By Dave Skretta
Skip Horween’s great-grandmother wanted nothing to do with football.
In fact, her two sons were so petrified she would find out they were messing around with the barbaric-looking game that they decided to play under assumed names. That’s how it came to be that Arnold and Ralph “McMahon,” both standouts on the Harvard football team a century ago, managed to play for the Chicago Cardinals in the early days of professional football. And in a roundabout way, it’s how their family, immigrants from the Ukraine who opened a Chicago tannery in 1905, would come to provide the leather for NFL game balls used today.
Including those used by the Patriots and Falcons in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5.
“The story is really astounding,” said Mike Halpert, whose Philadelphia Hide Brokerage Corp. has provided the Horween Leather Co. with raw material for years.
Not just astounding, but quintessentially American.
The story begins in earnest in the late 1930s, when the Horween brothers — whose family by that point had become well-known for producing fine leathers, including Shell Cordovan used in upscale shoes, gloves and wallets — got to know a local businessman named George S. Halas.
Papa Bear, as he was known, owned the rival Chicago Bears in the days when the NFL was little more than a gentleman’s fraternity. He cornered the Horween boys one day and they got to discussing the balls they were using in Cardinals games. The conversation turned to how they could make the best possible product for a sport that was beginning to break into the national consciousness.
“We’re talking the foundation of the National Football League,” explained Skip Horween, whose son, Nick, will be the fifth generation to run their factory on the North Branch of the Chicago River.
About the same time, a sporting goods manufacturer with roots in meatpacking and also based in Chicago had begun to produce hand-sewn footballs. It had been renamed a few years earlier and would grow to become synonymous with every ball used by the NFL: Wilson Sporting Goods Co.
It was almost as if fate aligned the companies.
Deals were struck and in April 1940, during a meeting of NFL owners, Halas made a motion (and New York Giants owner Wellington Mara seconded) that Wilson become the league’s official football supplier. In turn, Horween would produce the leather for all future game balls and that relationship stands today.
“The Horween angle is really cool because we’ve been with them longer than the NFL,” said Kevin Murphy, general manager of team sports at Wilson. “Halas already had a relationship with Wilson, which in fact went back even further than the 1940s.
“We’ve really grown up with the sport,” Murphy said. “We’ve grown up with the NFL.”
These days, the NFL is a business that last year took in $13 billion in revenue. More than 100 million people will watch on Fox when the Patriots and Falcons square off in Houston.
Yet the process of making the ball that will be kicked off that night is still at its heart a mom-and-pop operation.
Leather brokers like Halpert acquire raw product from livestock producers, mostly in the Midwest, and those hides — in this case heavy native steer hide — are shipped to Chicago. There, the Horween family begins turning it into the supple leather of the NFL’s exacting specifications, a laborious process that takes place at their historic, nondescript factory on North Elston Avenue.
“We have deep roots here,” Skip Horween said with a hint of pride.
For good reason: When he started at the factory in 1978, there were about 250 tanneries in the U.S. But many of them have moved overseas, where regulations were fewer and labor cheaper. Others consolidated and still more closed entirely. Now, there are about two dozen tanneries left.
“Lots of people aren’t around anymore,” Horween said. “We’re one of the last ones.”
Factories in other countries might be able to produce cheaper leather, but it would hardly be the same quality and ultimately that is why the Horween family has survived: Their leather is sought-after by shoemakers such as Alden and watchmakers such as Shinola.
Much of the production process is proprietary, but like most leather, it begins with hair removal and an initial tanning phase. The leather is then graded like a piece of lumber, cut and split to proper size and thickness, and goes through a re-tanning process using a blend of tree barks. Oils and waxes are then added to determine the final characteristics.
Once the leather is stamped with a unique pebble texture, it is loaded on a truck bound for Ada, Ohio, population 5,900, about 130 of who work in the Wilson plant.
Their only job there is to make footballs. Thousands of them.
“The people who make our footballs in Ohio, like the people who tan the leather for us at Horween, there’s been one thread of consistency in craftsmanship and attention to detail,” Murphy explained, “and knowing who your customer is and what they want. They want consistency and performance. They want the ball to perform like it did yesterday and three years ago.”
That’s why plant workers use turn-of-last-century sewing machines and other vintage equipment to make about 3,000 footballs per day, cutting, stitching and lacing each by hand. The 25-step process takes about three days to complete, but the pride in craftsmanship is evident in those who work there. The average worker at the Ada plant has been there two decades.
In the case of Super Bowl balls, the factory began working the minute the NFC and AFC title games were over, embossing balls with the logos of the Patriots and Falcons. Each team gets 108 of them in two shipments within 48 hours of making the Super Bowl, giving equipment managers and quarterbacks Tom Brady and Matt Ryan ample opportunity to break them in.
Half of those balls will be designated game balls, and one of them will end up on the tee at NRG Stadium for the kickoff. It will mark the end of a process that dates back three generations and unites two historic companies in many ways at the heart of a game viewed by millions around the world.
“We’re always excited, especially the folks from Ada, right before kickoff,” Murphy said. “We’re the ones holding our breath, not because we care about either team but we care about the balls. These Super Bowls are our Super Bowl, too.”