Jane Helser of Ada, Ohio, first joined Wilson Sporting Goods when she was just 19 years old

By Tara Fowler
Updated February 01, 2015 07:55 AM
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Credit: Courtesy Wilson

Traditionally, football has been a man’s game, but one woman has had a hand in every single Super Bowl since the first one was played in 1967.

Jane Helser of Ada, Ohio, joined Wilson Sporting Goods when she was just 19 years old. Fresh out of high school, she’d been working at a bakery that her neighbors owned. But Helser dreamed of buying a brand-new car, and her salary at the bakery wouldn’t cut it. So she applied for a job at the Wilson factory just down the street from her home. And the rest, Helser tells PEOPLE, “is history.”

For nearly 50 years, Helser was one of just two people who sewed footballs for the NFL. From 1966 to 2014, she worked four 10-hour shifts a week, during which she produced 150 footballs a day. To date, she’s sewed more than a million footballs.

“It’s a privilege,” she says. “It’s the ball that the NFL plays with and millions of people see it every Sunday during the season, out there on the field. It’s such an honor.”

Making a Football

It’s a delicate art to produce an NFL football. A machine can’t do it alone – though Wilson’s certainly tried.

“People really don’t realize what’s involved,” Helser, now 67, says. “They think there should be a bot or something. But you have to have a person behind the machine.”

A football is sewn together inside out. The ball must then be manually turned right side out. This is where the machines go wrong.

“They have tried a turning machine,” says Helser, “but it ends up tearing the leather or tearing the seam open.

“It’s been tried at least once or twice and it never seems to work out,” she adds. “I guess there are things in this world that people need to do, not robots.”

But Helser had to train extensively before she was even allowed to touch a leather football. “We had to practice on these rubber footballs until we proved to the company that we were good enough to sew the leather ones,” she says. It took about six months before she was ready for the real deal.

It’s that attention to detail that makes Wilson the NFL’s go-to source for balls. “They couldn’t play the game without our footballs,” says Helser.

“Well,” she adds somewhat indignantly, “they could use some other brand, but we’re the only footballs made in the U.S., so they should use ours. Wilson and I are very proud of the fact that it’s made here in the United States of America, where it well should be!”

Life After Wilson

Helser officially retired in May after 48 years with Wilson. But she still lends the company a hand from time to time.

“Back in November, they needed some help to catch up on the order, so I went back to work for three weeks,” she says.

And she’ll be putting in an appearance at the NFL Experience in Phoenix, Arizona, ahead of Sunday’s big game, teaching fans how to sew a football.

“When you’re sitting there sometimes it gets four, five people deep, watching that football be made,” Helser says. “And that’s quite amazing. I really enjoy being able to tell people about making them.”

But this will be the first Super Bowl ever played without one of her balls in it, a fact that clearly upsets her. “I still can’t believe it,” she says.

“All these years, my goal was to make the best football that I could every day,” she says. “I was mad when I had an end off or when my machine was acting up and it was making me make mistakes. I was hired in there to do a job and I wanted to do the best job that I could every day.”

Now, it’s up to someone else.

On Sunday, Helser is attending her 10th Super Bowl. But she couldn’t tell you who she wants to win. That’s right: The woman who’s made more than a million footballs doesn’t know who each team’s quarterback is.

“I was going to go with Tom Brady, but I just watched something about I think his name is Wilson?” she says, referring to Seattle Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson.

“He seems like a very moral person,” Helser explains. “He was very humbled by winning that game. I might have to change allegiances!”

A Wilson rep interrupts our call: “It’s because he cried, isn’t it?” she asks.

“Kinda sorta,” Helser says. “And the fact that he thanked God for his talent.” Everything You Need to Know About the Super Bowl)