Just thinking about the moment forces Jacob Tamme to start and stop his story several times.
“I’m really sorry,” the former Kentucky tight end says as he chokes back tears in between self-conscious laughs, “it was just such a personal moment to me.”
It’s been a decade, but the sting is still as fresh for Tamme as it was on his Senior Night.
So many of his dreams had come true while wearing his Kentucky football jersey, but when the Danville native peeled off his blue and white No. 18 for the final time, it was accompanied by a terrible, empty feeling.
In Tamme’s four years, UK hadn’t beaten Tennessee. This final loss, 52-50 in four overtimes, left a profound gash.
“We did turn the program around and beat the No. 1 team in the country and all that,” Tamme said of his senior class, “but one of my big things was I really, really, really wanted to beat Tennessee and end that streak.”
When he left the empty locker room for the last time as a Kentucky player, he could have turned left to meet up with his family, but he veered right instead.
“I really wanted to just go out there one more time,” he explained, and paused again. “I got out there on the field and just bent down to touch the grass, just stood there and looked out on the field and just started sobbing way worse than I am now.”
Tamme thought he was alone in that moment.
He was not.
As more than 40 years of Kentucky football players can attest, one person always seems to be there: Tom Kalinowski.
Kalinowski, who will begin his 40th season as the full-time football equipment manager when the season kicks off on Sept. 2 at Southern Miss, has worked for eight coaches and overseen hundreds of student managers.
He’s been around for every win, every loss since arriving as a student from Connecticut in 1974.
He’s been a part of big moments and small moments like the one at Commonwealth Stadium that night.
“As I turned around, there was TK and he just hugged me and I just sobbed onto his shoulder for a minute, probably,” Tamme said.
The tight end can still hear the words Kalinowski whispered to him over and over again as they embraced on the field: “It’ll be OK, brother.”
In appreciation of that moment and hundreds of others, Tamme was one of a group of former players, staff members and some current UK coaches who pitched in recently to surprise Kalinowski with a new Ford Escape.
This man who has handled nearly every piece of equipment for every player who has worn a UK jersey since the 1970s can’t always remember the final score of the almost 500 games he’s witnessed.
His mind and heart are filled with more important gear.
“It’s the little things that make it all worthwhile,” he said of his job that includes 80-hour work weeks many months of the year. “That’s the biggest thing. … It’s a hug; a hug from a coach; a hug from a player.”
Tamme paints the picture of an equipment-distributing teddy bear.
But like 40 years of players and managers at Kentucky can attest, he also knows that Kalinowski is a grizzly bear, too.
Ask any guy who played before the locker room was flooded with Nike gear, and he will remember Kalinowski as a stingy man who hoarded socks and other gear.
“He was tighter than bark on a tree, buddy,” recalled Bill Ransdell, who played at UK from 1983 through 1986.
The quarterback recalled that each UK player got a pair of sweats, a top and bottom and two pair of shoes (cleats and turf). The players coveted a sweat suit they could wear to class comfortably.
They would sometimes sneak into the equipment room and grab extra clothing.
But they weren’t the only ones adept at sneaking.
“Tom raided the dorm while we were at practice,” Ransdell laughed. “He went through and got all the gear back. If you hadn’t worn it that day, you were out of luck.”
Kalinowski offers up his defense: “You’ve got to show them who’s boss sometimes. I’m not going to let them run over me.”
But he does feel remorse for some of his antics.
“That’s how it was back then: You didn’t let a pair of socks or a T-shirt go out,” he continued. “Times have changed. Everything’s changed. I was tough. Looking back I hate that I did that to the players, especially now.”
Still, even when gear became more plentiful, Kalinowski had a way of “managing it,” Tamme said.
You arrive on campus as a freshman and think you will be outfitted in swooshed gear from head to toe, but Kalinowski has other plans.
“You meet TK and you realize this guy’s not joking around,” Tamme said. “You’ve got to earn this gear.”
Tamme cracked up as he explained how much of a stickler Kalinowski was.
“If you went in there for a pair of gloves and you hadn’t done anything yet that he thought was any good (in practice), he’d give you the worst pair of gloves he could find,” Tamme laughed. “I’m probably exaggerating a little bit.”
Kalinowski, 60, has softened a bit with age, assistant equipment manager Allen “Tink” Belcher said.
“The older he gets, the more he realizes there are other things to fight about or gripe about with kids than them needing a pair of socks,” said Belcher, who started as a student assistant and has worked for Kalinowski since 2005. “The more years go by, the less stingy he gets.”
‘This isn’t a job for everybody’
It’s hard to blame Kalinowski for being a bit of a bear. As the equipment manager, he often works long hours with few days off. Neither Kalinowski nor Belcher was able to take a vacation this year because of the move to the new practice facility.
Kalinowski and members of his crew often work seven days a week, coming in with the first weight lifting group around 5:30 a.m. and not leaving until after the sun has set.
“This isn’t a job for everybody,” Belcher said.
On game days at home, Kalinowski and his staff are there five hours before the game and usually clock out five hours after it ends.
“When the game’s over, I’ve got guys in the locker room collecting their jerseys, their pants, their laundry, guys cleaning up the field, cleaning up the room over at the stadium, getting the trunks in,” Kalinowski explained of game day. “Then we come in and start collecting game helmets, game shoes, game gloves. Guys are washing gear.”
Preparation for road games means constant packing and shifting.
With the help of a student staff, they keep track of every item a player wears or needs. The coaches have their own section of clothing and gear in the new digital equipment room.
What Kalinowski does and how he does it isn’t lost on the Cats’ head coach.
“He’s in a tough position because it’s very hard to keep these players happy and coaches and all that,” Coach Mark Stoops said.
“You want to talk about a guy who’s getting pulled at all the time? It’s him. Everybody wants something from him all the time. It takes a special person to be able to balance that.”
It’s also taken a special kind of person to be able to make it through eight different head coaches, all with different demands and needs.
Many new coaches want to bring in their own people, but Kalinowski has managed to win over every single one from Fran Curci to Stoops.
“My deal every time is, ‘Look, I am your guy. Just give me a chance. You’ll find out I’m your guy,’” said Kalinowski, who is just seven years shy of matching the tenure of another well-known and beloved UK equipment manager, Bill Keightley.
Ask him his favorite coach and Kalinowski is pure politician.
“The one I’m working for right now,” he said, smiling. “It’s always the guy I’m working for right now. But you know, each coach has been fantastic. Every coach.
“From Fran who gave me this job, Coach Claiborne, I’ve enjoyed working for him. Every coach. It’s a challenge because I have to prove myself. Needless to say, I don’t have a résumé. One job. I’ve got to prove myself to every coach.”
Kalinowski wins over coaches the way he wins over players: by being himself. “He’s Mr. Kentucky,” said Ransdell, the former quarterback. “Tom was all about whatever he could do to help the program.
“From getting guys what they need equipment-wise to just being there. He was a guy you could always talk to. He’s always been that first and foremost. That speaks to the character of the person he is. He’s awesome.”