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The purpose of football laces has evolved over time.
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The laces on footballs originally served only one rather humble purpose: keeping a leather cover tightly closed over the inflated pig's bladder that gave the ball its shape. Pig bladders were replaced by rubber bladders in the late 1800s. The laces might eventually have been replaced by a more modern closure were it not for a significant change in the way football was played. The change, influenced in part by President Theodore Roosevelt, gave football laces the new role of helping players grip and guide the ball while passing.
The Forward Pass
Football originally was a game that limited players to running the ball. This style of play involved extensive physical contact that made the game dangerous. Nineteen football players were killed and 137 injured during the 1905 football season alone. After Roosevelt's own son was injured playing college football, Roosevelt called upon colleges to make the sport safer. A meeting of 60 colleges in 1906 led to several rule changes, one of which made forward passing of the football a legal play.
Getting a Grip
The forward pass didn't catch on at first because players didn't know how to pass the ball effectively. Eddie Cochems, coach of the football team at Missouri's St. Louis University, is credited with first realizing the laces were key to getting the best grip on the ball. Howard R. "Bosey" Reiter of Wesleyan University in Connecticut developed the overhand spiral throw -- which involves spreading the fingers over the laces -- after being taught the underhand spiral by a Native American football player.
Changes in Design
Once players and coaches realized the yardage that could be gained by completing a forward pass, colleges began promoting the play. The passing game influenced design changes in the football. It evolved from a watermelon shape to a more aerodynamic prolate spheroid -- essentially a watermelon with pointier ends. The laces, which originally were made just long enough to close the football after the bladder was inserted, became longer and more pronounced to aid players in gripping the ball.
The laces on the National Football League's footballs are made by Creative Extrusion & Technologies, Inc. of Brockton, Massachusetts. The laces, which are constructed by heating plastic pellets and forming them into string, measure 46 to 50 inches in length. The company's finished laces are shipped to Wilson Sporting Goods Co. in Ada, Ohio. Wilson footballs are closed by hand-stitching with the laces after the bladder has been inserted.
Passing vs. Kicking
While all players are taught to use the laces when throwing a football, many develop an individual style. Brothers and quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning place only two fingers -- the pinky and the ring finger -- on the laces. Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman's method was to put his palm on the laces. Kickers, on the other hand, turn the football laces out before kicking to avoid spinning or shanking the ball.