UConn Football Player Learns Business the Hard WayDecember 28, 2012
He’s a 6-foot, 220-pound man, all muscle, bald, aggressive and intimidating with one goal in life: the NFL. But his muscular body kept giving out, and with no control over it, his career just stopped, forcing him to rethink his life’s desire when he realized that his playing career was over.
This is what happened to University of Connecticut senior running back D.J. Shoemate, a man who had established his identity at Servite High school, an all boys’ Catholic high school in Orange County Calif. because he fit into the school through sports.
“Everyone knew I was going to be a football guy,” Shoemate said about committing to University of Southern California on April 23, 2006.
His sophomore year in high school, 2005, Shoemate rushed for 604 years, had 13 touchdowns, caught 46 passes for 930 yards with 8 touchdowns and got 4 scores on blocked punts.
“He was confident as ever,” said high school friend and UConn quarterback, Johnny McEntee. “That’s what made him so good in high school. If you play nervous -- like I do -- you are going to make way too many mistakes.”
During spring football following Shoemate’s stellar sophomore year when he was named Cal-Hi Sports All-State Sophomore of the Year, he broke his foot and was out for every game but the first of his junior year. That game was too soon for Shoemate to return to the field and a screw in his foot bent and his injury got worse.
“So [after] months and months of rehab and recovering from surgery I came back and ended up re-breaking my foot,” Shoemate recalled. “I had to sit out my entire junior year,” a circumstance that dropped him from among the top 10 recruits in the nation to 98th because he didn’t play.
The whole experience affected his attitude for a while.
“I began to get bitter and see how the world really works,” Shoemate said. “When you’re playing ball and everything is going well, everyone will stay around but when you get hurt everyone will store you aside.” He felt his purpose in life – to play football – was eroded.
But he didn’t give up. He used his potential as motivation to help him excel.
“He always had a natural talent but he also worked hard in the weight room and out at practice,” McEntee said. “When he broke his foot he never sulked and complained, just worked that much harder to be the best.”
When he was ready to play in his final year in high school, Shoemate said “I remember the first game I wanted to prove to everyone that what you see is the real deal so I went on to carry the torch where I left off my sophomore year,” he said. “I was very excited and nervous. This was my one opportunity.”
But the foot injury taught him a hard lesson about life in football.
Shoemate came to the realization that because of his injuries at any moment the season could end. He wanted to have fun his senior year and make sure everyone one around him had fun as well. His bald shining head and goatee facial hair may make Shoemate resemble a tough macho man but he’s caring and always kept his teammates in mind on the field.
His senior year, he proved that he was ready for the next level. he ran for 1,291 yards on 241 carries with 24 TDs, caught 40 passes for 570 yards with 4 TDs, threw a TD pass and had 5.5 sacks.
His performance was enough to bolster is recruiting stock and in 2008, Shoemate began his freshman year at USC, first as a reserve wide receiver then halfway through the season, he was turned into a full back.
Shoemate was humbled to be a part of USC’s top 10 national program.
“Everyone at the school was an All-American,” Shoemate said. “Every one was the best of the best. The difference between you and another person was heart. It was new and exciting. It was my dream school, I always wanted to go there. It was the best moments of my life.”
But Shoemate didn’t get a lot of playing time as a receiver because of the six or seven guys ahead on the depth chart who played that same position. Shoemate was behind all of them. Head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkaskian wanted Shoemate to change his position from a receiver to full back, which Shoemate said was, “[a] not so glamorous position.”
So after his dreams came true at USC, after recovering from two broken feet, he had to play a position that he felt wasn’t his best.
But still his attitude was healthy.
“I’m a freshman, I’m just trying to get on the field ASAP. This is the opportunity to get on the field faster with one guy in front of me [on the depth chart], so I agreed [to play fullback].”
Shoemate played in nine games his freshman year, first as a wide-receiver then as fullback, primarily on special teams, halfway through the season. He made one tackle but didn’t score until his sophomore year.
The only game he started was the Rose Bowl against Penn State because the full back in front of him was ineligible because of grades and for that, he only had a week’s notice. “The message I learned was always to stay ready and always work hard,” Shoemate said.
The next season, the same full back got injured and Shoemate played several games for him in addition to playing on special teams. Special teams served as a relief for him because he felt that in the full back position he couldn’t surpass the injured starter.
For two years he couldn’t live up to his own expectations, so in 2010, Shoemate decided to transfer to the University of Connecticut. Shoemate looked at schools that had good running games because he wanted to be a running back. He didn’t have to sit out the normal year that Division I athletes are required to do because USC was on probation which led to a waiver for the restriction.
He decided on UConn at McEntee’s suggestion.
“I didn’t know too much about UConn,” Shoemate said. “I didn’t even know where it was. “I took the visit in early July. I liked the way they ran the ball,” Shoemate said. “But I felt like I had a lot to offer to the school. So I moved all the way from California, 3000 miles away, to a place I’d never been before, never heard of until weeks prior.”
