A makeover of one of the most iconic looks in college football is a lot for one schoolteacher and her sewing machine to handle.
But Karen Caldwell made it happen.
Wife of longtime Penn State equipment manager Brad “Spider” Caldwell, Karen has been mending the team’s football uniforms for about 20 years. So when Bill O’Brien announced in August that the Nittany Lions would be sporting players’ names on their jerseys for the 2012 season, it was Caldwell who executed the task.
“I thought we’d have to go downtown or find some place to put [the names] on,” Spider said. “But she’s like ‘Bring a couple home, let me see what I can do at home.’ I thought, that’s going to be overwhelming… She put them on and said ‘I can do this, I can do this, I think we’ll have enough time.’ She really pounded it out, I was proud of her.”
All of the names were heat pressed onto nameplates before Karen stitched those on the jerseys, and though there was only about a two-week notice for Karen to get the names stitched on the jerseys before Penn State’s season opener on Sept. 1, she finished in time.
“I’d go over to the table and pin it and make sure it was straight,” Karen said. “Then sometimes re-pin it because if cameras are going to be on these, I want to make sure they’re straight, first time in history we’re going to do this. My arms were shaking, my hands, just thinking, ‘Oh my word, the history of this.’ So I just started sewing some.”
What’s in a (sewn on) name?
When Karen has a lot of stitching to do, she keeps her white, metal Sears Kenmore sewing machine in the basement of the Caldwell’s log cabin so she can watch TV while she works.
Her sewing machine hasn’t left the basement in more than two months.
Spider and Karen live on an infrequently-traveled road outside of Port Matilda. In addition to all the spools of blue and white thread littering their basement and tons of Penn State memorabilia on the walls, there are antlers hung up in the cabin as Spider hunts in his spare time.
It’s about a 20-minute trip from the Caldwell residence to Beaver Stadium — a trip the Lions’ uniforms have made quite often since the summer.
First, Karen stitched a Big Ten patch on the front of each jersey and then almost immediately after that was finished, the uniforms were back in the cabin. It was time to start sewing the names on the back. Karen said she knew there were mixed feelings about changing anything about Penn State’s uniforms, but after she heard O’Brien’s explanation, she understood where the coach was coming from.
“I’m here with all this tradition of lettermen, thinking ‘Are we disappointing the lettermen?’” Karen said. “But then whenever Coach O’Brien explained this is a special team that was never called on to do anything like this before, with all the sanctions and the next four years ahead of them. He said these guys are special and the pressure that’s on them, he wanted to honor them. So I could see what the coach meant, and I was glad to help out the new coach.”
At a team function before the season started, Karen said a few players recognized her since she was with her husband and thanked her for work. And while there have been some fans who were against the decision, players seemed glad to be able to sport their name on their back during games.
“It’s an honor to represent my family name and the Penn State name,” senior safety Malcolm Willis said earlier in the season.
There was a minor malfunction with the uniforms in the second week of the season. In Penn State’s game at Virginia, a few letters on some jerseys started to fall off, and Spider explained it was due to improper heat pressing.
Spider said they wanted to rectify the situation, so it was back to the log cabin for the classic blue and white jerseys — and this time, Karen was going to sew on each letter individually. This proved to be a time-consuming task, and it took her 16 minutes just to finish Stephen Obeng-Agyapong’s uniform.
Karen joked that her favorite players for that job were Adrian Amos, Jordan Hill and Mike Hull.
Let’s sew State
So how did Karen get the job of team seamstress? For starters, she could never get away with stealing a jersey.
Spider, who began as a manager with Penn State in the 1980s, said the team used to send uniforms to outside companies for cleaning and repairs. As well as some shoddy work, it wouldn’t be a rarity for some uniforms to never make it back to Happy Valley.
“We’d get them back from them, and they were missing some of the rips, and pants were starting to turn yellow after the third or fourth wash because they were bleaching the heck out of them,” Spider said. “And there was always a chance a few uniforms would go missing.”
Spider decided to ask his wife if she could take care of a few tears on the uniforms, and she was up to the challenge. Karen started by sewing on bowl game patches and making other fixes. She hasn’t looked back since.
There are no weeks off for Karen during the course of the season, as each week there will be a few rips in jerseys or pants that she’ll take care of during the week.
A Penn State graduate herself, Karen noted it’s always special when she gets to sew the quarterback’s jersey since he’s one of the most visible players, but her most memorable sewing experience didn’t come with a certain player’s jersey.
It was a certain coach’s pair of trousers.
In addition to uniforms, Karen handles some of the apparel of Lions’ coaches. And yes, she used to sew the famous cuff on former coach Joe Paterno’s pants.
“When I look at the picture of his pants turned up and see my stitches, it’s like ‘Whoa,’ ” Karen said. “I can’t believe that.”
While Spider is on the sideline during games, Karen sits with a group of coaches’ wives in a suite. Karen is always pulling for the Lions, but regardless of the result, she can take solace in the fact her handiwork is in on every play.
“It’s kind of neat when they run out on the field and think I fixed up their jersey to make it look good,” Karen said. “Even if we lose the game, we look good. That’s what I always tell Brad, ‘It’s OK honey, the jerseys still looked nice.’
“It doesn’t comfort him too much.”
One team, multiple stitches
Karen grew up about 45 miles northwest of State College in Grampian, and her and Spider both attended Curwensville High School.
However, the two didn’t become acquainted until they were at Penn State at the same time, and Karen was working for Spider’s brother.
Karen is a few years older than Spider, which is what she blames for the two never connecting in high school.
“I didn’t pay attention to the younger guys,” she said. But after they were introduced in college, they became close and eventually tied the knot in 1990.
“I always tell him he married me because I have a sewing machine,” Karen said with a laugh. “He thinks there might have been other reasons.”
Karen — a sewing machine in her own right — said she learned to sew in home economics class and was always mending her outfits.
“Since I’m such short stature, it seems since I was a teenager I was doing my own hemming of pants, shortening of skirts, fixing sleeve lengths,” Karen said.
With money she received for her high school graduation, Karen saved up to buy a sewing machine to take to college. It’s the same one she uses today to fix up Penn State’s uniforms.
“It’s kind of a family thing. Penn State has always been about family,” Spider said. “Taking them home and getting them done there, that’s just what we do. I’m really proud of her to do that, and she really does enjoy it.”
Karen does get paid for her work with the team, but her main job is teaching literature at Centre County Christian Academy in Bellefonte.
Spider said there has still not been a decision made about having names on uniforms next season or not, but he said that job could be done by a uniform company, which is fine with Karen.
“I’d be glad to have Nike ship them with the names on [next season],” she joked.
Names or no names, Karen said she wants to continue sewing uniforms for as long as she can.
“But I love doing the repairs. It’s kind of one of those things as an alum and helping my husband, I have a little part with the team,” Karen said. “So it’s neat to feel part of the team. Coach O’Brien is pushing this ‘one team’ thing now, and I’m a little part of that.”