When Super Bowl Sunday rolls around next week, residents of Ada, Ohio, (pop. 5,582) will have their eyes on the football—and hometown pride in their hearts.
“For me, the best thing is when they kick off the Super Bowl,” says Dan Riegle, manager of the Wilson Sporting Goods plant in Ada. “We know that the ball came from this plant.”
Millions of footballs have been manufactured in the northwest Ohio town since Wilson opened a plant there in 1955. From pee wee leagues to the National Football League, the hand-stitched footballs are used on football fields across the country—and they’re the only footballs that continue to sport the “Made in USA” label.
“Every time you see an NFL game, you know that the football was made right here by people you know,” says James Meyer, village administrator. “Everybody’s really proud. Everyone knows about the footballs.”
The Wilson plant in Ada employs about 130 people, making it the town’s second largest employer after Ohio Northern University. As such, Wilson is an important economic and cultural force in Ada. The town’s water tower even has “Wilson, NFL” painted on it.
Despite its importance to the town, the Wilson plant is easy to overlook; it’s housed in an unassuming white building on Liberty Street, just west of downtown. That building, however, bustles with activity as 4,000 to 5,000 footballs are produced daily during two 10-hour shifts, four days a week.
“I have a lot of fun working here,” says Charles Moore, 58, who has worked at the Wilson plant since he graduated from Alger (Ohio) High School in 1964. “I got to go to eight Super Bowls. If I hadn’t been working here, I wouldn’t have been able to go.”
Moore works quickly, putting the football first into a steam box to soften the leather, and then nimbly turns each football right side out on a metal rod. He turns about 600 footballs each day.
“You’ve got to be strong to learn how to do it,” Moore says. “Once you get your technique down, you don’t have to be strong. It comes natural to me to pick up a football and turn it.”
The process of making a football begins with a sheet of leather from the side of a cow, complete with marks left when the animals brushed up against barbed wire. The leather is then cut into pieces, which are stamped with the Wilson logo and other designs, including customized names for various teams. After being shaved to make the leather thinner, four pieces are sewn together, along with a vinyl and cotton lining, to make the distinctive oval football shape. The football is then turned right side out, stuffed with a polyurethane bladder, laced, and filled with air.
Riegle likes to brag on Wilson’s footballs and employees.
“It’s the best quality football made, because our people make footballs here every day,” says Riegle, who has worked for Wilson since 1981. “We’ve got really good people, and that’s why we have such a good product.”
Come Super Bowl Sunday, Riegle, Moore, and most other Wilson employees will gather around the television, awaiting the game’s opening kickoff, knowing they played a small—but essential—part in the nation’s biggest sporting event. “I think that’s the moment that our factory is proudest of all year,” Reigle adds.