Penn State's Spider back home at Beaver Stadium

Written by Jim Seip/York Daily Record | Nov 16, 2015 11:53 AM

Brad "Spider" Caldwell packs up a projector used in the Football Letterman's Club lounge for a pregame security meeting at Beaver Stadium before Penn State's noon game against Illinois. Caldwell began his 31-year tenure with the Penn State football equipment staff as a student manager in 1983, and served as the head equipment manager from 2001 to 2014. After serving under head coach Joe Paterno for 29 seasons and Bill O'Brien for two and overseeing James Franklin's transition, Caldwell decided he was burned out and took an early retirement to Vermont in 2014. Regret, homesickness, a heart attack and a stroke prompted him to return to Penn State in January 2015 as a facilities coordinator at Beaver Stadium, where he can still mingle with the team and fans but commit to considerably fewer hours.(Photo: Chris Dunn, York Daily Record)

(Undated) -- Back in the mid-1980s, Keith Conlin wasn't a player. He was just the little brother.

He went to Penn State games to watch his older brother Chris play at Beaver Stadium. After games or on Sundays, he might be able to spend some time with his brother in the locker room. That's where he first remembered meeting Brad "Spider" Caldwell, then a student equipment manager.

"He'd take care of me, give me some wrist bands," Conlin remembered. "Spider is such a nice guy, even when you're 9 or 10 years old he seems like the nicest human being."

And that's the way it stayed for decades.

As the years went by, and Conlin returned to Penn State -- first as a player and then a former player -- Spider kept working in the locker room and on the practice field.

"He was the guy you would always see first," former Penn State kicker Sam Ficken said. "He probably put in more time than anyone."

Even the position coaches travel out of town on recruiting trips, so the one constant in the locker room was always this shorter guy. Always upbeat. Always ready to listen. A friend to everyone.

"As a player, there are three people you see all the time: the athletic trainer, the strength and conditioning coach and the equipment manager," Conlin said about the life of a college football player.

And upon a return to Penn State, former players typically would reach out to each of those staffers.

"You had to see Spider," Conlin said.

But after 31 years with Penn State, Caldwell needed a change. He left Penn State before the 2014 football season, setting in motion a stressful and difficult couple of months.

• • •

Caldwell, 51, loves the place.

He left Penn State to "retire" -- ever so briefly to the Green Mountains of Vermont. But to understand his decision to leave, look through his eyes. For just a moment.

He worked under the same Penn State head coach from when he was a freshman in 1983 until Joe Paterno's firing in 2011.

"It was just devastating how that ended, heart wrenching," Caldwell said about the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the firing of Paterno. "And to see guys that worked here that long, we had several assistant coaches that had been here for more than 20 years ... every day it was something new, something crushing, heart wrenching, from the time Coach was let go."

He lost a man he considered "not only my boss, but a father or grandfather figure" in Paterno.

He also watched the scandal unfold, affecting not just coaches but also administrative staff and behind-the-scenes employees he had grown to love over the decades. Now, many of them were gone or shifted to different jobs.

Still, Caldwell stayed through the turmoil and transition.

"With all the changes that happened, he was always the guy everyone still knew," Ficken said.

Caldwell thought he had put the worst of it behind him when he finally settled in under coach Bill O'Brien.

But he recalled a feeling of, "Oh no, not again," when he heard O'Brien would leave for the NFL. Caldwell couldn't see himself working through another coaching change. The last one had been so difficult.

He had been the equipment and facilities coordinator, serving the Penn State football team for 31 years. It was no 9-to-5 job. Spider put in long hours -- first one to the stadium, last one to leave. He could be seen at practices and games fixing shoulder pads and helmets on the sidelines.

Caldwell and even his wife, Karen, who is a teacher, had built their lives around the job. When Penn State stopped sending its uniforms out to be laundered and mended -- "the pants were turning yellow because they used too much bleach," Caldwell said -- his wife began fixing the small tears in the jerseys. She sewed on the bowl patches. And, yes, she stitched every name to the back of every jersey when Penn State placed names on jerseys in 2012.

"When Coach Franklin came in, I was mentally fried," Caldwell said. "It was nothing personal."

Spider had nothing left for a job that demands every ounce of energy.

But he thought he knew the perfect place to relocate. For more than a decade, he and his wife owned land in Vermont, where they camped and vacationed. They planned to build a retirement home there. So when an activities director job opened at a high school near their property, they thought this might be the time for a change. He interviewed over spring break, and learned he had the job two weeks later. He transitioned the new coaching staff, but he left Penn State in May.

"I was too young to retire," Caldwell said. "But I had my 25 years (of service)."

It was off to Vermont, but only briefly.

• • •

He laughs at the situation, now.

He started his new job in July. His house was being built, and it wouldn't be able to be lived in until August.

