How to Prep a Football Like The Pros
Wilson's product managers share their secrets for prepping a football for the NFL and NCAA.
It’s 9:30 a.m. at Wilson global HQ in Chicago, IL. The hallway you’re passing through is lined with shelves of footballs. As you approach the 5th-floor Team Sports area, you notice several footballs on a table that appear to be covered with…mud? Next to the balls are brushes, tack spray, rags, and a number of other tools. This common sight can only mean one thing: our product managers are busy prepping footballs for some notable teams across the country.
It’s easy to understand how sports equipment needs to meet quality standards for strength and durability. It takes a beating every time athletes use it, and in turn, athletes and coaches exert a great deal of effort making sure their equipment lasts.
Wilson leather footballs combine superb craftsmanship with the highest-quality components available. They must be prepared for the field so that they perform as well as the players using them. Read on to learn how our product managers prep footballs for both NCAA and NFL teams.
About the Balls
Wilson crafts these balls from the best quality leather sourced from the Horween Leather Company in Chicago, Illinois. When you purchase a Wilson Leather football, you have purchased a handmade, one-of-a-kind piece of equipment. It’s comparable to buying a leather baseball glove that needs to be broken in and conditioned to maximize performance.
The leather must stay primed and protected to maximize the ball's life and ensure peak functionality in every game. After all, no one likes a slippery football. The balls should never soak in water, never dry out, and should stay protected from abrasions and harsh chemicals. Remember that leather is skin, and it behaves like skin when worked, conditioned, and moisturized.
About the Tools and Conditioners
The NFL, NCAA and NFHS governing bodies employ strict rules for conditioning footballs that exclude foreign substances. To comply with these regulations, Wilson sources the ingredients in the tack spray, tack bar and ball conditioner from the processes used by Horween. Wilson’s ball brush has the optimal ratio of stiffness to pliability that respects the leather. Lastly, the mud—Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud—is a silt-based mud that won’t scratch the leather.
The individual panels of a football are cut from a large piece of leather. The factory maximizes the cuts to yield as many panels as possible from that leather sheet, which results in a varied grain direction. Therefore, when you brush a football, it’s best to use a multi-directional pattern: clockwise, counter-clockwise, up, then down. Those motions will guarantee even distribution of tack, conditioner, and mud.
How To Prep A Football: Step-By-Step Guide
Before you begin, note that it is crucial to keep moisture away from the lace holes. In cold weather, that moisture will ice under the skin and destroy the bladder. So, it’s important to be very careful when applying the conditioner, tack spray, and mud around the holes.
STEP 1: BRUSHING THE BALL
Brush the ball all over every panel in a multi-directional pattern: clockwise, counter-clockwise, up, then down. There is tack on the surface of the ball that is part of the Wilson proprietary leather formula. When you brush every panel you are brushing that tack into the ball and spreading it out evenly. The ball will feel like it has more grip just from brushing it.
STEP 2: USE CONDITIONER AND TACK SPRAY
The leather absorbs conditioner more easily with less tension as skin does, so deflate the ball to around 8psi. Then, mix a solution of 2 parts conditioner and 1 part tack spray. The tack spray promotes the adhesion of the conditioner to the leather.
STEP 3: COVER THE BALL
Using a glove, spread this solution evenly on the deflated ball. Let the ball dry for 3-5 minutes, and then inspect to ensure you have an even distribution. You may use a brush to even out the conditioner if you need to.
STEP 4: BREAK OUT THE BLOWDRYER
Using a heat gun or blowdryer at a distance of about 5 inches, go over all the panels to help the leather absorb the conditioner. Make sure to use a continuous motion and only apply the heat for a couple of seconds. Do not use the highest heat setting, medium heat is perfect. This heating process makes the ball very sticky, so be prepared.
STEP 5: MORE CONDITIONER
Using a towel, apply another layer of conditioner. The leather will have changed color, become darker, and is ready to absorb more moisture.
STEP 6: GRAB YOUR FOOTBALL MUD
Mix some Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud with water to the consistency of a milkshake, and using a glove, apply a thin layer over the football. Remember to keep the mud away from the lace holes and keep the layer thin enough so that you can read the logos through it. Now let the ball dry for a minimum of 1 hour. If the ball is still damp when you brush it, the coatings will grind down the pebbles on the ball, so make sure it is completely dry. If you can't find Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud, make sure to use another silt-based mud specifically designed for footballs.
STEP 7: BRUSH THE BALL
Using the same brushing motions as before, brush the mud into the ball, not off it.
STEP 8: CONDITION AND INFLATE
Prepping frequency, drying time, and the ratio of conditioner to tack spray vary a great deal depending on where you are in the U.S. For instance, in the arid southwest, the ball will dry in an hour or two. In the southeast, it can take a day or two to dry due to the high humidity. High humidity also allows the leather to retain more moisture for a longer time, which generally means less conditioning will be necessary.
Treating the football like it is skin is a good idea, but treating it like it’s your skin can lead to a less successful conditioning process, and ultimately, less use from your football. Here are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind:
- Brush the ball every day or before games.
- Use tack spray on the ball once a week.
- Condition the ball once a month, especially if you have a limited supply of footballs.
- If you can’t get Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud, use fine-grade packaged topsoil, but make sure it’s not sandy, or it will damage the leather.
- Use a brush made for brushing footballs. Commercial cleaning brushes are too stiff and will scratch the leather, and shoe-polish brushes are too soft to succeed in brushing in the tack.
- As a rule, keep water away from the leather, especially in and around the lace holes.
- Don’t use a hot rag or wet rag of any sort to remove the initial preservative. A common misconception is that there are preservatives or “waterproofing” on the ball. This doesn’t exist, and by using a wet rag to initially wipe the ball, you’ll speed up drying the ball out.
- Don’t cake the ball in mud. Use a thin enough layer so that you can still see the logos.
- Don’t use milk, shoe polish, or olive oil to condition the football.
- Don’t use soap or basic shaving cream on the leather (this will cause the leather to dry out).
- Don’t use anything containing a high concentration of lanolin, as it will cause the leather to expand and the ball will lose its shape over time.
Using this method and caring for your football leads to optimal performance and extends your ball’s life and durability. It’s worth taking the time to prep it correctly.
Questions about prepping your football? Hit up Blake.Rus@wilson.com
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