When Football Players Go Pro, Their Balls Get Bigger
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Did you know the footballs used in college and pro games are different sizes?
By Jeff Fedotin and Sean Culligan
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck threw a football during position drills in June 2018 — the first time he had done so in front of reporters since the team shut him down in October 2017 as he tried to work his way back from a 2015 shoulder injury. But during his summer practice, Luck was chucking a college football — not an NFL one.
That’s because college footballs are typically smaller than NFL ones, so it put less stress on Luck’s surgically repaired shoulder. Both college and NFL footballs weigh 14 to 15 ounces. But their overall size differs.
In overall circumference, college footballs can be up to 1 1/4 inches smaller than NFL footballs.
To get into the weeds, the circumference of college footballs ranges from 20 3/4 inches to 21 1/4 inches lengthwise from end to end, versus 21 inches to 21 1/4 inches in the NFL. At the widest point of the ball, the circumference is 27 3/4 inches to 28 1/2 inches in college and 28 inches to 28 1/2 inches in the NFL. The length from tip to tip ranges from 10 7/8 inches to 11 7/16 inches, although the NFL mandates its balls are 11 inches to 11 1/4 inches.
The variations might seem small, but NFL players can tell the difference. Quarterback Chase Daniel, who has played for six NFL teams and finished college as Missouri’s all-time passing leader, went so far as to say he could “easily” pick out which footballs were used for college versus the NFL — even if he was blindfolded. “They’re bigger here in the NFL,” Daniel says. “I like the NFL ball. I think you can spin ’em a little bit better.”
It might seem weird that college football, presumably a training ground for the pros, uses a differently sized implement. But Daniel, a Heisman Trophy finalist, is really good. What about all the other quarterbacks who played for 129 different Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools last season, according to the NCAA? “[That’s] a lot more players and a lot more varying skills,” says Kevin Krysiak, the director of innovation for team sports at Wilson Sporting Goods, which has been the official supplier of NFL footballs since 1941. “You can’t create a one-ball-fits-all solution.” According to Wilson, the balls have been different sizes ever since the company started producing official NFL balls in 1941.
One constant is that college balls and NFL game balls — known as “the Duke” in honor of former New York Giants owner Wellington Mara — are all made of genuine leather. But the laces on college footballs are made of polyurethane to provide quarterbacks a better grip, while the Duke’s laces are made of extruded vinyl.
I like the NFL ball. I think you can spin ’em a little bit better.
Quarterback Chase Daniel
The NFL ball lacks stripes, and the college ball has two white ones painted halfway around. Chicago Bears wide receiver Kevin White, the seventh overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft, prefers catching balls with the white stripes of the college ball he used at West Virginia. “It’s easier to see,” he says.
Although all college footballs have stripes, the balls vary a bit from team to team. That’s unlike the consistency of the NFL, where every team gets the same ball. If a college program so chooses, it could use a ball that more closely resembles the NFL’s in size. “As long as you fall within the rule specs, you have the ability to kind of customize and personalize based on your team’s wants or desires,” Krysiak says.
And college footballs can be personalized with team colors or special graphics. For example, Ohio State, one of the teams for which Wilson provides footballs, uses a GST Prime ball with an Ohio State logo and watermarked Buckeye images on the bottom half. The GST Prime is popular because it features sewn-on stripes and Accurate Control Lacing (ACL) composite leather laces to provide passers more grip points. “We do a lot of custom builds,” Krysiak says, “trying to give the teams a little more personality.”
Might the two levels of football ever create one standardized version? “I don’t think it will happen anytime soon,” Daniel says. NFL-bound college passers should enjoy their custom equipment while they can.