K-Ball May Restore Pigskin Integrity

You can spot them on the sidelines if you look closely: They're the ones with the big letter "K" written on their chests.

They are the K-men.

A rather anonymous occupation, you might say, but the National Football League believes they are almost as important as the players on the field.

That's because the K-men are the vigilant guardians of the footballs that are used solely by the place kickers and punters.

No More Soaking, Scrubbing, Pounding

It seems that the NFL decided about three years ago that there were just too many field goals and touchbacks — which is when a team receives a long kicked ball behind its own goal line and elects to assume possession on its own 20-yard line, rather than taking its chances by running the ball out.

Place kickers and punters apparently were "toying" with the footballs entrusted to the teams before games.

Actually, they were practicing a crude brand of science on the pigskin to puff it up and make it easier to kick farther and more accurately.

The methods ranged from dousing the brand new ball in water, scrubbing it with a barbecue grill brush to remove the sealant and then tossing it into a dryer. A crowning touch, as it were, was to drop heavy weights on the ball.

The result, said one former place kicker, was to make the football look almost as fat as a rugby ball. The idea was to make the ball as fat as possible to get more of the kicker's foot onto it.

"We were getting an inordinate number of touchbacks and we wanted to increase the number of kickoff returns," said Larry Upson of the NFL.

At first, the NFL was sending the new "K-balls" to the stadiums on game day. But they found evidence of tampering by the clubs.

So this year, the league sent the K-balls directly to the officials and their K-men assistants — keeping the place kickers and punters away from them until the whistle starting the game.

‘An Ugly Thing’

The kickers are not enthusiastic.

"If you gave that ball to your kids, they wouldn't even want to play with that ball, just around the house," said Shane Lechler, a punter for the Super Bowl-bound Oakland Raiders.

He and other kickers complain that the brand new balls are inflexible, small, even deflated at times, and so slick they affect the snappers and holders, too.

"An ugly thing," is the way former place kicker Kevin Butler described the K-balls. "An ugly thing indeed."

Butler suspects the league may next put "electric collars" on kickers to keep them away from the balls.

Martin Grammatica, kicker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, knows many games come down to the kicker, and he says the new balls give him the jitters.

"You could lose about five, maybe 10, yards on the kick," said Grammatica. "And you lose a lot of hang time. That's for sure."

"We have their concerns at heart also," said the league's Upson, "but we want the excitement in the game."

So as you watch the Super Bowl, you might want to spot the non-descript guy sporting the big letter "K" and cradling the precious K-balls. They could play a large part in who wins.