What is “The Duke”? History of the NFL’s game ball

The football used for NFL games is affectionally called "The Duke", but how did today's game ball come to have its name and appearance?

The NFL game ball is one of the most recognizable sporting symbols in the world, but how did the football end up the shape it is, and how did it come to get the name “The Duke”? Let’s look back at why the NFL’s football is named “The Duke” and address how it came to look the way it does today.

Why is the NFL’s game ball named “The Duke?”

Since 2006, the NFL game ball has carried the name “The Duke” in honor of Wellington Mara. Mara was the longtime owner of the New York Giants before he passed away in 2005. Following his passing, Wilson sporting goods, who manufactures the NFL game ball, returned the name “The Duke” to the official footballs used for NFL games.

Where did the origin of the name come from?

Tim Mara, the founder of the New York Giants, named his son Wellington after the Duke of Wellington. After Tim Mara was responsible for the contract that made Wilson the official supplier of the NFL game ball, George Halas urged the company to reward Mara by naming the ball after his son.

Hence the name “The Duke” was given to all the footballs used in NFL games between 1941 and 1970. Following the merger with the AFL, Wilson removed “The Duke” from their NFL game ball. The ball remained “nameless” until Wellington Mara passed away in 2005.

Why is a football called a pigskin?

While “The Duke” is the current football used in NFL games, the ball itself has evolved. The very original balls used in professional football games were spherical and made from pig bladders. This material was readily available, durable, and, importantly, relatively spherical.

The pig’s bladder was later covered with leather to protect it from damage during the game. The leather was bound together with laces, which is characteristic of “The Duke” football used by the NFL now. However, the laces now serve a different function to the origins of the football. Now, they are used to aid passing and gripping the ball instead of keeping the ball together.

The pig’s bladder was largely dispensed within the 1800s when rubber became the preferred material. Modern NFL game balls have a minimal resemblance to those early versions. However, “The Duke” is still made of leather to this day.

How has the shape of the football used in the NFL evolved over the past 100+ years?

The original ball used in professional football bears minimal resemblance to “The Duke” of today’s NFL games. Those original balls were round, resembling something closer to a soccer ball. These balls were tough to carry and extremely hard to throw with accuracy. Later in the 1800s, the shape transitioned into a more oval shape.

The story goes that this transition was accidental at first. Early versions of the ball were tough to inflate and could often take as long as 30 minutes.

Therefore, due to exhaustion from inflating the ball, the two teams agreed to play with a semi-deflated ball. However, this football was still much rounder than what we see with “The Duke” in the NFL today. It is said that the shape had more of a resemblance to a watermelon, meaning it remained hard to throw.

As the rules of the game evolved, so did the ball

In 1905, the introduction of the forward pass came about. The theory behind the rule change was around safety. Following an increase in fatalities and injuries, rule-makers attempted to create a system where players could be more spread out on the field. However, the forward pass remained underutilized, in large part due to the shape of the ball.

As teams started to realize the benefits of the forward pass, the need for a more aerodynamic shape became crucial. The first football more closely resembling “The Duke” in the NFL today came about in 1912. The college game was the first to make the change, with the pro game following. However, it would be another 20 years before further adjustments to the ball made the passing game an easier element.

Since then, the football has seen subtle improvements leading to what we know as “The Duke” in the NFL now. These improvements focus on how the ball is held together and how the leather is treated to make it easier to grip.

What are the standard measurements of “The Duke”?

“The Duke” game balls we use in the NFL remain hand made even to this day. However, the ball has standardized dimensions that need to be met to make it legal. A standard football is 11 to 11.5 inches from tip to tip, with a circumference of 28 to 28.5 inches, and must weigh between 14 and 15 ounces.

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