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It’s nearly Superbowl Sunday, and it’s downright chilly in much of the country. When I grew up in Washington, winter was a time when the soil was damp, with the smell of rotting leaves, and often with the perma-damp texture of mud that freezes at night and thaws during the day. Really, a great surface for playing football.  I’m not going to put up any fronts. I had a short, awkward relationship with football, primarily in elementary school. Football and I tried to make it work again in the 7th grade, but it felt uncomfortable and forced. Finally as adults, football and I have matured, respect our differences, and enjoy a romp in the park once or twice a year. The Wilson website has precious little about the history of this company. What are they hiding?  Wilson Sporting Goods can trace its roots back to Schwarzchild & Sulzberger Meat packing plant in New York City. Rather than throwing away all the valuable animal by-products, Sulzberger decided to start Ashland Manufacturing Company in 1913, making tennis rackets, violin strings, and surgical sutures. In 1915 Thomas E. Wilson was appointed president and, in a stunning display of presidential ego, promptly changed the name of the company to the Thomas E. Wilson Company. To his credit, Thomas Wilson made some brilliant decisions for the company, immediately branching out into making team uniforms and golf bags. He also hired Arch Turner, a respected leather craftsman, to develop the modern football. Mr. Wilson left the company in 1918 to focus on the meat packing business (which he also renamed Wilson & Co.)

The Thomas E. Wilson Company continued to cultivate its brand with endorsements from Ray Schalk and Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne. Rockne had started making trips to the factory as a part of an advisory staff, and he selected the Wilson football as the official ball of the Fighting Irish.

In 1925 Wilson got past a design flaw by inventing the first valve-inflated football. This eliminated the need for a stem to be hidden under the laces, causing a slight wobble in a spiraling football.

The new sporting goods company did well and expanded in the years to come, and in 1931 they changed their name to Wilson Sporting Goods. Later that same decade they were manufacturing a wide variety of sporting goods with their 800 employees.

Wilson starting working with the NFL in 1941 and has been a part of every play on the national gridiron ever since. In the midst of helping the war effort (many of their factories produced tents, duffel bags, and helmets), they developed what would become a somewhat legendary football design called “The Duke,” after one of the most respected figures in the sport, New York Giants owner Wellington “The Duke” Mara. The Duke is made with the finest materials, lock-stitch seams, hand-sewn ends, and a triple lining. The Duke was used through 1969, but replaced in 1970 when the NFL merged with the AFL. This new organization continued to be called the NFL (did they win a coin toss or something?) and selected a newer model Wilson football, citing the consistent quality of Wilson’s product (this new model football has no official name, but for the sake of the article, let’s just call it The Marquis after Nicolas de Condorcet.) After Mara’s death in 2005, the official Wilson football of the NFL was renamed “The Duke,” and so it shall be for evermore.

To this day, Wilson continues to make all of its footballs in Ada, Ohio (as I understand it, some of the small, novelty footballs are made overseas). Each is made by hand by one of the 120 employees. Collectively, these proud workers produce 700,000 footballs a year.

Wilson Footballs