UNIVERSITY PARK – During Penn State\’s football matchup last year with then-No. 1-ranked Ohio State, fans saw Tony Hunt break out into the open with a huge rip in the seat of his pants, an illness sent Joe Paterno rushing off the sidelines and a multitude of other malfunctions took place before the camera\’s eye. But what the camera sees is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the story on the sidelines of a football game as seen through the eyes of Penn State\’s equipment manager. This year J. Brad \”Spider\” Caldwell will celebrate 25 years in that role at the University.
Born with a severe case of scoliosis that left him without part of his left shoulder blade and a number of ribs, he acquired his nickname when former Penn State defensive lineman Joe Hines noticed a hunched-over Caldwell before a team meeting.
\”I was joking around, crawling across the locker room one day and I\’m all arms and legs,\” said Caldwell. \”Hines said I looked like a spider and it stuck.\”
During that Ohio State game last year, every inch of those arms and legs was in overdrive.
A stubborn Hunt refused to change his pants despite Caldwell\’s insistence. Levi Brown\’s shoes malfunctioned and it became necessary to reconstruct a build-up in a new pair of size-17 shoes. Around the same time, the seams of Derrick Williams\’ gloves gave way and Caldwell moved quickly to supply him with a backup pair, all the while continuing to badger Hunt about the backside he was putting forth to millions of blue-and-white faithful watching on national television.
\”In fairness to Tony, he probably didn\’t want to change his pants because he was wearing a super-thin pair of Nike test pants and he knew if he changed it would be into a heavier form of pants,\” said Caldwell.
In the midst of trying to fit players with replacement equipment, Caldwell looked up to see Tom Venturino, director of football operations, shouting and running down the sidelines straight at him.
Venturino was anxious to catch Caldwell\’s attention because, for the first time in 40 years, Paterno was in the process of leaving the Penn State sidelines, and the equipment manager had the only set of keys to the locker room.
Caldwell ran for all he was worth and arrived at the locker room just as Paterno reached for the door. While in the locker room with the leader of the Penn State football team, Caldwell\’s thoughts were elsewhere, hoping Hunt\’s pants would hold out.
At halftime a compromise was reached with Hunt when Caldwell pulled an oversized jersey down below the tear and pinned it inside Hunt\’s pants.
But no story about Caldwell\’s career would be complete without mention of the man who put everything into motion. When Caldwell was in eighth grade, Mike Keely, science teacher and coach of the Curwensville junior high football team, was on the prowl for a manager. Having taught Caldwell, the coach thought he had just the personality he was looking for in a manager. After the coach\’s phone call and some coercing from a friend, Caldwell reluctantly agreed.
But his stint on the junior high team was short-lived. He wasn\’t on the job long before the varsity football coach spied him and snatched him from the grasp of the junior high coach. Varsity baseball and varsity wrestling soon followed suit.
Up until this point in Caldwell\’s life he had been a bit backward and shy, due in part to a back brace he was required to wear and to his tilted-over appearance, which set him apart from the other teenagers.
\”It [being an athletic team manager] really got me out of my shell,\” said Caldwell. \”It made me feel part of a team.\”
In 1983, Caldwell enrolled at Penn State with the mindset that he would earn a degree in a field that would help him continue down this path. In 1986, he earned a bachelor\’s degree from Penn State in recreation and parks, while simultaneously working as a student manager.
This stepping stone, as a student manager, led to his current position, which requires him to do any job asked of him — short of coaching and playing.
Caldwell\’s current responsibilities include outfitting 120 football players, which involves managing more than 2,000 jerseys and 2,000 pairs of cleats, and making sure that any piece of equipment needed can be replaced at a moment\’s notice from the sidelines of each Penn State football game. Seventy- to 80-hour work weeks are the norm during that season.
Keeping the Penn State team outfitted spills over into Caldwell\’s personal life, too. Caldwell has enlisted his wife Karen, an avid Penn State football fan who speaks with pride about her husband\’s accomplishments, as the team\’s seamstress.
\”The uniforms used to be sent out for repairs, but the team is under tight time deadlines and people are always looking for souvenirs,\” said Karen Caldwell. \”I look for them out on the field — the ones that I\’ve stitched together — and make sure they are holding together.\”
Brad Caldwell is so much a part of the fabric that makes up Penn State football that when Lou Prato and Scott Brown set out to write the book \”What It Means to be a Nittany Lion,\” Caldwell was one of the sought-after interviews for inclusion.
The book profiles 68 of the top players on Penn State football teams, broken down by decades as far back as the 1930s. Caldwell had been the equipment manager when 30 of the 68 attended Penn State, and he knew another 20 players. Under the belief that his inside information and quotes were simply to be incorporated into the profiles of those players, Caldwell forwarded his wealth of knowledge to the authors.
Caldwell was shocked when the book was published and he read a final chapter in the book titled \”Honorable Mention.\” As it turns out, the three individuals profiled in that chapter — the only individuals highlighted who were not football players — were Fran Fisher, the longtime voice of Penn State football; Gene Wettstone, longtime Penn State gymnastics coach and the third Penn State mascot; and Caldwell.
Brown, one of the two authors, said that selecting Caldwell for inclusion in the book was a \”no-brainer.\”
\”Over the past quarter-of-a-century he got to know some of them (football players) so well. He was at every practice, every game. He had some real funny anecdotes about the players and about Joe,\” said Brown. \”I hope he goes another 25 years.\”
What started with a phone call from a high school teacher opened the shell of a shy kid and turned him into someone who typifies a Nittany Lion, complete with the keys to the kingdom.
\”I never dreamed that 25 years later I would have the keys to Beaver Stadium,\” said Caldwell.