Beloved Caldwell's Dedication to Penn State Football Unmatched
May 30, 2014
By Tony Mancuso
Affectionately known as "Spider" around the program, the beloved equipment manager of the Nittany Lions left a mark on the program that no one may ever touch.
For the past 31 years, Caldwell didn't do his job for notoriety or recognition. He worked, often from sun up to sun down, in Happy Valley because he loved his profession, and more importantly, he loved making a positive impact on those around him.
His journey to the Penn State sideline started at Curwensville High School (45 miles west of State College). Caldwell's eighth grade science teacher talked him into being a manager for the junior high football team. Before finishing a season with the junior high team, Caldwell was invited to become the manager of the Golden Tide's varsity team.
"I was a manager in high school for four years for three different sports, and I fell in love with it," Caldwell said. "My eighth grade science teacher, who was a junior high coach, called me going into my ninth grade year and said I'd love to have you be a manager for my team...The varsity coach saw me, and then I went straight into varsity that year. I did football, wrestling and baseball during my four years there. I just loved it. I think it was something I was supposed to do, and I really enjoyed it."
After graduating from Curwensville in 1982, Caldwell spent one year at Penn State's DuBois campus. He watched the Nittany Lions win their first national title, and he knew that he wanted to be a part of the program. Caldwell enrolled in classes at the University Park campus in the fall of 1983 with an eye on becoming a student manager.
Caldwell's first game on the Penn State sideline was at the 1983 Kickoff Classic in Giants Stadium against No. 1 Nebraska.
"Here I am, I'm from small Curwensville, and I'm in awe standing in Giants Stadium," Caldwell said. "I'm standing there looking at the New York City skyline saying, 'what the heck am I doing here.' What a dream come true."
On the heels of a national title, the Nittany Lions opened the '83 season with losses to Nebraska, Cincinnati and Iowa. Staring at a 0-3 mark, members of the team and staff jokingly blamed the new guy on the block.
Penn State went on to finish 8-4-1 in Caldwell's first season as a student manager, including a victory over Washington in the Aloha Bowl. He was part of Penn State's second national title during the 1986 season as a student. Caldwell had classes with All-Americans Shane Conlan and D.J. Dozier.
"It was a dream come true to be a part of. That was just so special to be a part of," Caldwell said.
For his efforts as a student, Caldwell was hired as Assistant Equipment Manager after receiving his bachelor's degree in recreation and park management in 1986. And he has perfect attendance.
"I've never missed a game since I started," Caldwell said. "I've been sick at a couple games. I missed family weddings for games. I haven't missed one since I started."
Caldwell's rapport with the players on the roster is what makes him so special. For more than 30 years, Penn State Football and its student-athletes have been central figures in Caldwell's family.
"The thing that has made this so special is the players," Caldwell said. "There really, truly is a Penn State family. Karen and I never had any kids. These were my kids. It's kept me young. It's the same with the student managers. I still have four or five student managers to this day that still call me dad."
The players knew they could count on Caldwell to be at his post in the equipment room when they needed something. He greeted them with a smile time after time after time when he tossed a new pair of socks or fixed shoulder pads. He looked out for the players because he genuinely cared for them.
"I've outfitted more than 1,000 Penn State Football players, and it is just such a rewarding feeling. It's a family," Caldwell said.
Spider and Karen are both members of the football community. Karen's behind the scenes role speaks volumes about the type of people the Caldwells are.
She has sewn the bowl patch on Penn State's jerseys for 11 games, beginning with the 1993 Blockbuster Bowl when the Nittany Lions wore a Big Ten shield to promote joining the conference one season later.
"At the time, the players didn't really want the patches because they thought it was sacrilegious to put something on the uniform," Caldwell said.
Karen Caldwell sewed all of the 100th anniversary Big Ten patches on the Penn State's 1995 Rose Bowl pants, in addition to the 1997 Fiesta Bowl jersey patch. Beginning with the 1999 Alamo Bowl, the Nittany Lions have worn a patch on their jerseys in the past nine bowl games.
