How Wilson and “The Duke” Became the Official NFL Football
Learn about “The Duke” Official NFL Football, its history, and a touch of how it’s made.
The Heart of the Game
Throughout American sports history, no other brand has been partnered with a major American sports league longer than Wilson has been with the NFL. At the center of this partnership is Wilson’s iconic “The Duke” NFL Football.
Since the establishment of the league in 1941, “The Duke” has been at the heart of the game. Not only has every touchdown been scored with a Wilson football, but each NFL game ball has been expertly handcrafted in Ada, Ohio by skilled craftspeople for decades.
History of “The Duke”
The long-standing heritage of “The Duke” began before the ball got its famous name, back in 1869, when the first-ever game of American football was played on a university field.
Early versions of the game were played with a ball that was large and round, resembling a soccer ball. It was awkward to carry and nearly impossible to throw. As the game began to evolve from running plays to more passing-dominated strategies, the ball evolved alongside it. The formerly clunky, globe-like football adopted an ovoidal shape in 1897, and later in 1912 began to resemble the sleek, elongated shape we recognize today.
As the only official game ball the NFL has ever known, "The Duke" NFL football was named in honor of the game's pioneering legend and NY Giants owner, Wellington Mara. Having been named by his father after the Duke of Wellington, young Mara was soon dubbed "The Duke" by the Giants players when he worked for the team as a ball boy in 1925. Years later, when Giant’s founder Tim Mara arranged the agreement which made Wilson Sporting Goods Co. the official football supplier of the NFL, it seemed only fitting that the ball adopt the same nickname.
For decades, “The Duke” was emblazoned on the side of each and every NFL game ball. Upon the 1970 merger between the NFL and the American Football League, a ball design featuring an alternate logo came into production. This design would continue to be produced until Wellington Mara’s death in 2005.
To honor the memory of the beloved Giants owner, Wilson again began printing “The Duke” into the leather paneling of the NFL footballs, immortalizing Mara’s legacy and long-standing influence over the league.
But what is it that makes iconic “The Duke” NFL Football so special?
Building “The Duke”
While it’s easy to imagine that a factory that produces upwards of 2,500 footballs a day would be largely automated and machine-run, this could not be further from the truth. Each “The Duke” NFL football is hand-produced in Wilson’s Ada, OH factory. From the cutting and stamping to sewing and lacing, each “The Duke” football is the combined effort of nearly two-dozen expert craftspeople.
Each football starts with four panels of genuine cowhide leather, tanned in nearby Chicago. These panels are cut to size and then sent to have logos and emblems pressed into the surface of the leather. It is here that the signature “The Duke” insignia is stamped into each future game ball.
From there, each panel is sewn together. In order to ensure each ball is constructed to Wilson’s exacting quality standards, the sewing process is especially meticulous and precise – a skill that takes some craftspeople months to master.
Once the ball has been sewn together, it is turned right-side-out, an airtight bladder is inserted and then the ball is laced and inflated. Before “The Duke” is ready for gameplay, it is inspected multiple times for quality assurance and imperfections.
The Evolution of “The Duke” Football
The game may change, but “The Duke’s” expert craftsmanship remains the same. With each evolution of the ball, the legacy of “The Duke” carries on. Bring home the official ball of the NFL today, which is as close as a fan can get to the authentic, on-field icon that's been passed, caught, and carried by the game's greatest since the NFL started in 1941.
Check out Wilson’s entire line of “The Duke,” available online at Wilson.com.
Already got your hands on an iconic “The Duke” NFL football? Check out our guide to breaking in a football, where you’ll learn how to improve the football’s grip and extend the life of your official game ball.