Among the many people who had contact with the Patriots pigskin used in Sunday's AFC championship — which were reportedly underinflated — were the ball boys. And one former ball boy (who did not take part in Sunday's match) told NBC News that his goal was always to prepare the ball to the quarterback's preference and hope they passed inspection, and that it would have been very difficult to tamper with them afterward.
Eric Kester, who was a ball boy for the Chicago Bears in 2003, says he can't speculate about the controversy dubbed "Deflate-Gate," but he remembers how the preparation worked — starting with the delivery of factory-fresh balls a few days before a game.
"We would then work with the quarterbacks to customize the balls to their liking. This involved scrubbing them with stiff horsehair brushes to rub off the leather's slippery silicone sheen, and occasionally inflating or deflating the balls a very small amount, which I believe is legal to a degree. Quarterbacks are very particular about the way a ball feels in their hand, and we worked meticulously to match their particular preferences," Kester said.
Two hours before kickoff, he would bring the balls to the referees' locker room for inspection.
"I recall them having a pressure gauge in the locker room, but most often they just squeezed the balls, turned them over in their hands a few times each, and inspected the laces. I don't recall them ever rejecting one of our balls," he said.
"My thought process was, 'Let's get the balls exactly the way our quarterback wants them, and if the refs reject one or two before the game, no big deal. But there's no harm giving them our ideal balls and hoping they make it through inspection.'"
After inspection — which was far more stringent for balls used for kickoffs and field goals — the game balls were taken right out to the field, he said.
"There was a window, maybe an hour or so, between inspection and game time," Kester said. "The balls were out on the field, and it would have been very difficult for me to secretly deflate balls while thousands of fans and media members moved about the stadium. It would also have been very difficult to sneak 12 balls back into the locker room without raising suspicion.
"In my experience, I never knew of a ball boy who tampered with a ball after inspection."
NBC Sports reported Wednesday that according to an NFL source, a review has determined the Patriots' balls were properly checked by the officials before the game, meaning the pressure was between 12.5 PSI and no more than 13.5 PSI. When the balls were tested at halftime, 11 of the 12 balls were two pounds below the mandatory minimum, NBC Sports reported.