UNIVERSITY PARK — The trailer of a semi-truck, this one painted blue and white with an enormous Penn State football logo, sits backed up, flush against the loading dock outside of the Lasch Football Building.
It’s 6:15 p.m. on Thursday, two days out from the Nittany Lions’ final road game of the season, and a staff of 11 works furiously to cram the Penn State football flagship full of gear and supplies that will accommodate the Lions’ coming effort against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The players’ white jerseys have been loaded — they’re on a huge rack, wrapped tightly with a brown tarp to protect them during what will be a 1,000-mile journey. Black trunks containing medical supplies for the team trainers, extra facemasks, mouthpieces, cleats — anything that could possibly need replaced at a moment’s notice — have been loaded in first.
“We pretty much have a mini equipment room built in inside those trunks,” Brad “Spider” Caldwell, the team’s equipment manager, says. “My goal is, if we were to forget a bag, we could outfit a player from head to toe in everything his sizes, whether it’s helmets, shoulder pads, facemask style, shoes — high-tops, low-tops — pants. We have enough to outfit that kid if that happened.”
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Just off the loading dock, through a door that leads into the locker room, a handful of players are winding down from a late-running practice.
Wide receiver Allen Robinson grabs a granola bar off a table that serves as a health-food buffet center and heads out into the night. Center Matt Stankiewitch sits down at his locker, takes off his muddy cleats and carries them barefoot out of the locker room. Stankiewitch heads toward a wall lined with cubby holes outfitted with combination locks across from the locker room. He opens his and slides his battered footwear in.
On the other side of the wall, a student manager inside the team’s equipment room grabs the cleats Stankiewitch just deposited and goes to work.
He tears out the laces, applies some black shoe polish, refits them with new gripping studs, laces them back up and hands them off to a co-worker who stuffs them into Stankiewitch’s equipment bag. When Stankiewitch arrives at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, his cleats will be good as new.
Nine staff members are Penn State students. Each one walks at a brisk clip carrying bags, stuffing footballs, towels, gloves — anything on Spider’s list — into duffel bags.
The 5-foot-2 Spider pulls out the list. It’s got a date on the top and he points to it and proudly insists he hasn’t had to alter it since 2003. In fact, the roughed-up, stapled-together stack of papers is the same one he’s kept near him on nights like these for the last decade.
As three machines capable of washing 85 pounds of sweaty, mud-caked, grass-stained football apparel churn noisily in the background, Spider makes his way into the locker room to gather up a few of the teams’ iconic white helmets. They’ve been beaten and scarred during Penn State’s recent practice and Spider will buff out any foreign marks with a special chemical. The helmets will go into the duffel bags with the players’ regular set of cleats and shoulder pads.
Spider disappears for a few minutes at a time, running through last-minute checks of the locker room, making sure they haven’t forgotten anything. But he’s always at the center of the commotion. He checks the weather — it’s supposed to be 75 degrees in Lincoln — and hollers it out to his staff.
They’ve already packed giant box fans for the trip.
Cleanup and repairs
Caldwell, who was first called ‘Spider Man’ by former defensive lineman Joe Hines in the 80s due to his long arms and legs and ability to cover ground quickly in the locker room, starts every work week with a reorganization session on Monday.
“Monday is pretty much a cleanup,” Spider says. “Everything gets wrecked.”
He and his staff of student interns spend Mondays restocking the trunks and inspecting jerseys and pants that were used two days before. They’ve already been soaking in specially designed chemicals on the way home in the back of the team’s tractor trailer but some need a second treatment.
“You saw all of the grass green on (Zack) Zwinak’s last weekend,” Spider says. “When you pull the uniforms out of that first cycle on Sunday, there’s still about 20 of them or so that didn’t come clean.”
He’ll also make repairs to jerseys that have been torn during game action. Some of the more serious tears — or in cases where the new nameplates on the back have malfunctioned — will go home with him to the Caldwell house where Spider’s wife, Karen, will sew them.
Karen Caldwell is the team’s unofficial seamstress and has had the busiest season yet with the team adding names to the backs of their jerseys. She sewed an entire batch of Big Ten logo patches onto the jerseys before sewing the nameplates on prior to the team’s opening game against Ohio.
On the road against Virginia, the humidity caused some of the ironed-on letters to peel off, so Spider brought both sets of white and blue jerseys home where Karen went through and stitched every letter onto the nameplate.
Kirk Diehl has been with the Penn State football program since he was a student trainer in the early 90s.
He now helps his best friend — Spider — oversee the team’s student equipment managers and also acts as the program’s director of operations. Diehl took over the position before the Virginia game this season.
His work weeks start on Sunday, when he presents O’Brien with the team’s itinerary for the following road trip. This week has been unique since it is the first time the Nittany Lions have played back-to-back road games this season.
Hotels arrangements have already been made. They’ll be finalized — who’s rooming with who — when O’Brien releases the final travel roster on Thursday. Diehl will also arrange the team’s transports to and from airports, and to the stadium from the hotel with bus companies located at each away site.
Contact with local police departments is made in order for the team to get escorts. Meals are set up with the hotels and then Diehl finalizes the itinerary following the team’s squad meeting on Thursday, when players are given a front and back sheet of paper with all of their room assignments and meeting times.
It’s not just players that Diehl is planning ahead for. He has to factor in the entire coaching staff, including the strength and conditioning coaches, nine student managers, three full-time athletic trainers plus four student trainers, the team doctor, team surgeon and communications staff. All together, Diehl is planning for about 130 people.
It doesn’t always go perfectly.
Late last week, Diehl took an early morning call that informed him the team’s usual charter plane had a tire failure on its previous flight and was out of service temporarily.
A few phone calls later, Diehl had arranged for a later departure time, had the hotel in West Lafayette donate some of the food reserved for Penn State players to a local food shelter, and the trip went off without any other hitch.
“What I like about my job is there are so many of us to get the job done,” Diehl says. “You enjoy working with those people and getting it all done for the common goal.”
Finally, Diehl returns to his roots on Thursday nights to help out Spider’s staff prepare for the upcoming trip.
The other practice squad
For the second straight week, Erick Kulka and Scott Nolen will spend a Sunday unloading the big semi truck.
With no bowl game on the horizon, Kulka and Nolen — both Penn State seniors — will spend a Sunday night unloading the big semi they stuffed full just three days before for the final time.
Away games provide this extra day of labor for them, but Kulka, a finance and public relations major, and Nolen, a statistics major, wouldn’t have it any other way.
They’ve both been on Spider’s staff since their freshman years and now are his most experience student helpers. They’ll spend all week helping organize practices, setting up drills, running the practice play clock and tending to any equipment needs of their respective position groups. Every practice session is scripted and Kulka and Nolen have to have that script memorized so each session runs smoothly and efficiently. Someone has to run the chains, place the footballs, control the play clock and move practice equipment around. All those tasks fall to the student managers.
As the most experienced, Kulka and Nolen will create practice itineraries for their co-workers — two juniors, three sophomores and two freshmen.
Each student manager is responsible for one position group. Kulka works with the quarterbacks, Nolen the defensive backs.
“It’s very challenging, but you definitely learn to make the most of your time,” Nolen says.
As they both prepare to enter the workforce, they’re hoping to parlay the skills they’ve picked up over the past four years working with the team into their career fields.
“I’d say we’ve gotten pretty good at prioritizing what we need to get done on time,” Kulka says. “We have to make sacrifices, but it’s rewarding as well.”
It’s 6:55 on Thursday night, and Matt Wellar backs into the Lasch Building loading dock, gets out of his truck and hitches up to the semi trailer.
His co-driver, John Stem, helps him out before the duo heads up the loading dock stairs to help Spider and his staff load the final pieces of football ordinance.
Wellar’s been driving for Hoy Transfer, Inc., for 26 years on and off while Stem, nicknamed ‘Sarge,’ with respect to his military background, has been driving for 15 years.
Wellar’s driven to six bowl games, including the Rose Bowl in 2008 that required him to leave in mid December. He didn’t get back until well after the turn of the new year.
Both drivers — the close-cropped mustachioed Wellar — and the crew-cut wearing Sarge have lost count of the number of regular season games they’ve traveled to and the number of miles they’ve put on their flagship.
This one will be an approximate 1,075-mile sprint across Interstate 80 all the way to Lincoln. They’re hoping to get wheels turning before 8 p.m. for what should be an 18-hour trip.
Over the steady, rumbling hum of the diesel engine and occasional “phsst” from its turbocharger, both Wellar and Sarge recount stories on the road driving the clearly-marked Penn State semi.
Sometimes they’ll use the trailer to transport furniture or other loads in the offeseason. Still, people nearly always react when they see it.
“I’ve had people drive beside us, realize what they’re passing and take pictures out the side windows of it,” Wellar says. “I’ve had them race in front of me, get about a 1/4-mile in front of me, turn off the road, jump out of their car and take pictures while we drive by. It’s all over the country, too. There are Penn State fans everywhere.”
“I was in Washington state one time, I just went to a mall (transporting furniture) and when I came back out, there was a note on the windshield from a Penn State grad 2,000 miles away,” Sarge adds.
Hitting the road
A tuba for the Blue Band and a JUGS machine used to deliver footballs at high rates of speed during practice drills are the final pieces to get loaded into the truck.
Diehl folds a few towels, Spider puts his list away, and Wellar and Sarge carefully use tie-down straps to secure the jug machine inside the trailer.
Meanwhile, Kulka, Nolen and the rest of the student managers carry stacks of Dominos pizzas with breadsticks up the loading dock stairs and into the equipment room. The trailer doors are shut, locked and Wellar and Sarge hop in their truck pop it noisily into gear and pull out.
Spider, Diehl, Kulka, Nolen and the rest of the equipment staff and behind-the-scenes crew will join them in Lincoln by plane. For now, their work is done until they’ll unpack and stock the visiting locker room at Memorial Stadium today. They’ll be back to work Sunday night reversing their process.
Now, it’s time to eat.
“We’re going off to the best part of Thursday night right now,” Kulka says. “The pizza tradition.”