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By Lou Prato
Article Continues Below
Special to Blue White Illustrated
Until the past decade, the head equipment manager of the Penn State football team was virtually unknown to the public despite the valuable position the man filled inside the program.
Spider Caldwell changed that.
His rarely used given first name is Brad, but it's his nickname that helped make Spider so popular. The nickname, first uttered by Penn State defensive end Joe Hines in 1983, is the result of a curvature of the spine at birth that left him with a half shoulder and long arms and legs. "I've been Spider ever since," he said years ago. "Even my family calls me Spider. It's funny."
Spider never thought of his physical deformity as a handicap in life. Rather, it gave him inspiration to succeed at what he loved, football. As he worked his way up the Nittany Lion football chain from assistant student manager in 1983 to head equipment manager, a position he held for 12 years, his popularity spread from the locker room to national television.
So, when Spider announced his sudden retirement in late May, the shock waves rippled across the Nittany Lion football nation.
Here's another shocker: In the 127-year history of Penn State football, there have been more head coaches - 16 now counting James Franklin - than head equipment managers. Spider's successor will be only the 11th man to fill that role.
Think about this for a moment.
I've been around Penn State football for nearly 60 years as a journalist and fan and even I didn't realize this factual rarity until Spider's announcement. Although I had published a list of the equipment managers in the appendix of my 1998 book, The Penn State Football Encyclopedia, I had overlooked the comparison between the number of head coaches and the equipment managers.
Spider's retirement piqued my curiosity about his predecessors. I was familiar with the two men who preceded Spider - John Nolan and Tim Shope - as well as two who were there in the late 1950s when I was an undergraduate: Oscar Buchenhorst and Mel Franks. However, I did not know the specific years they were in charge, except for Shope, who retired after the 2001 season.
My research took me through the official athletic records, The Daily Collegian, the school yearbook, LaVie, and the Internet. Historian Ridge Riley's 1977 book, "Road to Number One," was the starting place, but his information was limited. Media guides, first produced in the early 1960s, also were helpful.
I soon learned that the historical records are not clear about the position or the men who held the job. The title "head equipment manager" did not become permanent until the 1940s, and some of the individuals over the decades were referred to as "stockroom attendants," since the stockroom of any athletic building was where the equipment was stored.
As Riley pointed out, in the early days of Penn State football, the players were responsible for their own equipment. Then, from about 1900 until 1919, "the graduate manager's office [which supervised the athletic department] was responsible for football equipment and other athletic paraphernalia, cared for by the undergraduate managers [of each sports team]."
Riley identifies Ollie DeVictor as the first head equipment manager in 1919. Hugo Bezdek, who had been hired the previous year as athletic director and head football coach, knew from his own experience as head coach at Oregon and Arkansas and baseball manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates that the equipment had to be a priority. So he brought in DeVictor to take charge of all athletic department equipment.
However, DeVictor did not have an official title. A small item in the 1920 edition of LaVie, which includes a photo of DeVictor, referred to him was "proprietor of the stockroom." That was only one of DeVictor's responsibilities as the individual in charge of the Track House, the multipurpose building that served as a residential hall, clubhouse and locker room for most athletes from 1903-24.
"He is the general guardian of the Track House, preserver of college peace, information bureau for all aspiring athletes," the LaVie author wrote. "In spite of all his cares and duties, Ollie always had a cheery smile for everyone, and is loved by all who know him."
Now, that sounds almost like Ollie DeVictor's modern counterpart, Spider Caldwell.
Aside from that small mention in LaVie, the only other local reference to DeVictor that I found was in Riley's book, which stated that he "soon left to take the same job at Pitt."
However, an Internet inquiry led me to the National Athletic Trainers Hall of Fame and the discovery that one Oliver J. DeVictor was inducted in 1962, four years after his retirement following 23 years of service at the University of Missouri. His Hall of Fame page claims he also was a trainer at Penn State, Pitt and Washington-St. Louis. More than likely, DeVictor performed some training duties for Penn State's athletes but C.W. "Bill" Martin was then the school's official trainer.
Apparently, DeVictor went to Pitt after the 1920 season. There's no doubt that A.P. "Dean" Burrell succeeded DeVictor, but, in a certain way, Burrell, also preceded DeVictor.
