Grab and Go: How Sticky Gloves Have Changed Football

By David Waldstein

CreditCreditBrad Penner/Associated Press; Bob Levey/Getty Images; Joe Sargent/Getty Images; Tommy Gilligan/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — One of the most infamous dropped passes in football history clanged off Dallas Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith as he lay in the end zone during Super Bowl XIII.

Poor Smith. Forty years ago, he had only his bare hands to try to pull in Roger Staubach’s low pass. Had he played in a more recent edition of the N.F.L. playoffs, he almost certainly would have been wearing a pair of the sticky, silicone gloves that have transformed receivers’ mitts into virtual Spider-Man hands.

The technological advances on the skin of those gloves have been so profound that they now enable receivers to snare passes their forebears never dreamed of catching, and in making the seemingly impossible possible, they may be changing the way football is played.

The grippy polymer used on the new generation of gloves, said to be developed first by a Canadian wide receiver and a chemist in a Pakistan laboratory in 1999, is about 20 percent stickier than a human hand — according to a recent study by the M.I.T. Sports Lab performed at the request of The New York Times.

The technology has made life easier for receivers at all levels, of course, and now it is rare for any player in search of a better grip — pass catchers, but also quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends — not to make them part of his standard equipment. Even defenders have taken to wearing them.

“The gloves definitely help with the one-handed catches,” said Rasul Douglas, a cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles who wears a Nike version. “You rarely see guys making one-handed catches without gloves on.”

For those who have not played any football in the last 15 years, just touch a pair at a sporting goods store. It will be obvious why the gloves, now manufactured by several companies, are probably the most significant performance-related football equipment innovation since the advent of the cleat.

“There’s no long-term statistical data that I’ve seen,” said Rich McKay, the chief executive of the Atlanta Falcons and the chairman of the N.F.L.’s competition committee. “But they definitely make some difference, there’s no doubt about that.”

When a catch is made, the naked eye often sees only hands grabbing a ball. But what is happening on the palms of a receiver’s gloves is far more complex: the scientific principle of polymer adhesion and the miracle of a molecular chain of silicon and oxygen that creates polysiloxanes — viscoelastic substances commonly known as silicone rubber. Silicone is used to make a wide range of products, including caulk, kitchen tools and Silly Putty. Receivers use it to make highlight-reel plays.

According to Sanat Kumar, a professor of chemical engineering at Columbia University and a specialist in polymers, the sticky property exhibited in a viscoelastic medium arises because the material acts as both a solid and a liquid.

“It is macroscopically a solid,” Kumar explained of the silicone. “But at shorter, microscopic lengths, it is liquidlike.”

That liquidlike property makes it sticky. Imagine a tight spiral thrown onto a hard surface like a road. It skips right off. Now imagine the same ball chucked into a large puddle of honey. The honey makes the grab. That is because the silicone surface of the gloves is, at the microscopic level, a viscous, honeylike liquid, and when a football comes in contact with it, the ball stalls in it the way it would on the surface of a gooey liquid, like the honey. The ball must work to get through it.

Anette Hosoi, a co-director of the M.I.T. Sports Lab and an associate dean of engineering at M.I.T., is an expert on the interface of soft materials. She and her students conducted experiments on a pair of blue Under Armour UA F6 gloves last week to quantify their tackiness, basically measuring the force required to pull a leather Wilson football over both the gloves and over a bare hand, in both dry and wet conditions.

A recent study by the M.I.T. Sports Lab, performed at the request of The New York Times, found the grippy polymer in the new generation of football gloves was about 20 percent stickier than a bare hand.CreditGretchen Ertl for The New York Times

The experiments were led by Sarah Fay, an M.I.T. doctoral candidate, who determined the gloves had a coefficient of friction of 1.64 when dry, which is roughly 20 percent more grip force than that of a bare hand (1.37 CoF).

(Fay also noted that statistically and perhaps surprisingly, there is no significant difference between the friction of a wet glove and a wet hand.)

Looking over a pair of Under Armour gloves in her office near the Charles River, Hosoi said the key to their performance was how soft and deformable the silicone is, meaning it covers and adheres to the tiniest variations on the surface of the ball, enabling it to almost melt into them.

