"See you next season," the man said to tailback D.J. Shoemate.
Obviously, the gentleman had not heard the news from earlier in the week. And Shoemate understood. He just smiled and told the man that wouldn't be the case. There won't be a "next season" for D.J. Shoemate.
The talented running back who transferred from the University of Southern California to UConn in 2010 announced before the spring game that his career was over because of a shoulder injury suffered early in the 2011 season. So, while his teammates signed autographs on the grassy turf of Rentschler Field, Shoemate was receiving hugs and well wishes from fans and relatives of other UConn players.
They told him they would miss him.
They congratulated him on his impending graduation.
They said goodbye.
"It was very tough [not playing Saturday]," Shoemate said. "Unfortunately, I've been on the sideline for a whole season. It's kind of become natural – for some strange reason. I've gotten used to it. It was really tough though. I wanted to go out there and play one more time with the pads."
But Shoemate didn't wear any pads on Saturday. Just that white No. 24 jersey. One year earlier, during the 2011 spring sessions, No. 24 had been tearing it up, picking up yards, and looking like UConn's starting tailback. That's what everyone expected last fall. It was supposed to be his time.
Things just never went his way. The Corona, Calif., native was an All-American at Servite High School. He went to USC to be part of the great tailback tradition there, but got limited time at fullback and receiver. When the Trojans were hit with NCAA sanctions – including a bowl ban - and Lane Kiffin became coach, Shoemate decided to join his high school teammate, quarterback Johnny McEntee, and start over at UConn.
Shoemate's arrival was big news. He was a transfer from a big-time program joining the Huskies. Former UConn coach Randy Edsall welcomed Shoemate and it seemed Edsall had big plans for him. Then came the goal-line fumble in the season opener at Michigan. Edsall seemed to punish Shoemate the remainder of the season.
With a chance to start over under Paul Pasqualoni, Shoemate suffered an ankle injury and then the shoulder injury. Freshman Lyle McCombs became the workhorse of the UConn backfield last season and Shoemate had eight carries for 28 yards. The thought heading into this spring was that Shoemate could provide more depth at tailback, backing up McCombs and finally getting the chance to live his dream. But arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder, injured last season against Iowa State, meant the end of his football career. The medical opinion was that if he played again, he could suffer later in life.
"Football is a crazy sport," Shoemate said. "It's so different from other sports. You can't put on shoulder pads, a helmet, and cleats and play 11-on-11 at a park. In basketball you can play 5-on-5 in a gym or anywhere. It can be taken away so quickly. You don't always know [when it's your last time]. That's why you have to give it your all.
"Going through this experience, I just want to tell my [teammates] you never know when this is going to go away. When that gift of playing ball and your abilities go, at the end of the day, how are you going to be remembered? How are you going to remember your experiences? Are you going to have guilt or are you going to embrace the moments you soaked in? It all revolves around that."
Through it all, Shoemate maintained a positive attitude. He was one of the most popular players on the UConn roster. That was obvious after the game Saturday, when so many wished him well.
Perhaps Shoemate never had the yards or the touchdowns he imagined, but his attitude impacted UConn football.
"I'm here to serve," he said. "As people we have to come and serve together. We can't make it without one another. We have to encourage. We have to embrace one another. This world we live in, you just can't do it alone. It's like a team on the field. It's teamwork in life."
Shomeate will complete his degree work in sociology this summer but he plans to participate in graduation ceremonies in May. He said he would like to work in sports media, perhaps at ESPN, or find a front office work in the NFL. If none of that pans out, he may return to sunny California and pursue a Master's degree at USC.
"It's possible I'll go back to SC," he said. "That was my dream school. I love both places. But SC was my dream school."
And when it's all said and done, everyone at UConn hopes Shoemate can finally live his dream – wherever he might be and whatever he might be doing.