and punters are a lot like a baseball pitcher. None of them like a brand new ball mainly because of the slickness of the outer surface. So, if they rubbed the ball with the palm of their hand, scrapped it on the ground, or even scratched it with some sort of foreign substance such as sandpaper, then maybe the ball will be more likely to fly straighter.

2022 K-Ball

After years of discussing what to do, in 1999, the NFL came up with a new kicking invention: they christened the K-Ball.

There was such an uproar about how kickers and punters were manipulating game balls from the time period prior to kickoff until it was time to go onto the field and strike the ball. Some of these kicking athletes had ingenious methods they would doctor along the sidelines to help them kick longer and straighter.

Because after all, kickers and punters are all gauged on statistics. These numbers are what keeps them employed - or not.

The new Wilson footballs weren’t delivered on game day back in the day but were a stock item at the training facility waiting for game day. So kickers and punters had access to them even though they were brand new.

One kicker trick was to slam each ball onto a table to break in the nose of the ball. Another gimmick would be to over-inflate each ball to 30 PSI, then place them in a sauna for two days. After the air was let completely out and placed in the sun, the leather exterior would be softer and more pliable. Soaking new footballs in evaporated milk would make the outside softer and remove the slickness.

A less-rigid ball would travel further like the worn-down practice balls, mainly because their shape is exactly how the factory shipped it, not roundish.

And so the league instigated the use of the K-Ball citing the unaltered surface area of each ball would be fair for both teams on game day.

“The reason this was put in place was to prevent teams from doctoring balls for kicking,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.

Indianapolis Colts v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The K-Ball has a special “K” mark on each ball - thus its name. These are the only footballs used for every kicking situation. They aren’t delivered to the officials in the same batch as the other game balls but are brought to the officials’ hotel room and are factory-sealed.

Rule 2, Section 2 of the NFL Rulebook states that six new K-Balls are shipped directly to the referee of each game and then the seal is broken in the officials’ locker room exactly two hours and 15 minutes prior to kickoff. They don’t arrive in a Brinks truck, but it is close to this aspect because they are guarded.

There is a contingency plan already in place just in case there are problems with shipment and/or delivery issues. Each NFL club has in-stock two games’ worth of K-Balls.

Before each game, after the seal is broken at the stadium, the air is checked and distributed to each team’s equipment manager just before kickoff.

Because each new ball has a waxy coating, the equipment staff is allowed to wipe each ball down with a horsehair brush, but with nothing else.

Philadelphia Eagles v Washington Redskins
K-Balls are separated
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The home club is responsible for supplying five ball attendants for each game. One of these individuals is responsible for the K-Balls during the game. The league hires a K-Ball monitor to keep an eye on these balls during the flow of the game so that they aren’t mixed in with the actual game balls. All six K-Balls are numbered. Each team uses three balls which are usually used on an odd and even number system regarding each squad. The K-Ball attendant must use the lowest numbered ball all throughout the contest unless something happens to that ball.

Kickers and punters actually despise the K-Ball. Some have commented that the surface is slicker than the plastic footballs children play with. They are not good balls for performing football duties like catching and holding much less kicking and punting.

Regulations for game balls

Around the league, there are teams that don’t offer domed stadiums so the weather is a factor.

There is a rule that prohibits the game ball attendants from heating up the balls using the sideline heaters, even if they do this for both clubs. The reasoning is that one or several of the footballs could become deformed although not on purpose. This might create a disadvantage for one team.

For whatever reason, if a game ball appears underinflated, it is immediately set aside and no longer used. This was how the New England Patriots were caught deflating balls during an AFC Championship Game since one set is used by each team.

Since all game balls were checked during pre-game and each one complied, the fact that one sideline had correctly inflated balls while the other sideline had underinflated balls, the issues were very plain to ascertain.

Game officials can remove a game ball at any time using their discretion. Once the game begins, the practice of adding more air to a game ball is not feasible and so the ball is set aside and no longer used for that contest. This also applies to checking the air pressure. This aspect is done in pre-game only.

One innovation that was discussed back in 2016 was the insertion of computer chips inside game balls. The purpose was for goal line situations, boundary issues plus whether field goals are contested. These technologically-advanced footballs were used in the preseason only while a resolution to continue was never brought up at the owner’s meetings.

Instead of wanting data from footballs in the kicking game, it seems like the league would want a chip inserted to decide if a pass was caught or not.