Kaleo called shotgun, climbed in and said, “My five year old told all our neighbors I’m going on a bro-trip.” We agreed that was a good moniker but we were sticking to “mancation”.
It was getting much later than we had planned, and against my own rules, the first stop was actually planned.
Around noon we pulled into a gravel parking lot and parked next to a tractor. We knew we had the right address but there was no sign, no awning, just a red brick garage and a craggy old man dragging something toward a dumpster. He told us we would find Paul inside and upstairs.
Paul makes footballs.
He likes the idea that people will go have a catch, maybe kick the ball around, but really, mostly these footballs end up on bookshelves and in trophy cases.
He makes some in zebra stripes, some in chrome, all sorts of ways. But it isn’t just footballs. He also does medicine balls, old school basketballs, medicine balls, and these old fashioned baseballs he dubbed the “Lemon Ball”. But really, the draw isn’t really the sporting equipment. In no small way, the draw is Paul.
Paul once had one of those dream jobs. Maybe not a dream job exactly, but more the sort of job that is sidled up right next to the dream. He was a photo editor for Major League Baseball. He worked for the League! Sure he wasn’t throwing out pitches or swinging for the bleachers, but he was in the building. A reasonable man would be content.
But what does reason have to do with baseball?
One day Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones pulled up to Paul’s office in an old VW bus and asked him to join them in Iowa. Not really, but after talking with Paul for a couple hours you get the feeling his is a byline in the Field of Dreams story line that you might find in the special features directors cut. It has that sort of romance.
Paul left MLB to work with a company that made baseball mitts. He wasn’t making the mitts, just advising those that did. Still not satisfied watching, or standing next to those doing something tangible, Paul left again; to make footballs.
Walking into Leather Head Sports is a bit like stepping into the equipment room of an old movie. There are boxes full of balls, bats leaning up against the walls, and stacks of dye cut leather strips waiting to be sewn into treasures. Paul straps on a denim apron, sits down at a workstation, picks up a hammer, and starts pounding on a stack of something that will soon be a football. As he snips thread, cuts edges and works, we get him talking. He talks about why he does what he does, talks about the ridiculous things people ask to get monogrammed on the balls, and all the while his employees stand around impatiently trying to get some business done. They look maybe a little bit annoyed, they are trying to run a business, but you can’t get too upset when watching your boss do something he obviously loves.
He isn’t the only one who loves it.
An online search of Leatherhead sports will turn up feature after feature on Paul’s products. Guys are eating this stuff up. When we visited the shop he was busy sewing up a run of special edition balls for Urban Daddy, a website that specializes in keeping men up to date on whatever is the newest and the coolest thing around. Leatherhead balls are the coolest. He has been featured or contracted by USA Basketball, an Oscar winning movie (Silver Linings Playbook), the Wall St. Journal, Fox Business Report, Men’s Journal, and on, and on.
It’s not almost like, but exactly like, some voice whispered “If you build it, they will come.”
And we did.
And Paul, who has been featured by the who’s who of everything, took way too much time to host three vagabonds in his shop.