NFL Kickers Talk about Playing with Their Balls

We got a bunch of NFL kickers to talk about all the ways they used to doctor game balls because investigative journalism is what we do here.

Jan 26 2015, 1:25pm

Image by John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

In the box score, it looks like just another last-second, desperation kick, but for Michael Husted it was symbolic of a newly rigid era. It was week 4 of the 1999 season; his Oakland Raiders had just raced down field to set him up for a 61-yard field goal to overtake the Seattle Seahawks. He knew he had the leg for it, but did he have the ball?

He thought he did as he walked on the field. "I could see they left the ball in from the drive," he recalls today, "and I was licking my chops going, 'this thing's good.'" This was the year the National Football League introduced the K-ball, the specially stamped ball used only for kicking plays. After years of punters and kickers doctoring game balls, the new K-balls were kept out of their reach. Hard, slick footballs would be brought in every time the special teamers took the field. But not, somehow, this pivotal time.

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So Husted was getting positioned, eager to push his new team to 3-1, when suddenly he heard the shouts of the Seahawks special teams coach, Pete Rodriguez: "That's not a K-ball! That's not a K-ball!" The ref halted the proceedings, the broken-in ball was removed, and the K-ball arrived. Husted lined up again, stepped up to that new ball, kicked it right down the middle, and watched it drop about a yard short.

Kickers league-wide were losing distance—and they were peeved. It was like Major League Baseball deciding that every outfielder must start with a fresh glove each game. Miami Dolphins punter Matt Turk fumed that it was "discrimination." For years, as punters and kickers turned grooming footballs into an art, the league never said a word. But suddenly, the league worried about the ball's sanctity. For the first few seasons of the rule, the league's footmen grumbled to anyone who would listen. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the whole thing "Ball Gate."

"Give me a good ball ... you know how I like 'em." Image by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Now here we are stumbling through a similar "gate," and with the glory days of doctoring well behind us, it's easy to be appalled by the crooked things the New England Patriots seem to have done to their footballs. But before getting too upset about the present controversy, it's worth remembering those scheming days of yore. For a long time, it was simply assumed that every football had been illegally tweaked in some way. The rules were sacred, but only if someone had an incentive to enforce them.

When kickers discuss their methods during that era, they do so with all the matter-of-fact detail of a craftsman hosting a home improvement show. "Every Monday, I'd go into the equipment room and get 36 balls and I'd break in the noses on a door jamb or end of a table," Husted says, "and then you'd pump them up to maybe 18, 19 psi, get them really hard, and then ... just put them in a sauna for like two days." After that, he'd let the air out and give them some time in the sun. The point was to soften and expand the leather so as to broaden the sweet spot on the ball. Sometimes they'd fill the balls up to 30 psi or higher. The ball would eventually play at the official air pressure, but by that point, the thing had already been transformed.

Kickers had plenty more ways to prepare the ball: bake it, microwave it, put it in the trunk of a car for a few hot days, put it in the dryer with some wet towels, even soak it in lemon juice or evaporated milk. Former Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Mike Hollis told me that after over-inflating balls he'd spend a lot of time rubbing them down with a wet towel. But when he started in the league with the San Diego Chargers, he learned to work them over with weights: "You get a big 45-pound plate and you put the plate on top of the football and then you stand on top of the plate and roll the plate around."

Usually, the first step was brushing the ball. Husted says his former teammate, punter Reggie Roby, really got into that part. He'd sit in the lounge and work the ball over with a piece of Astroturf: "It was kind of like meditation for him." The rubbing removed the protective coating the ball arrived with. If the pebbling was a bit too prominent—"knobby"—they'd have to wear that down as well.

The mental image of these men expending so much effort and ingenuity on a bunch of footballs is kind of silly, but it was a serious and taxing component of their job. "I always dreaded a home game week of preparing the footballs," Hollis says.

It was a Sisyphean effort: labor for days to get these footballs nearly to the point of perfection, and then, because the league mandated new balls each week, start all over on Monday.

It's important to really lay into your balls. Image by Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

But if you're already bending the rules, why stop? After a game ended, refs marked each football to put it out of commission, often by blackening one of the laces. So Husted and others would simply apply a white paint pen or marker and carry it through to the next week. Hollis didn't do this, but he certainly could tell it was going on. "I remember playing a game late in the season looking at a football when the referee handed it to me on a kickoff and just was like, wow; this ball has been used in many, many, many games," he says. The ref either didn't notice or didn't care.

There was a spirit of camaraderie about it all amongst the kickers. "Most guys were cool," Hollis says of meetings with the opposition's kicking unit before games. They'd proudly tell their counterparts, "You're gonna like the game balls this week." Husted remembers the Atlanta Falcons' unit bragging one year in week 11 that they'd managed to keep their footballs in circulation since week 1. Only a few teams had a reputation for sticking opponents with unworked footballs, which is its own kind of tradition. Supposedly, in the old, un-domed Minnesota Vikings stadium, the team would keep balls stashed in the snowbanks behind the benches, ready to extract for opponents' field goals. But there's a fraternity amongst kickers extending across team lines, and so usually they'd set one another up with the ball they needed to do their jobs well.

This was not the same as doing it legally. In 1994, the NFL announced they would issue a $20,000 fine to any equipment manager of a team with doctored balls. Apparently the threat worked for a while, because kickoff and field goal distances dropped at the beginning of the season. But then kickers just went back to their old tricks, and there are no reports of a fine being levied.

Referees certainly didn't care about it. The kickers were more likely to be scolded by their teammates. "Quarterbacks use the same balls," Husted says, and there's a risk that "they can't grip it and they're getting all pissed at you." Occasionally, when he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Husted says, Trent Dilfer would let him know he needed to lay off. Hollis says he would always run the balls by Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell. Reportedly, Neil O'Donnell of the Pittsburgh Steelers used to argue with kicker Gary Anderson over what he was doing to the team's footballs.

When Anderson arrived in Minnesota in 1998, he and teammate Mitch Berger finally pushed things too far, according to kicker lore. In a recent radio appearance, Berger said the equipment guy told them, "You can do whatever you want to [the footballs] as long as Randall Cunningham likes throwing them," and so they developed a method that combined nearly every technique available, bloating them up so that they almost "looked like rugby balls." Cunningham had no problem, and apparently neither did coach Dennis Green, who had complained of such methods in 1994. He had to love the results. Anderson didn't miss a single field goal that year, and Berger set a record for touchbacks on kickoffs.

Berger suggests that it was Brett Favre's difficulty gripping those footballs, combined with Berger's four touchbacks in a victory over the Green Bay Packers, that led competition committee chair and Packers coach Mike Holmgren to push for the new K-ball. As with today's controversy, it's not the refs who are likely to catch ball fraud, but the people on the opposing sidelines.

After that, Berger says, "I got yelled at by every kicker in the NFL in every game we played." And indeed, Husted pointed the finger at him when we spoke.

"I wish I had betters balls." Image by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The league wasn't so much worried about the purity of the ball as it was about increasing yardage on kick returns. It's no coincidence that the year the NFL first disallowed ball doctoring, it also moved the kickoff spot back five yards. Only after making kickers suffer, as both Hollis and Husted are quick to point out, would concussion concerns lead the league toward a new appreciation of the touchback.

With the K-ball, all doctoring was supposed to end. The balls arrived in a box with a special seal that would, in theory, prevent meddlesome kickers from getting their hands on them—but not in practice. Husted says they would "wrap the box with five or six trash bags and just throw it in the hot tub." Other teams were able to remove the seal, doctor the balls, and then tape it back up again. So then the league had to have the balls delivered on game day. This didn't stop Berger, who happily admits that he just kept on cheating, putting the screws—and wads of cash—to anybody with access in order to get them to prepare the footballs to his liking.

Most of the other kickers apparently just suffered a slick ball, which is absurd because the footballs they were using were constructed to be broken in. Wilson, the manufacturer of the balls, even shipped a brush along with their balls for that purpose. The refs were supposed to do this before the games, but it was clear they didn't care to put in the effort. Husted says refs were even lax about air pressure, trusting in a gauge that was proven to be broken when some balls were shown to be clearly under-inflated.

Nobody cared until the kicker's plight was felt by a quarterback. After Dallas Cowboys Tony Romo mishandled a snap for a chip shot field goal that should have beat the Seahawks in the 2007 playoffs, the league changed the rule about K-ball preparation. It now allows a ball boy 45 minutes with the footballs before game time. Kickers seem to agree that now the K-balls aren't so bad. Yet since footballs are no longer shared between teams and kickoffs are no longer valued, it's not clear why they should exist at all.

Quarterbacks have it even better today, with equipment managers preparing balls for the season from the start of training camp. Tom Brady helped make this rule happen, and some have taken that to mean that he's so particular about his footballs that he's also under-inflating them. Could be. But if the Patriots cheated, and Deflategate is a permanent black mark on their name, then how should we view just about every NFL team from the 90s?