ADA, Ohio – In 1966, at the age of 19, Jane Helser took a sewing job in a factory. For nearly 50 years, she worked as a stitcher for Wilson Sporting Goods making footballs for the NFL as well as game balls for the Super Bowl.
Before quarterback greats like Montana, Manning or Brady ever handled a Super Bowl ball, it likely went through the Helser’s hands.
“Games that I've gone to have my camera ready to take a shot of that ball being kicked off and thinking well that's the ball I made,” said Helser.
For 48 years, Helser was the lock stitch operator at Wilson’s Ada, Ohio plant.
“The machines were a lot bigger than what I was used to at home,” said Helser.
Her job was to ensure the interlocked stitching of the four leather panels of the ever-important game ball wouldn’t come apart.
“Going over the ends of the ball is pretty tedious just because we want those ends to be perfectly lined up,” she explained.
Helser has lived an extraordinary life, not only sewing Super Bowl footballs and rubbing shoulders with NFL giants like Payton Manning but having attended 10 Super Bowl championships.
It’s something not lost on Wilson employees.
“Everybody watches the Super Bowl. It is a big deal,” said Andy Wentling who is the plant manager at the Ada factory.
He says while automation can improve some efficiencies, NFL footballs are still handmade by expert craftsmen and women.
“This is a skilled trade. I mean these people will sew for years. Jane's done it for 48 right? It takes you six months to be a good sewer,” he said.
In 2014, Helser handed the ball off to a new lock stitch operator who’s got some big cleats to fill. Kaitlin Long has now taken on the mantle of sewing the Super Bowl game balls and has done so for the last five years.
“Just seeing the pride that she took in what she did. It just instilled a lot of that in me and I kind of wanted to make her proud too,” said Long.
Though retired, Helser is still deeply involved at Wilson Sporting Goods, regularly giving tours and making nostalgic visits to her old lock stitch machine.
“I wanted so bad that sit down and see if I could do it again. You know it's probably like riding a bicycle you know,” said Helser.
Even today, a tool-pocket with her name still hangs from her old sewing station.
“I should have kept it as another souvenir. But I passed it on to Katie,” she said.
It represents the last marker of a job well done.