““I knew he wasn’t completely happy [at USC] so just sort of hinted that he could look here,” McEntee said. ‘He took a trip here and decided for himself that it was a fit.” But McEntee said when he first came East, as a walk on quarterback, he had feelings of isolation.
“When I first came to Connecticut it was very hard and I cried every night for two weeks. But seriously. It didn’t help that it was in summer and was a complete ghost town. Once school started I was happy I stuck it out.”
Shoemate felt UConn was new and exciting. But since he had never left home he got homesick.
“I thought this was what I wanted to do. This would be great, everything would take care of itself,” Shoemate said. But he found himself comparing everything to USC: the nice weather, the scenery, “everything, you name it.”
Head coach Randy Edsall, who was still at UConn at the time, played Shoemate at running back, a move that made Shoemate feel like he could really help a team that he had in high school.
Michigan was the first game of Shoemate’s career at UConn – that in September 2010.
There was a lot of hype going into this game on Michgan’s turf but Shoemate was used to playing in big games while at USC, so this didn’t scare him.
“The weeks leading up to the game, I was excited but I tried not think a lot about it. It was my game.” Shoemate said.
The game started out slowly and in the second quarter Shoemate fumbled the ball in the red zone when UConn had an opportunity to score. He was quickly taken out of the game.
“Ever since that moment coach E put me in the dog house,” Shoemate said. “[He] never let me show what I could do. [He] definitely made that known that he didn’t want me on the field,” at least as a running back.
So, Shoemate went through the season playing on special teams making the best of it. He volunteered to work with every special team instead of complaining that he couldn’t be the running back.
After Edsall left UConn for Maryland, Shoemate felt it he had an opportunity to start fresh and show the new coach, Paul Pasqualoni, what he had to offer.
“We both used it as a clean slate and Pasqualoni gave everybody a chance to compete,” McEntee said. “It was different but it gave me and DJ a big opportunity.”
As it turned out, he was correct.
“I was named the starting running back for the very first time in my college career, said Shoemate. “This was my team -- everything I worked for was coming to light -- all the patience paid off.”
After a great spring ball to kick off his senior year, Shoemate had to miss the first game of the because he sprained his ankle during summer practice.
Finally, in the Iowa State (September 2011) game he was named the starting tailback. Everything he had hoped for was coming true. But once again an injury derailed him when he tore a cartilage in his shoulder.
“Even through all those injuries, I wanted to remain positive. God has a plan for me; I never gave up hope,” Shoemate said. “Whenever you put the pads on your know something could happen.”
The immediate plan was that Shoemate had to miss the entire 2011 season and so he decided to have surgery. He started rehab and everything was on schedule to be back for spring 2012. During that time, Shoemate was getting in condition. He was right on track.
“I was getting used to getting physical and trying not to think about my shoulder,” Shoemate said. Spring 2012 football practices began and Shoemate was excited to show his improvement.
But his good fortune was to end abruptly early during spring practice when during a play “I felt like my shoulder tore again,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure it was OK and didn’t want to force myself [to continue] after going through six months of surgery but I felt like it was pretty bad.” He got a CAT scan, which indicated for a third time, that he torn the cartilage in his shoulder.
Even though the first scan was inconclusive and he had to get a second one, the doctor advised him to start looking for other career options.
“It was hard to hear but the entire time leading up to the final meeting, I was coming to the realization that I can’t do football,” Shoemate said.
This was a traumatic point in his life since he said football “made me who I am.”
“It’s the love of my life,” Shoemate said. “Without football there’s so many things I couldn’t have done, so many people I met.”
Though he’s no longer playing, Shoemate is keeping in shape by eating well and working out every day. And he will graduate this semester with a degree in sociology.
“God is just telling me to stay ready, to keep my body in shape,” Shoemate said. “I’m very realistic. I’m
This past summer, Shoemate got the opportunity to work with and shadow the Seattle Seahawk running back coach, Sherman Smith. If he can’t be a running back, he eventually wants to be a coach.
“I got to see different sides within [the NFL],” Shoemate said.
“I got to see the administration side, pro scouting side. I got to meet the general manager, sit in on team meetings and running back position meetings and I was with the running back coach the whole time,” he said.
“So, this solidified this is what I want to do, I can’t get rid of football,” Shoemate said. “Football is not who you are, it’s what you do. You build character from it but overall it could be over in a second. It’s humbling. It brings you back down to reality.”
McEntee is sure his California friend will succeed.
“We are still close,” McEntee said. “But he is a workaholic now so I never see him but that work ethic will make him successful in anything he pursues.”
Molly Ross is a journalism student at the University of Connecticut. She wrote this story for her fall 2012 sports writing course.
Thumbnail photo is Courtesy of SCPlayBook.com