Wilson is the official game ball manufacturer of the NFL, and starting in 1941, each official NFL ball was stamped with the nickname “The Duke.” The Duke in question is Wellington Mara, who was a co-owner of the New York Giants from 1959 until he died from lymphoma in 2005. Tim Mara, Wellington’s father, called his son the “Duke of Wellington,” and thus he was given the nickname of “The Duke.”
It was Tim Mara who arranged the contract that made Wilson Sporting Goods the official supplier of NFL footballs, and at the insistence by George Halas, Wilson honored Mara by stamping his son’s nickname onto every ball. The nickname continued to be stamped on every ball up until 1970, when the AFL merged with the NFL. Following Mara’s death in 2005, Wilson continued to honor the Mara family, and each NFL ball has been stamped with “The Duke” from 2006 until the present.
The Mara Family
Tim Mara was the first owner of the New York Giants after investing $500 in 1925 to purchase the franchise. In 1930, he split his ownership shares into two and gave them to his son Wellington, who was just 14 at the time, and his brother Jack. Wellington went on to Fordham University, and after graduation, he began to work in the Giants front office.
As early as 1936, Mara made his first imprint on the team by drafting and signing future Hall of Famer Tuffy Leemans while he was still a college student. Wellington’s first role was team treasurer and assistant to his dad Tim. He would go on to become the team secretary in 1938 before fighting in World War II from 1943 to 1946.
When Mara returned to the team, he was named vice president. He became team president in 1965 after his brother Jack died, who had been president since 1941. Mara made all of the football-related decisions until 1974, when he handed over the day-to-day operations of the team to operations director Andy Robustelli. In 1979, Mara relinquished the last of his football operations to George Young, the first general manager of the Giants.
At the Pro Football Hall of Fame website is a quote from Mara concerning the origins of his nickname:
“I spent all my time with the players and coaches. The players used to call me ‘Duke’ because of my name. I watched game movies and sat in on team meetings and, at that time, knew every assignment on the team, offense, and defense. I don’t have time to do that anymore. And I’m not that close to the players either. They call me Mr. Mara now.”
In the seven years from 1956 to 1963, the Giants went on to win six division championships and the 1956 NFL championship under Mara’s direction. In total, under Mara, the New York Giants won six NFL championships, including two Super Bowl victories, nine conference championships, and 13 division championships. Over the course of the franchise’s history, the Giants have won more games than all but two other NFL teams.
The Duke was known as one of the most respected and knowledgeable executives in the league until his passing in 2005. Starting in 1984 until his death, Wellington Mara was the president of the National Football Conference. He also served on Hall of Fame committees, realignment committees, and was the long-range planning committee co-chairman. In addition, Mara served on the NFL Management Council’s executive committee. His entire adult life was dedicated to the New York Giants and the National Football league.
Wellington Mara Elected to the NFL Hall of Fame
With Wellington Mara’s strong support, the Hall of Fame became a reality in Canton, Ohio, in the 1960s. His father, Timothy, was inducted into the Hall of Fame’s first class in 1963, and Wellington joined him after being inducted in 1997. Here is a quote from Mara towards the end of his Hall of Fame induction speech:
“I’m very grateful for a long life and a life-long association with the administrators, the coaches and scouts, and especially the players of our great game. For they are the heart and sinew of our game. If it were not for Frank Gifford, Rosey Brown, Andy Robustelli, Sam Huff, and the many Giants who honor me by their presence today, there would not be a Wellington Mara going into the Hall of Fame.”
Wellington Mara’s Legacy
When the NFL began to receive significant television money, Mara unselfishly supported equal revenue sharing across all franchises. His belief was one of league unity and that the NFL was only as strong as its weakest franchise. Mara also played a key role in the NFL-AFL merger in 1966, a decision that helped make the NFL what it is today and ushered in the Super Bowl era.