It's here: big twin crispy curls! Only $1.49! That's what the sign says outside Hardee's, the only restaurant in Ada, Ohio.
"If we need a shepherd...we must be sheep." That's the sermon pastor Robert Cassady delivered a few Sundays back at Ada's First Baptist Church.
"We're the football capital of the world." That's Ada's civic credo. The town is home to a 52-year-old football-manufacturing factory, by far the biggest one owned by Wilson Sporting Goods of River Grove, Ill.
Nestled amid the corn and bean fields of Hardin County, Ada is seven miles from Dola, which is three miles from Dunkirk, which is 14 miles from Mount Blanchard, which is 12 miles from Findlay. The name Ada came not from the Vladimir Nabokov novel, but instead belonged to a postal official's favorite sister. It's the sort of drowsy little college town-Ohio Northern has its campus here—in which you can watch the corn grow, fill your tank at the Sohio station, toss back a brew at the Regal Beagle, or get buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
September 9, 1990
"The last exciting thing that happened in Ada was back in '78, when they put in the new sewer line," says Peggy Price, who runs the football plant's power press. When her foreman saw the ditch being dug along Main Street, he exclaimed, "I told you Ada's a dead town. Look! They're burying it."
Dead Ada may be, but it gives life to more than a million footballs every year. The bins in Wilson's ballworks brim with the newborn K2 Pee Wees, 1001s, Super Bowl XXVs, Touchdowns, Vinny Testaverde Autographs, and NFLs—the triple-lined, lock-stitched beauties a select few of which, those chosen for the pros, are called the "Green Berets of footballs" by company public relations man Alan Schultz.
The college and high school balls are distinguished by the half stripe on the ends. Colleges can play with any brand they want, but these days the college ball that started it all for Wilson, the KR, is nowhere in sight. Named for Knute Rockne, the KR is now as outmoded as the Notre Dame Shift. But the plant still makes plenty of Dukes, which was the official ball of the NFL from 1941 to '70. "We've been the league's sole supplier of balls for almost 50 years," says Schultz. "Since the U.S. entered World War II, every pro touchdown, field goal and extra point has been made with a Wilson ball." Not to mention every fumble and every interception.
Wilson took over the factory from the Ohio-Kentucky Manufacturing Company in 1955 and the next year came up with balls made from a slightly tacky but "fumbleproof" skin known as "TD leather," the result of a special tanning process.
Since then, the changes haven't been so obvious, though Wilson now puts out an "exotic" line in fake crocodile, horned toad, elephant, ostrich—everything, it seems, but real pigskin. "Footballs have never been made out of pigs," says Dan Riegle, a hog farmer who works as the factory's purchasing manager. "You just can't throw a good spiral with a pig." Then again, footballs can't walk the extra 10 yards into the end zone. (No one is certain how pigskins came by their name, but there are historical references to 12th-century "futballe" players in England using inflated pig bladders as balls.)
Footballs have always been made out of cows, which is something everyone in Ada knows from the age of three. "You get about 10 balls to a hide, 20 to a steer," says Bill Cheney, a cutter. He's 58, and he's been at the plant for 42 years.
Cutting and matching the football's four panels is the first of the 50 or so steps in the ball-making process. "A football comes in quarters, like the game," Cheney says. "My brother Merle used to match the pieces for color." Merle finally retired a couple of years ago after 39 years of matchmaking.
Many Ada families have worked for Wilson for a long, long time. "Generation after generation," says Rita Rowe, a lacer whose brother, two sisters, daughter, two sons, daughter-in-law and Aunt Maudie Howard have all labored in the cavernous shop. The factory's 173 employees gather once a year for the company picnic. "Our game is Softball," says Tom Elkins, a plant manager of such eminence that a football bearing his name is stenciled onto his parking space. "If we played football, too many people would want to see me on the other side."
Ada's football makers are a slaphappy bunch whose initiation rites date back to the first forward pass. Wilson rookies are asked to fetch the leather stretcher, a cousin of the lefthanded monkey wrench. They crisscross the plant in intricate post patterns before someone finally exclaims, "A leather stretcher! There ain't no such thing!"
"We do lots of crazy things here," says Jane Dunson, who has been branding balls with the names of leagues, teams, players, sponsors and bowl games for 24 years. Stamping comes right after cutting and matching. "You see all kinds of different things on the balls," she says, as fond and forbearing as a daughter who has heard the same old story about 112 times. "The work I do changes all the time."
One of the most momentous changes in Dunson's workday came last year when Wilson began searing PAUL TAGLIABUE onto its NFL balls. The new commissioner's penmanship confounded Dunson. His tiny signature annoyed her. The pronunciation of his name confused her. She had to write TAG-LEE-A-BOO on a piece of cardboard and tape it to her stamping machine. "You look at his name, and it just don't come out Tagliabue," she says.
Though Ada is closer to Cincinnati and Detroit, most of Wilson's workers are dyed-in-the-gut Cleveland Browns fans. Price roots for the Los Angeles Raiders. "I used to like to watch Jim Plunkett," she says, standing on one foot as she punches out holes for the laces. "He practically never put his fingers over the grip cord. With Plunkett, I'd always know if the laces were laying straight. I don't care about anything else. That might be greedy, or it might be selfish, but I want to see the laces."
For Price, nothing is quite as gripping as the way a quarterback holds the ball. Terry Bradshaw always kept his thumb on the valve, she says, while Joe Montana spreads his fingers over the lacing. "Randall Cunningham's fingers are so long, they seem to overlap. Whether they really do, I don't know."
A sturdy, expansive woman, Price talks about her job with pride, and with poetry in her voice. "I handle more footballs in a day than most pro quarterbacks do in their careers," she says. "I put my hand on every ball that goes out. Nobody else in the world can say that. It's a pretty good feeling." Price gave a Wilson ball to her nephew, Rick Combs, when he graduated from high school in 1973. But Combs never played with it. "He couldn't," she says, "it was his sleep ball."
Combs became so enamored of his sleep ball that he brought it along to college. "I don't know why," Price says. "He just loved it so good, I guess." She's unsure if ball and boy still share the same bed.
"Rick has a wife now, so I can't really say," says Price. "Come to think of it, though, he didn't get married for many years. Maybe that's why."
The workers at Wilson try not to become too attached to individual balls. "When I get out of here on Fridays, I want to forget I've ever seen a football," says turner Charlie Moore. He still loves his job after 26 years. "By the time Sunday comes along, I turn on the TV and say, 'Hey, there's my ball.' " Moore is slim and angular at 44, and his grave demeanor and dignified bearing contrast oddly with the mauve tank top and designer jeans he is wearing this day. After fabric and vinyl linings have been stitched to the leather, he reaches into the opening that eventually will be laced closed and turns the inside-out balls outside out.
Turning is muscle work, and no one has been at it longer than Moore. Wilson's nine other turners have all apprenticed under him. They had to turn for at least a year before he would let them near an NFL ball. "That one has to be perfect," he says. "The ends have to be out right, and there can't be no lips nor twists." He holds a turned ball in his hands, which are cracked and callused and stained the same purplish-brown as the leather.
No female has held the job in years. The last one lasted six hours, which is about five hours longer than most male applicants.
Most of the lacers, on the other hand, are women. They sit in three rows, rocking and swaying like an assembly of Holy Rollers. "You'd think after 20 years I'd have strong arms," says Rowe, "but they haven't developed at all. You pull and you pull and you pull, but the motion's all in your wrist."
She jams lacing into the leather in silvery swoops, like Charlie Chaplin tightening bolt after bolt on the conveyor belt in Modern Times. Her fingers are swaddled in masking tape and moleskin. "Sometimes at night I wake up with my hand clenched in a claw," she says. "It takes me a while to straighten out my fingers."
Lacers, like the rest of the workers, get paid by the lot: NFL balls fetch the most, but require the most difficult of the three lacing stitches. "An NFL ball takes me a minute and a half," Rowe says. "I can lace the cheaper models in less than a minute, but that's really getting on it."
Rowe never looks at what's printed on the balls she laces. "All I can tell you is that the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns is named Bernie Carbo."
You mean Bernie Kosar?
"That just shows how much I know," Rowe says.
When the balls have been inflated to a pressure of 13 pounds, a team of inspectors examines ball upon ball, bin upon bin, turning and turning, first one panel, then another. In smocks the colors of traffic lights, the inspectors weed out deflating balls with leaky valves, gassy balls with distended bladders, scruffy balls with bad complexions. If there is hope, the weak and bloated are referred to Sara Belle Vermillion, a football surgeon known around the plant as Dr. Repair.
"I used to dream I'd be sitting in the factory, lacing busted footballs," says Vermillion, who's been with Wilson since it arrived in Ada. "I'd lace and I'd lace and I'd lace some more."
"I'd finish lacing, and after a while I'd wake up. You've got to understand I had those dreams a long time ago. I'm 63 now. I don't dream much anymore."