“Every time you get more deformable, you get a better adhesion,” Hosoi said after slipping on a pair and palming a leather football with her left hand.

But as any coach or Eagles fan knows, adhesion alone does not guarantee catches. As Douglas, the Eagles cornerback, said before last week’s loss to the New Orleans Saints, “There’s people with gloves on who are still dropping passes every game.”

The birth of the current generation of supergloves can be traced to a wintry day at the University of Ottawa in 1995. A receiver named Jeff Beraznik, who would later found Cutters Sports Gloves, noticed a star player from rival Calgary, Donnavan Blair, fielding practice punts with one hand while wearing a pair of orange gloves.

The next year, Beraznik called Calgary’s equipment manager and learned that Blair was wearing glass cutters’ gloves — rubbery mitts designed to protect workers and do-it-yourselfers from cuts from glass edges. Those gloves, he found, could be purchased at any hardware store.

Jeff Beraznik at his office in Phoenix. A former receiver, he created a company that pioneered the use of silicone in athletic gloves.CreditCaitlin O’Hara for The New York Times

Beraznik bought a pair and modified them to fit more snugly. They were not perfect, he said, but they were good enough, and once Beraznik’s teammates stopped making fun of him, they all wanted a pair of their own.

“The whole team was, like, pass me a pair of those glass cutter gloves,” Beraznik said. Hence the name of his company, Cutters.

Beraznik spent 18 months after college traveling the world seeking the perfect material, one that was stickier but also less bulky. He teamed with a safety glove company in Toronto called Midas, which sent him to a lab outside Karachi, Pakistan, to work with one of its chemists.

With a football in hand, Beraznik made repeated trips to Karachi in the late 1990s, at times rolling up his sleeves to work on the formula — adding a little more of this and a little less of that. One day, he and one of the chemists arrived at the current formula, which was dubbed C-Tack.

The modern glove, a huge improvement on the scuba diving gloves worn by N.F.L. receivers at the time, was born. Other manufacturers, including a company founded by Jim Sandusky (another Canadian football player), were working on similar products. Eventually Nike, Reebok, Under Armour and others produced their own.

Even Lester Hayes, the former Oakland Raiders cornerback who was known for smearing his hands and body with a ridiculously sticky goop in the 1970s, was impressed. After he came across a pair of Cutters, he sent a handwritten letter to Beraznik.

A trace of Randy Moss’s right hand from 2008 in Beraznik’s office in Phoenix. Moss, a Hall of Fame receiver, played in custom-made gloves.CreditCaitlin O'Hara for The New York Times

“This is the greatest invention since stickem,” he wrote.

That product, known by its brand name, Stickum, was outlawed by the N.F.L. in 1981 because of the utter mess it made — sticking not only to users, but also to opponents, referees and the balls themselves. The silicone gloves are allowed because they leave no residue on the ball. According to Rule 5, Section 4, Article 4, Item 8 of the N.F.L. rule book, “players may wear gloves with a tackified surface if such tacky substance does not adhere to the football or otherwise cause handling problems for players.”

The most obvious result of the gloves can be seen in the startling one-handed catches that came into fashion after Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants made the most famous of all one-handed grabs against the Dallas Cowboys in 2014. Now almost everyone — in the N.F.L., college and even high school — has done it.

In the Rose Bowl this month, Hunter Bryant, a sophomore tight end at the University of Washington, leapt for a high pass in the final two minutes of that game and palmed the ball with his gloved right hand. By using only one hand, he was able to extend his reach and fend off his opponent.

In a telephone interview, Bryant said that like most players today, he has worn silicone gloves since he played youth football. But once he saw Beckham’s gloved acrobatic snares on Sundays, he began practicing them.

“Everyone practices them now,” he said. “I’ve gotten pretty good at it.”

Hunter also noted that he feels he can sometimes get a better grip with bare hands, but he wears those sticky gloves anyway. He doesn’t want to find himself lying in the end zone without the ball one day, wringing his bare hands the way Jackie Smith once did.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Look, One Hand! Receivers Try New Tack and Upend the N.F.L.. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe