By Howard Fendrich, AP Pro Football Writer
If the Super Bowl comes down to a key catch by Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots, say, or Victor Cruz of the New York Giants, the receiver will have more than merely his hands to thank.
Those two players, like plenty of NFL tight ends and wide receivers, wear "sticky" gloves made with a rubbery material on the palms to help hold on to a football. Consider these mitts the 2000's' answer to the 1970s' Stickum, the gooey substance famously used by Oakland Raiders defensive back Lester Hayes and receiver Fred Biletnikoff, among others, before it was banned three decades ago.
"I wear gloves — rain, sleet, hail, snow, outdoor, indoors. I got to have some gloves," Cruz said. "I feel naked without gloves."
"You grip the ball better, no question," Cruz's teammate Hakeem Nicks said. "You don't even (need to) think about catching it."
Take a close look during the NFL championship game in Indianapolis next Sunday; most of the players who'll be on the field will have their hands enhanced. What the league refers to as "gloves with tactified surfaces" — with a synthetic material in the palm instead of old-school leather — entered the football world more than 15 years ago. But equipment makers have developed increasingly helpful models over time, and the popularity has increased.
"I definitely think it's a huge advantage for receivers," said Kurt Warner, a quarterback in three Super Bowls who now appears on the NFL Network. "You see all these one-handed catches, and guys snagging balls, and you say, 'Whoa, that's almost impossible.' It slows the spin on the ball."
And it's not just the guys paid to catch passes; defensive backs, linebackers, linemen use them, too — even Patriots P Zoltan Mesko, who wears a glove on his right hand when he's holding for extra points or field-goal attempts by PK Stephen Gostkowski.
"It's more grippier. It gets the ball down quicker," Mesko said.
Gronkowski's really stand out on TV, because they're all white, and he wraps white tape around his wrists at the base of the gloves, making them look massive.
Plus, he grabs pretty much everything thrown in his direction: Gronkowski's 90 catches this season ranked fifth in the NFL, and his 17 touchdown receptions set a record for a tight end.
Patriots teammates such as BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Matthew Slater swear by the gloves, too, although RB Green-Ellis wasn't quite prepared to give the equipment credit for his perfect record of zero fumbles in the NFL.
Greg Jennings, a Pro Bowl receiver for the Green Bay Packers, said the main benefit he gets from the gloves is to protect his hands from the "sting" from a football's laces.
"Oh, I can catch. Every receiver needs be able to catch bare-handed," Jennings said. "The gloves don't catch the ball for you. It's the hands."
That's certainly true, of course.
Still, others do acknowledge some assistance from the gloves.
"They make your job a little easier," New York Jets TE Dustin Keller said. "We all could catch the ball without gloves, but with the grip on the gloves and with them somewhat serving as a layer of protection, I think wearing gloves is a no-brainer."
Other players praised the equipment for keeping hands safe from injury in case they get stepped on or while blocking.
Still, these aren't exactly the kind of mittens you'd choose to stay warm in the dead of winter.
Minnesota Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph described his gloves as being thin and lightweight enough to give him the feeling of being able to actually feel the ball when he catches it.
"I feel like if there's a ball anywhere near me, and I can just get a hand on it, I feel pretty confident that I'm going to catch it, whether it's the gloves or hand-eye coordination. If I don't have gloves on," Rudolph continued, "I might not be able to just grab it with one hand. It might slip out."
Slater, New England's special-teams captain and someone who occasionally plays on offense and defense, began wearing gloves in high school. He couldn't recall the last time he saw a bare-handed player trying to grab a pass on a football field.
And he, like others, noted how the gloves keep getting better. A far cry from when his father, Hall of Fame OT Jackie Slater, was in the league.
"Nowadays, the gloves are so 'tacky' — they've got a lot of stick to them," the younger Slater said.
When his father played, he added, "They wore gloves, but I don't think they were as, like, high-tech as they are now. The gloves are getting more and more high-tech. Nike's coming out with something different every year."
Sometimes even more frequently than that.
Former NFL head coach Tony Dungy's son Eric plays college football at Oregon and is a receiver, so he's always getting the newest gear from Nike, a major supporter of that school. Dungy said it seems as if Eric calls every couple of weeks to tell him about the latest model of gloves and the improvements.
That equipment maker's website boasts that the rubberlike substance on the palms of some of its gloves is the "most innovative sticky material to date."
As Cleveland Browns TE Evan Moore put it: "This type of material seems to grab the ball a bit more than just a standard piece of leather."
"These guys, they want the gloves all the time, because it does help them catch the ball, and they feel good, and it's consistent, no matter what the weather," said Dungy, who coached the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl title and will be part of NBC's broadcasting crew next weekend. "I do wonder sometimes how Biletnikoff and (Hall of Famer Lynn) Swann and those guys, if they had some of this technology now — I don't know they ever would have dropped a ball."
Giants equipment manager Joe Skiba said the team broke out special gloves for the rain-soaked NFC championship game at San Francisco because those particular ones "don't lose their 'tackiness' in wet weather."
There are models meant to be used on snowy or particularly cold days, but Skiba explained: "Our receivers won't wear a winter glove. They want to feel the ball and think they don't with those gloves."
That won't be an issue, of course, in the upcoming Super Bowl, which is being played in a dome.
Nicks is planning to wear his usual red gloves. Skiba will set him up with a new pair, just like every week all season.
They've become something of a trademark. So much so that while discussing Nicks' remarkable TD catch at the end of the first half in the Giants' upset of the Packers two weeks ago, New York coach Tom Coughlin didn't mention the receiver by name.
Instead, Coughlin talked about seeing "those red gloves go up." Everyone knew whom he was talking about.
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner, AP Sports Writers Tom Withers, Dennis Waszak, Howard Ulman, Tom Canavan, Rachel Cohen, Jaymes Song, Dave Campbell, David Ginsburg and Janie McCauley, and freelance writer Matthew Carroll, contributed to this report.
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