Riley wrote that the athletes living in the Track House actually hired a young Burrell sometime around 1911-12 as a full-time janitor and stockroom attendant. Prior to that, a few scholarship players were paid to keep the building and equipment clean, but when that arrangement proved to be impractical, Burrell was hired. The athletes even gave him his academic nickname, "Dean," because, ostensibly, he was in charge of the Track House. As Riley wrote, "He came by his title because of his authoritative supervision of the residents, and as the dispenser of 'Burrell's Secret Formula Rubbing Liniment' from the training quarters adjacent to the dressing room."
What Burrell did while DeVictor was on site is not known. What is certain is that in 1923, Burrell formally became "caretaker of athletic equipment."
A long article in the March 12, 1931, edition of a semiweekly student newspaper describes an elaborate ceremony in May 1923 in which the Track House athletes - led by All-America guard Joe Bedenk, captain of the 1922 team, and center Newsh Bentz, captain of the 1921 team - formally "conferred title of 'Dean' on Burrell… the well-known stack-keeper of athletic equipment in the varsity locker room."
Little more is known about Burrell except that he continued as "caretaker of athletic equipment" until 1941. Assuming that the "Dean" also did the job in the first two years after DeVictor's departure and that he was the stockroom attendant for seven or eight years prior to DeVictor, A. P. Burrell may have the unofficial record for the longest tenure as Penn State's head equipment manager. That would give him 29 years, five more than Tim Shope.
Yes, it is a confused history.
Better known are the names and tenures of the seven men who followed the "Dean," at least from my research.
Oscar Buchenhorst may have been the first person to be formally named football's head equipment manager. He served from 1942 through '57, and was succeeded by one of his longtime assistants, Mel Franks, who retired at the end of 1964. During their tenures, their responsibilities not only included handling the football team but also working with the basketball, baseball, gymnastics, soccer and wrestling teams.
Buchenhorst was a character. Dan Radakovich, a standout linebacker in the 1950s who would later become an assistant coach and the man primarily responsible for Penn State's reputation as Linebacker U, remembers chasing Buckenhorst through a train carrying the Penn State team back from a game at Virginia in 1955.
"I was lying on the top bunk of the double bunk bed in the stateroom," Radakovich recalled in his recent book, "Bad Rad: Football Nomad." "The door opens up and Oscar sticks his head in and starts screaming my name and yelling that I was 'lower than a snake in the grass.' I had no idea what he was screaming about, so I jumped off the bunk and went after him as he took off. I chased him through four railroad cars trying to catch him. He was screaming as he was running, yelling, 'Either Radakovich goes or I go and I've been here 23 years.' … After running through four railroad cars, some players stopped me. … I guess I'm lucky I didn't catch him because I might have hurt him bad."
Afterward, Radakovich learned what had triggered the equipment manager's outburst. One of Buckenhorst's responsibilities was to ensure all the players were on the train. Another player who was late told Buckenhorst he had to wait for Radakaovich, angering the equipment manager, but Radakovich had actually been one of the first players on the train. "I never talked to Oscar again," Radakovich remembered.
Mel Franks was mellower than Buchenhorst and so were the two men who followed Franks, John Tomko (1965-68) and Ed O'Hara (1969-70). Then came the man with a Penn State football pedigree unequalled by any other Nittany Lions equipment manager. John Nolan had been an outstanding tackle and a co-captain of Penn State's great undefeated Cotton Bowl team of 1947. He returned to Penn State as a graduate assistant, became the head equipment manager in 1971 and hired Shope as his top assistant.
In 1979, Shope succeeded Nolan, and in '86, Shope hired Brad "Spider" Caldwell, a senior manager for the '85 team that lost the national championship game to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Like Spider, Shope and Nolan were well-liked by the players they encountered during their tenures in the equipment room. Yet, upon their retirements, neither they nor their predecessors attracted the attention Spider has received from the fans and the media since his surprise announcement.
Spider's likeable and amiable everyman personality despite his physical handicap was at the root of his popularity. The first time he met someone, he treated them like a friend, whether it was an obscure walk-on freshman, an overbearing reporter or a big-shot donor touring the football facilities.
However, I believe it was the modern-day saturation of college football coverage through television, radio, the Internet and social media that gave Spider the popularity unmatched by the nine men who preceded him. In essence, Spider represented all that was good about the much-maligned Penn State football culture that had been battered by the Sandusky scandal.
Perhaps that is why Spider's departure has had such an emotional impact on fans and many in the media. With the death of Joe Paterno and wholesale changes in Penn State's football program under new coach James Franklin, Spider was the last link to the glorious legacy of the Rip Engle-Paterno eras dating back to 1950.
To quote a newly elected President Kennedy upon succeeding Dwight Eisenhower in a monumental generational change 45 years ago, "The torch has been passed."