Penn State Football

Why it’s all about the white shoes for Penn State’s players in a game featuring throwback uniforms

Ask Penn State’s players what they’re most looking forward to in Saturday’s “Generations of Greatness” game, and you’ll get the same answer.

It’s all about the shoes.

The Nittany Lions will wear alternate uniforms against Purdue on Saturday, celebrating tradition by wearing uniforms that take on different characteristics from throughout program history. Numbers will appear on the helmets, just as they did in 1959-1961 and 1967-1974. Facemasks will be gray (1970-1972), the jerseys will have block numbering (mid-1950s to 1966) and the pants will have a single stripe (1952-1968).

But, most importantly of all, the cleats will be white (1979).

“You know how young guys are — the white shoes, they think are the greatest thing ever,” head coach James Franklin said Wednesday night. “Remember when you were like 8 years old and your mom would buy you a new pair of shoes, and you thought you were faster in the new shoes, running up and down the aisle? That’s how our guys are.”

Penn State first adopted the idea of a uniform hodge-podge of traditions in 2017, when wearing the uniforms against Indiana. The Nittany Lions didn’t hold the “Generations of Greatness” game last season, but it was brought back this year due to popular demand.

And, without fail, player after player said this week they’re most looking forward to wearing those white cleats in this game — as opposed to the usual jet-black shoes.

“I think everyone looks faster in white cleats,” backup quarterback Will Levis said. “I wore white cleats in high school — probably for that reason. But I think they look cool, and it’s the one time of the year we get to wear these awesome uniforms, and I know a lot of the guys like the way the white cleats look.”

Added wideout KJ Hamler: “Love ‘em. I wish we wore them every day. ... So I’m excited to play in them, so I have my ‘sweet feet’ on.”

According to longtime equipment manager Brad “Spider” Caldwell, who’s been with the team since 1983, Penn State wore white cleats once for the 1979 Sugar Bowl. Caldwell wasn’t quite sure why the Nittany Lions wore white in one of their first games inside a dome. He just remembers his previous boss — equipment manager Tim Shope — saying Adidas provided the shoes, so Penn State dutifully wore them.

It was the the first — and last — time a Joe Paterno-coached team wore white cleats. Paterno wasn’t a huge fan.

“Nike started adding more white to the black shoes in the ’90s, so we used to have to paint them,” Caldwell said with a laugh. “I would take the shoe to Joe’s office and ask, ‘What do you want me to do with this?’ And he’d take a Sharpie off his desk and be like, ‘Paint this.’ Sure enough, we would have to paint the shoes or use black magic marker every year because of the tradition.”

That’s not an issue anymore, since Nike produces plenty of styles, and Penn State sticks to its all-black cleats these days. But, as far back as the 1970s, Penn State’s players wanted to wear white cleats. And, for one day a year now, they finally get to.

“Thank God for one game in our history that allowed us to do this,” Franklin said, “and we have documentation.”

Linebacker Ellis Brooks said those white cleats are what he’s looking forward to the most. “We already got jokes that we look faster and stuff,” he said. And defensive tackle Robert Windsor likes how they “really pop.”

It’s one of the few times when Penn State’s rich history and tradition intersect with something new and unique. Hamler, one of the Big Ten’s top playmakers, said he came to Happy Valley due in part to its tradition — and mixing in some throwbacks like this is the best of both worlds, he said.

Especially the shoes.

“I just feel clean; I feel fast,” Hamler said. “It’s something where you wear all white on tape, it makes you look faster. I’m already fast — but it makes me look faster.”

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