The Pigskin & The Duke

A handmade football by the New Jersey-based Leather Head Sports. (image courtesy Paul Cunningham)

A handmade football from the New Jersey purveyor Leather Head Sports. (image courtesy Paul Cunningham)

Fanaticism leads to grace. Or, in the case of American football, outrageous amounts of fanaticism leads to Herculean grace. When I think of a highlight reel of the greatest plays in football, the “Hail Mary” pass from the 1984 Boston College-Miami game comes to mind. In that moment, we witnessed a highwater mark of the modern game: the forward pass. Which as the late Kirk Varnedoe, former defensive end for Williams College and former director of the MoMA, described as the minimalist art of the sport:

“That is no Hail Mary, friends. That’s no miracle. That is just the play you make. That is one gentleman making the right read and running the right pattern and the other gentleman making the wrong read.”

Football players watch from the sidelines.

Watching the game from the sidelines.

But let’s not forget the true star: the ball that made it all possible. Where does the pigskin fit into the great American sport’s calculus?

Legend has it that the unique oblong shape of the football arose, like most things, as a matter of necessity. Its origins date back to rugby in the mid-19th-century, at which time the balls were made with inflated and sealed pig bladders. For extra durability, they were wrapped in a pigskin leather pouch composed of four panels – a technique still used today, as shown below.

Because it was difficult to fully inflate the bladders, athletes across the U.S. had to contend with a large and often clumsy oblate spheroid-shaped ball (think: watermelon). It was only with the inception of the forward pass in 1906, a move resulting in attempts to soften the brutality of the under-regulated sport by Theodore Roosevelt, that the game of football as we know it took form. Thanks to a new, slimmed down ball that was easier to grip and chuck, pass and throw, players could start pulling Doug Flutie-like “Hail Marys,” ushering the sport into its modern incarnation.

The Dallas Cowboys play the Minnesota Vikings in the "Hail Mary" playoff game, 1975. (Image courtesy taylorblitztimes.com)

Dallas Cowboy Roger Staubach plays against the Minnesota Vikings in the 1975 “Hail Mary” playoff game. (Image courtesy taylorblitztimes.com)

The “pigskin” also goes under another, more regal, moniker. New York Giants founder Tim Mara named his son after the Duke of Wellington. When the young Wellington Mara served as ball boy to the team, the players started referring to him as simply, “The Duke.” Carrying on the tradition and honoring the man, all NFL footballs were emblazoned with “The Duke” until 1970. (A ball without those words was considered a foul among formalists of the game.) The tradition picked up again after Wellington’s death in 2005.

Colts player Steve Myrah gets ready to kick a "Duke" football. (Image courtesy oldestlivingprofootball.com)

Steve Myrah kicks off a “Duke” for the Colts. (Image courtesy oldestlivingprofootball.com)

For all the post-game jabber and metrics forecasting (to say nothing of the cheap beer) that abounds in football culture, the “pigskin” or “The Duke” has enraptured American audiences for close to two centuries. Fuelled by a passion for the sport and continuing the craft of making durable and quality sports balls is Paul Cunningham, founder of Leather Head Sports. We spoke with him about the company’s bespoke products – longtime favorites here at KM – which harken back to the game’s storied heritage and aesthetics.

What is your process for making Leather Head balls?
The leather lies at the heart of my craft. I’m a tactile person who needs to touch and feel things with my hands. I look for very specific properties in the leather that I use. This encompasses a few things: Visual appeal, tactile appeal and aromatic appeal. Once I select the leather, I can begin the process of creating the balls. In my shop in Glen Rock, New Jersey, we start with full sides of leather and we end with a finished ball.

This football follows the original, four-panel design first developed in the 19th-century. (Image courtesy Paul Cunningham, Leather Head Sports)

A four-panel football is close to the design first developed in the 19th-century. (Image courtesy Paul Cunningham, Leather Head Sports)

Your passion for sports is evident in your products. Are there any teams you would love to see using your products?

I’ll be honest; my interest in sports is as a player, not as a fan. I played both soccer and baseball in high school, and I continued to play baseball through college. Following college, I worked for nearly 14 years in the corporate office at Major League Baseball. I have great memories of my time there, but at the end of the day, professional sports has a way of sucking the soul out of the game. My objective at Leather Head Sports is to honor a simpler, purer appreciation for sports.

Are you ever worried that people won’t actually use your products because they’re so beautifully made? 

I try to create balls that have nostalgic appeal, but that is an aesthetic decision. None of the balls that I make are “historically accurate.” They are designed to be used and abused, but they are not standardized for competitive play. I want the balls to have an heirloom quality about them, which requires that I use high-grade materials and expert craftsmanship. The irony for me is that I’m producing sports equipment, but I don’t deliberately market them as such. The appreciation of sports is nearly universal, so my customers seem to intuitively understand how to use them.

A Leather Head football gets laced up in the company's New Jersey workshop.

Lacing up a Leather Head in the company’s New Jersey workshop. (Image courtesy Paul Cunningham)

Would you ever consider making a football or soccer ball out of traditional methods? Say, the medieval-like practice of using a pig’s liver or stomach as casings for footballs and soccer balls?

I never say never, but at the end of the day I’m more interested in creating beautiful pieces rather than historically accurate replicas. The next product I launch will be a 1950s-era soccer ball…

Leather Head football with helmet. (Image courtesy Paul Cunningham)

A Leather Head football in its natural habitat. (Image courtesy Paul Cunningham)

Paul’s Jerk Chicken Wings
A mild jerk marinade for chicken wings, ribs and more…

1 tsp freshly ground allspice
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp garlic powder
1 tbsp salt
½ cup chopped scallions (green and white parts)
1 green pepper chopped (if you prefer spicier, substitute a few Jalapeno or Habanero peppers)
½ cup distilled white vinegar
¼ cup soy sauce
2 tbsp vegetable oil

Combine all ingredients in a blender and process until liquefied.

Pour over wings and let marinate for 12 to 24 hours. (A large ziplock bag works well.)

Grill slowly until finished.

 

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