Jane Helser of Ada, Ohio, started sewing footballs for the Wilson Sporting Goods factory in April 1966, almost two years before the Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I. What began as a 19-year-old’s ambition to buy a new car spiraled into an unlikely football legacy: As Wilson’s longest-tenured employee, Helser personally stitched more than a million official NFL footballs in her 48 years with the company.
“I feel pride every time I see one of my balls on the field,” Helser says. “My mother taught me how to sew my clothes when I was growing up, so I enjoyed the job right away. But you know, it’s a lot different sewing clothes than it is sewing footballs.”
Helser counts about 25 steps in crafting a single ball, three of which involve sewing the ball’s leather skeleton together out of four strips of Illinois cowhide (yes, the “pigskin” comes from a cow). Behind a Singer lockstitch machine, Helser would spend three to five minutes on each ball and complete 150 a day, contributing to the some 700,000 balls—including the 100 or so used at the Super Bowl and 10,000-plus official game balls—sold around the country each year.
If you’re lucky, she may have sewed you one personally. Stitching and selling balls in open-air mini-factories at Super Bowl stadiums, Helser has been treated like a hero and even met some (in 1999, she kibitzed with Ravens kicker Matt Stover without even realizing it; two years later, she repeated the fumble with his father).
Helser retired from Wilson in mid-2014. For her farewell present, Peyton Manning—her favorite player—signed a football for her. Naturally, she’d sewn it herself.
Showtime profiled Hesler in this short documentary: