Every Thursday in the fall, Brian St. Pierre tosses footballs in the dryer.
Hold the dryer sheet, add a coat of Mississippi mud on each, and set the cycle for 40 minutes to an hour.
He used to do it, or have equipment managers do it for him, at Boston College and in his eight NFL seasons as a backup quarterback. Now, he does it for his quarterbacks as the head coach at St. John’s Prep, his alma mater.
“It kind of beats up the balls a little bit,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I still do it just because you can’t get the quarterback out of me.”
Ask Brian Mann about the weirdest technique he has witnessed while picking and preparing footballs for game use and he’ll respond with a big chuckle.
The former standout quarterback for Xaverian, and later Dartmouth, called quarterbacks “neurotic” in how they prefer the feel of footballs. But a particular teammate with the Arena League’s Los Angeles Avengers (whom he declined to name) took it to another level.
“There was a quarterback in the Arena League that I used to play with that used to lick them — one time, very quickly,” said Mann, who is now director of development at Rice University. “If it didn’t feel right, he wasn’t throwing the football.”
With the Patriots mired in an NFL investigation about the use of 11 underinflated footballs from the AFC Championship game against the Colts, the question of ball preference by quarterbacks is in the spotlight.
The league’s investigation, which is ongoing, found 11 footballs were filled 2 pounds less than the required range of 12½-13½ pounds per square inch.
Mann equated a quarterback’s preference of air pressure or pregame doctoring of a football to breaking in a baseball glove, the thickness of a golfer’s club grip, or a pitcher mucking up a baseball on the mound.
“Whether or not it actually helps can be as much mental as anything else,” he said.
He said his routine usually didn’t lead him to think about the air pressure.
“I never paid a whole lot of attention to how inflated they were, unless, of course, something was dramatically inflated or deflated in one direction or another,” said Mann, who set a Dartmouth single-season record for passing yards as a senior. “Obviously that would stand out.
“But for me, it was more about feel, and I think most quarterbacks are that way.”
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been vocal about his inflation preference, saying on ESPN Radio in Milwaukee Tuesday that he prefers to push the NFL limit of air pressure. That, St. Pierre said, is somewhat of an anomaly, as opposed to Tom Brady, who told WEEI in 2011 that he preferred the ball slightly more deflated.
“I haven’t run into too many guys who are like Aaron Rodgers who says they want more air in the ball,” said St. Pierre, who coached the Eagles to an 8-3 record in the fall. “It’s usually if you could take a touch out here and there, it’d be good.
“But nothing like 2 pounds of air. That’s crazy.”
St. Pierre said he didn’t know how outdoor temperatures would affect a football’s air pressure, but underinflating it “would definitely have an advantage.”
“Anybody that’s catching the ball would probably prefer a slightly deflated ball because you can get your fingertips into it and you can kind of squeeze it a little bit more,” St. Pierre said. “Certainly when it gets cold and you’ve got a quarterback that throws it hard, you’d rather it be a little soft coming at you.”
Before the 2006 NFL season, Brady and Peyton Manning spearheaded a petition to allow visiting quarterbacks to choose the footballs they wanted to use, allowing them to methodically go through their selection process.
Mann said he would usually take a backup quarterback with him to the equipment room for any extra input about the feel of the balls.
“All these weird things quarterbacks go through,” Mann said. “Everybody makes fun of kickers for how particular they can be, but quarterbacks are not too far behind them in certain things like that.”
With a new batch of footballs, there is a sheen on them that most quarterbacks want to remove before using them in a game. There is the dryer method, or wiping them off with a towel. Rubbing dirt on them. Skipping them off the ground during warmups to scuff them. Anything to remove what St. Pierre called a “slick film.”
“I’d want to throw it around a little bit to try to see if it came right off,” he said. “If it didn’t, I didn’t want to use that football. I wanted it to feel a little bit warm, a little bit grippy.”
St. Pierre said he saw a range of mentalities from equipment managers on the four NFL teams he played for — the Steelers, Ravens, Cardinals, and Panthers. Some, he said, took the time to learn their quarterbacks’ preferences while others didn’t pay a bit of attention to it. The good ones, though, proved their worth.
“Those guys are worth their weight in gold for quarterbacks,” said St. Pierre. “We love them.
“Never about taking air out. A little bit here and there if they’re overinflated, but you always had to have them at that max number.”
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