"Karen has sewn every single bowl patch," Caldwell said.
Spider packed 30 jerseys at a time into a travel bag and took them home to Karen, who sewed each patch in their log cabin outside of State College.
Prior to the 2012 season, Karen was busy.
"I took all of the jerseys home and had her sew the Big Ten patch on them," Caldwell said. "Then, Coach O'Brien decided to go with the names on the jerseys. I took them all home again in August, and Karen sewed all of the name panels on."
Spider did not have time to send the jerseys to Nike for the stitching of each name onto name plates, so he heat pressed them prior to the season-opener. Nonetheless, the letters started peeling off, so he took the jerseys back home to Karen.
"I took them all back, and she started sewing each individual letter on every jersey," Caldwell said.
A man who has a lifetime of memories as a member of the Penn State Football staff, Caldwell pinpointed one season as a favorite.
"The 1994 year was the most fun to watch," Caldwell said. "To be on the sidelines, those guys were just machines. I don't ever remember seeing 11 guys do everything exactly the way they were supposed to on every single play."
"I still have Kerry Collins's wristband from the Rose Bowl, and it had 10 plays on it. That's it. They were goal line plays," Caldwell said. "It was just so much fun watching those guys go up and down the field."
Sifting through 31 years of memories, Caldwell's proudest moment may have come on Nov. 12, 1994 in Champaign, Ill., when the Lions rallied back from 21-0 down in the first quarter in what is likely the program's greatest comeback.
Down 31-28 and a perfect season on the line at their own 4-yard line, the Nittany Lions started an infamous drive with 6:07 on the clock. Penn State fans across the country can envision Kerry Collins leading the team down the field for a game-winning score at Memorial Stadium, but Caldwell had a slightly different view of "The Drive."
As Collins took the snap of the first play at the 4-yard line, it began to rain.
"At the time, that game was on AstroTurf. We had these turf shoes for the rain called 'Destroyers'," Caldwell said. "We would change the players' shoes as it started raining because the turf would get slippery."
"So on that day, we were literally on the sideline cutting shoestrings off to get their shoes off...during the series," Caldwell said. "We started on the 4-yard line and started working our way up during a 96-yard drive."
As the Nittany Lions marched down the field, Caldwell was busy on the sideline feverishly cutting shoestrings off the first pair of game shoes and then putting players in the "Destroyer" rain shoes as they came off the field. Just as the ball reached mid-field, Caldwell had changed the shoes of the last guy - All-American tight end Kyle Brady.
"I really felt part of that drive," Caldwell said. "We were exhausted on the sideline, but to watch the score, it was just so rewarding. I was part of that drive. It was a neat feeling after the game to be a part of that win."
Collins finished 7-for-7 on the 96-yard drive, leading the Nittany Lions to a 35-31 victory over Illinois, and Caldwell will forever have a place in history during the epic comeback.
"Penn State is a special place because of how this program feels," Caldwell said. "It is a classic team. When you run out of that tunnel, you feel it. I've been so proud to be the caretaker of the Penn State uniform."
Caldwell's place in Penn State Football history will be as an unsung, behind-the-scenes leader, but the impact he had on the student-athletes for more than 30 years is truly special.
"To think a guy from Curwensville can have the keys to Beaver Stadium is so humbling," Caldwell said. "It's just so special to think about how many fans and alums have reached out to me over the years. I just can't believe it. I'm just a guy who fixes helmets and shoulder pads. People related to me, and they made me feel so special."
To say Caldwell is grateful for the opportunity to have worked with Penn State Football for more than three decades doesn't do him justice. The equipment room and sideline were home to him.
"I can't thank the fans, former players, former managers and coaches who made me feel so special," Caldwell said. "It's tough to walk away from that, but I know that I have so many great memories."
Now, Caldwell's next chapter will enable him to do something he has never experienced.
"I can actually come back and watch a game without having to worry about fixing something that breaks," Caldwell said with a laugh. "I'm going to be able to tailgate for the first time in my life."
We wish Caldwell the best of luck in his relocation to Vermont and new position at Fair Haven Union High School.