There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Jay Spiegel’s football season starts after the Super Bowl. That’s when he lobbies the game’s powers that be to endorse his ideas.
Spiegel is an inventor. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, he’s cooked up such gadgetry as noiseless candy-bar openers and pet-whelping containers. But the 51-year-old Alexandria resident also focuses much of his Edisonian energies on the gridiron.
Among his youngest brainchildren, in fact, is a redesigned football. The traditional design—the same basic blueprint behind “the Duke” and every other pigskin that’s been punted, passed, or kicked in a college or pro game since 1934—has four leather panels sewn together.
Spiegel’s has five.
An extra panel, eh? Not exactly an earthshaking concept on paper, Spiegel concedes. But he affirms that the extra strip of leather sewn on his ball, which is the same size as the standard football, serves a real purpose. Two purposes, actually: Quarterbacks would have added control while throwing because they’d have an additional seam to grip, and placekickers would have more control while kicking because they’d be planting their feet on a smooth leather surface, and not a seam, when booting a ball with the laces facing away.
Earlier this month, Spiegel flew to Indianapolis to hear NCAA officials debate whether to put the redesigned ball—called the Penta—in play.
Alas, the college folks told Spiegel to take his patented ball and go home. It was the third year in a row that the NCAA’s rules committee had taken up the matter of Spiegel’s ball, and the third year in a row that they turned him down. But three strikes doesn’t mean he and his five-panel ball are out.
“It means back to the drawing board,” he says.
Spiegel has already earned some inventor bona fides with the football folks. He also owns, for example, a patent for a 1-inch rubber kicking tee. He devised it in the mid-’80s to replace the traditional tee, which used two prongs to hold up a football; his prong-free device relies on gravity and a recess in the rubber to keep a ball in place.
Every kicker in the NFL now uses Spiegel’s intellectual property, which he markets as the Ground Force Kicking Tee.
“So every kid watching football on television sees my tee when they zoom in during a kickoff,” he says.
Before he was an inventor, Spiegel was a football player. Sort of. He was a kicker. He took the craft of kicking very seriously when he was a high-school student in Cleveland in the ’60s. He once made a cold call to Lou Groza, the Hall of Fame kicker and tackle with the Browns, and asked the local legend to teach him some tricks of the trade. Groza agreed to meet with Spiegel, who, like Groza, relied on the straight-on method of placekicking that has long been replaced by soccer stylists, starting a friendship that lasted until Groza’s death in 2000.
Spiegel says the stats he racked up during his college days at Cornell shouldn’t be taken as evidence that he didn’t learn much from his regular sessions kicking with Groza; team politics and a weak leg, not Groza’s teaching, are what kept Spiegel’s career scoring total to just a single extra point.
He came to D.C. after earning his engineering degree from the Ivy League school and took a job with the patent office. The government job didn’t provide a whole lot of excitement, however. He reached the level of primary examiner in charge of valve and fluid handling patents. When asked to recall the biggest thrill of his eight-year tenure as a civil servant, Spiegel brings up the day he interviewed Arthur Moen, the head of faucet manufacturer Moen Inc., about a new single-handed mixing console the sink guru had devised.
His football career, however, still had a little life in it. In his new hometown, he signed on to kick for an amateur football team, the D.C. Bears, that took on all comers in the Mid-Atlantic region. The highlight of his tenure with the Bears, and of his entire kicking biography, came during a game against a team of Lorton inmates in 1975.
“They played all their games at home,” says Spiegel with a laugh. “But this was a really exciting game, and it ended up with me kicking a 37-yard field goal at the end of the game to win it. The prison guards in the towers were aiming their rifles at me as I lined up the kick, just to scare me. I think that’s more pressure than the average Super Bowl kicker will go through.”
While with the Bears, Spiegel attended George Mason University’s law school at night and began brainstorming for his newfangled tee design. But there was no use inventing things as long as he was taking checks from the patent office: That agency’s employees are barred by federal law from applying for patents. The conflict-of-interest rule was one of the reasons that Spiegel left for the private sector after getting his law degree.
He estimates that several thousand kicking tees using his design are sold every year, which has never translated into very big royalty payments—“probably $5,000 to $10,000 a year.” The five-panel ball, which he also invented to aid kickers, has far more revenue-earning potential, however.
“A team doesn’t need a lot of tees,” he says. “But they would buy a lot of footballs.”
And, despite the NCAA setback, Spiegel says there’s a lot of evidence that the Penta will be the ball of choice for a lot of colleges, and then pros, in the not-too-distant future. Three years ago, his lobbying resulted in the five-panel football’s being approved for use in high schools in all states but two: Texas and Massachusetts, whose high-school federations both follow NCAA rules. More than 600 high schools used the Penta as their main football last season.
The NAIA, which represents more than 100 football schools, voted to go along with whatever the NCAA decides regarding the five-panel ball. Another big break came when Rawlings licensed Spiegel’s technology and signed Atlanta QB and superstar Michael Vick to be the spokesman for the ball, which it markets as the Five.
The alliance with Vick hasn’t paid off—yet.
“Michael Vick signed on to endorse us a week before he broke his leg,” says Spiegel. “If his leg’s not broken, he’s the most exciting player in football. But he’s filmed commercials for us, and he just thinks the ball’s great. He loves the way his thumb goes past that second seam on the laces. He says it’s the best ball he’s ever gripped.”
Spiegel, despite Vick’s broken leg and the NCAA rejection, remains convinced that approval of the Penta is only a matter of time. And lobbying.
“I had to overcome 67 years of tradition to get the high schools to accept my ball,” he says. “They hadn’t made any changes in football design since they went from the rugby ball in 1934. That was a huge accomplishment, and it took a lot of work, a lot of going to meetings. Now I’m trying to take this to the next step, to the NCAA. There will be more pressure on the NCAA [to approve the five-panel ball] as more high-school kids use my ball, because they’ll want to continue using it when they get in college. It’s the trickle-up theory. We’ve got the high schools. We’ve got Rawlings. We’ve got Michael Vick. The planets are coming more into alignment.” —Dave McKenna