Penn State Football's Spider Caldwell Reflects on a Legendary Career
Spider Caldwell came into Penn State football like a lamb.
And he’s leaving as a Nittany Lion legend.
His 31-year career on the football staff will come to an end in the next few weeks. And to hear Brad “Spider” Caldwell tell it, his tenure as one of the most revered figures in Penn State’s 128-year history almost never got off the ground.
“The Kickoff Classic in 1983 was my first college football game ever on the sideline,” Spider recalled during a casual and comfortable chat – always the case with him -- inside the Lasch equipment room the final Friday in April.
“We were in Giant Stadium (against Nebraska). I’m looking up at the scoreboard and thinking, ‘Wow, night game, hoopla for the Kickoff Classic and the Goodyear blimp.’ I’m in awe. I was in such awe. I cannot believe I’m here from this small town, Curwensville, (Pa.), and I’m looking at Giants Stadium. I was enthralled, just enthralled.”
Pause. Trademark sly Spider grin. “We got killed 44-6 or whatever.”
After spending his freshman year at Penn State-DuBois, the fall 1983 season was Spider’s first on the University Park campus. He thought it would be his last. “After that game we lost the next two. We went 0 and 3,” Spider said, retelling the story five weeks ago, grinning like crazy. “I’m like, ‘It’s my fault.’ I was like, “Ahhhh no.’ I was the jinx, you know? My other student managers were telling me that, too.”
Spider’s laughing, of course. But his next line says all you need to know about the man who took care of the players’ bodies (as the Nittany Lions’ longtime equipment and facilities coordinator) and their souls (as trustworthy confidante and sounding board).
“The Kickoff Classic quarterback was Doug Strang, my first quarterback,” Spider says. “Poor Doug. I think he was coming off the pressure of that first national championship and the expectations.”
ONE SPIDER, 379 GAMES
Spider’s selfless and sincere ways were hallmarks that extended over 379 games, three decades and one national championship. In fact, what prompted Spider to recount his very early days as a student manager was an interview we did about Penn State’s quarterbacks. Over time, Spider would become more popular than any PSU QB – at least inside the confines of the Penn State football facility.
As my luck would have it, for that story Spider and I sat down at the large block table in the midst of his massive equipment room, aka office, aka player sanctuary two weeks after what would be his final Blue-White Game. He offered me heavy coffee and rich memories.
After a stint as a student assistant, Spider graduated from Penn State in 1986 with a degree in recreation and park management. He was immediately hired as the assistant equipment manager, and got the top job in 2001. In that time, he’s washed laundry, shined shoes, directed scores of student managers, taped No. 42 on helmets and helped his wife Karen affix names on jerseys. He also served as psychologist, cheerleader, Dutch Uncle and BFF.
Through good times and bad, the teenagers and young twenty-somethings that walked in Spider’s world shared their dirty laundry, biggest fears and happiest moments. That’s what he loved most about his way of life – to call it a job doesn’t do it, or him, justice. Spider Caldwell’s life's work was called well.
The pressure for the players must have been immense, right? “In here? No,” Spider said with equal parts firmness and pride. “ I think this is their escape. I think they come here and they are not getting the autograph requests. I actually think the pressure is off when they’re in here. They’re more relaxed than on the street.”
Spider is knocking on the underside of 5 feet, but for a long time he’s been the father figure.
“We probably get more of the girlfriend problems.” He laughed, heartily and with a smile. “Hahaha. They’ll confide in us like, ‘Oh, practice is two-and-a-half hours long today.’ More of that kind of thing. It’s an important part of your life to constantly try to give them the positive stuff. It’s more of that.”
FROM STRANG TO HACKENBERG
Your life? Spider’s life. His was an equal opportunity shoulder. Quarterbacks, from Strang to Christian Hackenberg, knew that with Spider they’d be treated the best. Of course, with Spider every player was the best.
“Quarterbacks are the same as everyone else,” Spider said. “We aren’t like, ‘Oh, it’s Hackenberg.’ We treat him the same as a walk-on. They are just one of the guys. If other guys sensed that they were looking to get more, they would get harassed. I think overall the main point is when these guys are in the locker room they are just like all the other guys, just easy going and shouldn’t expect anything extra. We treat them all the same. We yell at them and make fun of them. They don’t expect anything. I think this is their refuge being able to be in here.”
Hackenberg, one player speaking for hundreds, captures Spider with characteristic pin-point accuracy: "Spider embodies what Penn State is and is a legend in my book. He has always had my back and best interest in mind."
Over the past few years, Spider was even more of a touchstone for the program. Not just for the current players, but for hundreds of lettermen as well. He was as loyal as they come, first to Joe Paterno – “not only my coach, but father and grandfather figure to me,” he said in a news release – and then to Bill O’Brien. Spider proudly kept a pair of Paterno’s black coaching shoes nearby, their presence reminding him of Joe’s ongoing presence in his own life. Quickly, Spider also established a tight bond with O’Brien.
“Bill was a tremendous teacher,” Spider said. “And so was Joe. Bill was a great teacher and loved the small details and stuff like that. I first learned that from Joe.”
It was one of many lessons that Spider paid forward thousands of times. His impact on Penn State football – and, even moreso, Penn State football players – was in some ways immeasurable.
THE RIGHT WAY
“Our guys do it the Penn State way,” said Spider, concluding nearly an hour of discussion. “So, you have to be asking: ‘Well, what’s the Penn State way?’ ”
Spider not only had the answer. He’s lived it.
“The Penn State way,” he said, answering his own question, in word and decades of deeds, “is to go to class, be good with fans, do things in the community, work hard and be good to people outside of here.”
It’s been The Spider Way as well.