It was the first time in more than 14 years of serious football that he had not seen the man who hit him. As Jeff Shoemake recalled, almost exactly a year later, the play was a reverse to Notre Dame's Joe Howard. One moment Shoemake was one of the most promising defensive backs in collegiate America; the next he began to experience both the ugliness of football and the inspiration.

When he lay on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, his left leg having snapped, rather like a twig, at the knee, Shoemake had the strangest thought. His mind also was being pummeled, by fear from the pain in him and by fantasy from the athlete in him.

"I knew it was out of place, that my knee was dislocated," he said, "but I was saying to myself: 'Well, that's good. At least I won't have surgery; they can put it right back in place and I can jump up and start playing again.' "

It was six months before he walked without crutches. This week, as Navy prepares for Notre Dame again, Shoemake still cannot bend that left knee more than 90 degrees. His former teammates practiced less than a punt away as he talked about kicking the football habit, but not quite, and how he's grown to admire the school where his Navy career ended.

If nobody is neutral about Notre Dame, Shoemake grew up on the hating side, in Texas watching the Irish humble Earl Campbell and muster all manner of other miracles in the Cotton Bowl.

The night following the afternoon Tony Hunter cut him down, with a perfectly legal block, Shoemake became a devoted Notre Dame fan. How the school cared for him went yards beyond the usual boundaries of sportsmanship.

Hospital care was immediate and professional, as expected. But Notre Dame arranged for Shoemake's father and grandparents to stay overnight, then paid for it. Gerry Faust was obliged to visit; he came each of the three days Shoemake had to stay. As did many of the players, Hunter among them, fetching jockish gifts and pizza at times they could have been throwing and catching party passes.

So the football fraternity came by.

So did the athletic director, Gene Corrigan.

So did the chairman of the athletic council, Father Joyce.

Still slightly groggy one day, from medication and astonishment at so much beyond-the-call-of-duty concern, Shoemake sort of recognized the jolly fellow with the 10-gallon hat, boots and dark glasses who suddenly filled his doorway:

Digger Phelps.

Would George Gipp and Pat O'Brien be next?

Shoemake's memories are vivid and also vague. He quotes a conversation that began with Hunter, sensing something dreadful, looking down and almost pleading: "You okay?"

"You just dislocated my knee."

"Oh, man, I'm so sorry."

"Why? Why did you hit me?"

It took nearly five hours by two exceptional surgeons, one pin and 100 or so stitches to repair the injury. If Navy's policy were the same as most schools it plays, he would have been given a year off to completely mend and had his academic schedule arranged so he could play one more season.

Navy doesn't redshirt; Shoemake will graduate this spring.

That in itself is somewhat surprising, Shoemake having come very close to resigning two years ago. Frustrated with life away from football here, he nearly transferred to Georgia. Sometimes he considers what might have been, sitting out last year, being healthy, playing with Herschel Walker, contending for a national championship.

Georgia made it clear he would have no problem cracking the defensive backfield.

Probably, had Texas Coach Fred Akers not divided the available scholarship between two senior walk-ons whose sacrifices merited it, Shoemake would have split for Austin. Whatever, he and Navy's coach then, George Welsh had a deep talk -- and Shoemake stayed.

Now, even if he doesn't have football at Navy, he loves it.

There's a neat world out there beyond the white lines and film room that once dominated his days. He is more alive in the classroom; his grades have soared; he is fascinated with the antithesis of football: golf.

Saturday, on the sideline for The Citadel game, Shoemake saw himself -- briefly, horribly -- when quarterback Marco Pagnanelli suffered a broken leg.

"I really love the game," he said, "but when you see people you really care about get hurt you start wondering if it's really worth it. For me, it's really hard to see people get hurt now. At first, it wasn't. Now I know what they go through, know that I was in a cast 3 1/2 months, on crutches five months. So when I heard Marco's leg snap I think it was the most horrible sound I ever heard."

Like two helmets cracking together, he said. "Terrible."

Still . . .

Having experienced football at its worst less than a year ago, having seen it again less than a week ago, having adjusted nicely without football, this reasonable, thoughtful, sensitive young man whose adventurous spirit will get him into aviation -- if the knee allows -- turns smack around and says:

"If they'd let me redshirt, I'd definitely have come back next year. It was a freak thing. Shoot, I might . . . after five years in the service, get in shape and suit it up one more time. Like (Chet) Moeller did (with the Giants).

"What the heck, all they can do is tell you to go home."

Some football soldiers never fade away.