"I was dressing for work in a one-room shack!" he said, laughing.

No running water, no house and a new job. It was a tough set of circumstances.

"I was there a week or so, and boy," Caldwell said, lowering his voice. "This doesn't feel right."

He loved the area. He loved the people, but he couldn't shake the nagging thought he had made a mistake.

"I think, honestly, I was running away from the stress and time commitment."

Then the thought hit him: "Oh my word, I put more stress on myself."

Yet, he had already uprooted his life. He opted to gut it out.

He and his wife were preparing to drive to State College to pick up furniture and move it into their new Vermont home, when the first signs of something serious popped up. Caldwell felt discomfort between his shoulder blades. Then he felt nauseous.

He debated going to the hospital in Vermont, but waited. He figured, it would pass. After riding home seven hours to Pennsylvania and still feeling sick he headed to the emergency room in State College. Doctors revealed he had suffered a heart attack. His primary physician would later point out the pain between his shoulder blades was a symptom.

He stayed in the hospital over the weekend, undergoing a cardiac catheterization to diagnose the problem.

His doctor, former Penn State gymnast Jim Gerardo, informed him he could be treated with medication. No surgery was needed. It was great news, except Caldwell had another serious problem.

"Jim is standing over me, 'Hey, Spider, it looks good ... ' and he's talking to me," Caldwell said.

But Spider had to interrupt him. He couldn't see his doctor. Turning his head, he realized he had lost peripheral vision in his one eye. An MRI would later reveal he had suffered a stroke during the cardiac procedure.

Needing to regain his stamina, and trying to adapt to the loss of some of his vision, he resigned from his job at the Vermont school. He accepted a job at the large Orvis retail store in Manchester, Vt., about  a 10-minute drive from his new house. The store butts up against a lake where trophy trout can swim into a man-made stream inside the store. Beginners take fly-fishing casting lessons outside the store, and across the parking lot, tourists can visit the American Museum of Fly Fishing. The place is a destination for vacationers.

The new cottage had been finished, and even locals told him it looked "Vermont-y." He should have been happy.

He would see people from all over the country, wearing college football gear and naturally struck up conversations. He joked that he ended up recruiting Penn State fans.

"I had some people who even knew who I was," Caldwell said.

The job made him realize he missed Penn State, more and more.

So when a friend called him to tell him about a Penn State job opening at Beaver Stadium, he applied immediately.

He learned he had been hired right before Christmas. He was going home.

• • •

Caldwell is now the facilities coordinator at Beaver Stadium, working under the director, Bob White -- one of the co-captains on Penn State's 1986 national championship team and a former classmate of Caldwell's.

The opening he filled was needed after White had been overwhelmed with a growing social schedule at Beaver Stadium, which has become an event destination.

The stadium staff needed help running weddings, cocktail parties and banquets.

Caldwell can give tours. He oversees the maintenance and upkeep of the stadium, and he assists in the club suites. He still works some nights but nothing compared to his former shifts as an equipment manager.

Who knows more about the stadium's history? Who lived more of the history? And who knows the place better, really?

"It's been fantastic for me," Caldwell said.

It hasn't been a seamless transition. His wife has remained in Vermont to teach for another year, living at the couple's cottage. Spider lives in their home in Port Matilda, which they never sold.

But it's been a happy homecoming. Back to work for only a couple weeks, he was sitting in his office near the letterman's lounge on the second floor of Beaver Stadium when news broke that the NCAA approved a settlement to restore all 112 victories that the NCAA stripped from Penn State in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.

"I started crying, I was really emotional," Caldwell said, before poking fun of at himself in the way only he can. "I felt like I'm rejuvenated until I retire -- again."

Despite his recent health scares, this has really worked out for the best, Caldwell said. Even though he admits he misses fixing helmets and fooling with shoulder pads on the sidelines, he knows he couldn't return to his old job. His stamina has not returned after his heart attack and stroke. And, although doctors believe he could regain his eyesight, he continues to suffer from a blind spot that would make him vulnerable at practices and games. The important part is he's back at Penn State, where he belongs.

"I just feel like I'm in a great position where I can give back and mingle with fans and alumni. I can give feedback to be part of maybe this stadium transition or remodeling, and help give suggestions. My office is right beside Wally Richardson's and Bob White's; it's a good feeling. We won't let the history part die."

• • •

Conlin, who lives in the State College area, tells a story he's heard around town.

A group of fans met Spider at Beaver Stadium. He told stories, chatted them up.

Later in the day, the same group met head coach James Franklin -- who is no slouch in the people-person department.

On the  way home, though, the group is talking more about Spider -- the former equipment manager -- than the head coach. They had experienced the same type of magic that generations of players experienced.

"He can make you feel better," Conlin said. "Anytime I see him ... you can just tell. He's so happy."

This article comes to us through a partnership between York Daily Record and WITF.

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