UNIVERSITY PARK — A beloved figure responsible for equipping Penn State football players behind the scenes and on the sidelines on Saturdays for the last three decades is moving on.
Brad “Spider” Caldwell, a member of the Nittany Lion equipment staff since 1986, is retiring from his post as equipment and facilities coordinator, the university announced Thursday.
Caldwell has accepted a position as activities director for the Fair Haven Union High School in Fair Haven, Vermont, the university said in a news release. He and his wife, Karen, have a vacation home in Vermont, Penn State said.
“Words cannot begin to express the gratitude I have toward Penn State for all the opportunities it has given me through the years,” Caldwell said in a release.
Caldwell has been on the sidelines for 379 Nittany Lion games of 31 years. He joined the program in 1983 as a student manager after spending his freshman year at Penn State-DuBois near his hometown of Curwensville. He graduated from Penn State in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in recreation and park management and was soon hired as the team’s assistant equipment manager. Caldwell ascended to head equipment manager in 2001 following Tim Shope’s retirement after 40 years with Penn State.
Caldwell thanked the late Joe Paterno, “who became not only my coach, but a father and grandfather figure to me,” and former Nittany Lions coach Bill O’Brien, now with the Houston Texans. Caldwell thanked O’Brien for “for letting me be part of two of the most special groups of players in Penn State history.”
In two seasons under O’Brien, Caldwell oversaw two unique alterations to Penn State’s iconic uniform set.
He was responsible for adding names to the backs of Penn State’s plain uniforms with help from his wife. In addition to sewing the bowl game patches on for 11 bowl games, Karen Caldwell sewed the names on the backs of the jerseys after an initial run of heat-pressed last names peeled off during a muggy afternoon game against Virginia. Karen Caldwell has been making uniform repairs since 1990.
Later during the 2012 season, Caldwell helped bring to fruition the idea of seniors to have Michael Mauti’s number 42 added to Penn State’s helmets. Mauti, who was the team’s fiery leader in the wake of unprecedented NCAA sanctions, had gone down with a season-ending knee injury the week before against Indiana and Penn State’s players wanted to honor their fallen captain.
Caldwell, who has worked with nearly 1,200 Penn State players, made it happen.
He had 120 sets of 42 decals made and put in five hours the day before the season finale against Wisconsin applying them to the helmets. He eventually finished at 9 p.m. hours before he would have to return to make his final game day preparations in the locker room.
Working late nights wasn’t out of the ordinary for Caldwell, however.
He gave the Centre Daily Times an exclusive look at the work he and his crew of assistants — some of them students working for credit — did on the eve of the team’s equipment hauler’s trip to an away game at Nebraska. Spider and his staff were able to load the semi-truck in a little under two and a half hours in order to keep a tight time schedule.
Born with severe scoliosis, missing half of his left shoulder blade and a few ribs, “Spider” got his nickname in the 1980s from defensive lineman Joe Hines. Caldwell’s unique, long-armed build and ability to cover ground quickly in the locker room caused Hines to call him “Spider Man.”
Part of the nickname stuck.
“It has been great getting to know Spider,” junior linebacker Ben Kline said in a release. “He is universally loved. He is a great guy and one of those rare people who you always feel better after talking with them. He is someone you can go talk to about anything, he is always positive and happy to see you. Not having him in the locker room is going to be tough.”
One of Caldwell’s final projects was to equip Penn State players with practice jerseys for April’s Blue-White game. While he spent only a couple of weeks on his staff, Caldwell also thanked new Nittany Lions coach James Franklin.
Franklin has spent a good portion of his public appearances with fans answering questions about the uniforms and if there will be any changes. Franklin has answered consistently — that Penn State will respect the traditions in place when referring to the uniforms.
Now, someone other than Caldwell will be responsible for seeing to that.
“Spider has been an invaluable and tremendous resource for me and our staff," Franklin said. "He has been a vital part of the Penn State football family for more than 30 years and I wish we could have him working alongside us for another 30 years. Spider will always be part of our family and I want to thank him on behalf of all the players and coaches he has worked with and helped.”
Penn State could honor Caldwell with some sort of tribute in the future, Franklin said.
“Spider is beloved by Penn Staters everywhere and we are going to miss him,” Director of Athletics Dave Joyner said. “The passion and dedication Spider has displayed for our football student-athletes throughout his 30-plus years is unrivaled.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.