Has RAM Sports invented a better football? We enlisted a former football pro--and current Inc. 500 CEO--to find out

Randy Jones and Mike Oister stood 20 yards apart atop a roof deck overlooking Long Island's chilly south shore. It was the day after Thanksgiving in 1992, and the reunited college chums were having a postfeast game of catch, battling the autumn wind. And as their throws wiggled like wounded ducks, they succumbed to a convenient conclusion: "We were playing with a crappy ball," recalls Jones.

That's when the pair first conceived RAM Sports Inc. (#86), a Denver-based manufacturer and distributor of sporting goods with an obscenely simple mission: better balls. Their footballs feature cotton lacing, as opposed to the more common vinyl, for better grip and accuracy. And the footballs spiral tightly because the thick butyl-rubber bladders inside the ball make for a heavier center of gravity than the polyurethane "sandwich bags" in competing pigskins, Oister claims.

The Penta, the cofounders' newest product, breaks the tradition of stitching together four eye-shaped panels to create a football. RAM's five-panel ball, the creators claim, is more circular and aerodynamic, and spirals with unparalleled tightness. Instead of taking their word for it, Inc. asked Alex Rankin, a former wide receiver in the Canadian Football League, to give the Penta a try. Rankin is CEO of NexCycle (#147), in Irving, Tex.

His report? "It felt lighter, and it did spiral more easily," Rankin says. "It would be interesting to see how it performed after being kicked a number of times, and to see whether the seams would hold up or the ball would swell." As a fellow entrepreneur, Rankin somewhat tempers his enthusiasm: "On balance, they have a little bit of a novel design, and it may prove to be somewhat differentiating."

Jones remains unfazed. "We try to shake it up," he says. "As a small company, we have to take opportunities for innovation whenever they come."

Indeed, that attitude explains how, nearly seven years after their fateful game of catch, the former dorm mates--RAM not only stands for "Randy and Mike" but also is the nickname (Rams) of sports teams at Colorado State University, their alma mater--have built a $4.6-million company that competes against the likes of Wilson, Spalding, and Nike.

They've proceeded in stages. The first came right after Thanksgiving, when the two started working on a business plan. Their goal: to get a good start on the plan in time for the Super Show, an annual sporting-goods trade show. They asked retailers how suppliers could better serve them and quizzed floor salespeople on shoppers' habits. Oister also sliced open a football his father had bought in the late 1950s. Inside was a rubber bladder ("like inside a bicycle tire," says Oister), a design that they revived in their initial brand, Classic Sport. At the show, Jones says, they learned that retailers "wanted exclusive brands."

After months of tweaking, they drove through the Northeast--chosen for its retail density--to pitch their product to regional buyers. Shortly after they first began shipping, in 1994, the company's marketing department started a training program for retail salespeople. "They talked about bladders and showed how their ball was scuffproof, trying to scratch it with a key," recalls John Maloney, a salesperson at retailer MVP Sports Stores Inc.

Recently, they've added other products to appeal to mass retailers. A three-pack of miniature balls branded CBC (for Classic Ball Co.) sells at Target Stores Inc., as does Surf & Turf, a line of brightly colored, low-priced balls that, like disposable cameras, are purchased, say, the morning of a picnic. "It's not bad for a day at the beach," says Jones. Or, say, for an informal game of catch after a big holiday meal.

Ilan Mochari is a researcher at Inc.