Published February 09. 2013 4:00AM
Storrs - Dave Vandal will never forget the first time he put on his UConn basketball uniform.
But his memory of that experience is a bit foggy.
"Once I put on the jersey, I kind of blacked out," Vandal said.
It has been an emotional and physically challenging journey for Vandal, who's gone from the depths of thinking that he would have to give up a sport that he loves to the heights of earning cherished walk-on status for the Huskies.
Vandal, a 2008 Stonington High School graduate, already has a mental scrapbook stuffed with memories. He's traveled to Germany and the Virgin Islands, appeared in his first game and played an important behind-the-scenes roll.
"His contributions are significant," associate head coach Glen Miller said. "He's very helpful in the drill work. He picks up things and knows what we're doing. Guys like that contribute to the development of our team, big time."
That's quite an accomplishment considering Vandal has battled chronic shoulder problems since his Stonington High School days. He's undergone multiple surgeries - three on the left and three on the right shoulder - and countless hours of rehabilitation.
He sat out his senior year at Stonington and attempted to make a comeback at UConn-Avery Point but the week before the season started he suffered another dislocation and endured another surgery.
Yet the determined young man remained remarkably optimistic in the face of adversity and refused to give up hope that he would play again on a full-time basis.
"It's always been the love of my life," Vandal said. "It's been kind of like a disease that I can't get away from. Every time I had shoulder surgery or I was away from the game, I just wanted to get back to it."
Finally, Vandal found an answer to his injury problem in January 2010, undergoing a Latarjet procedure that stabilized his right shoulder. He was cleared to play again.
In 2010, his freshman year at UConn, Vandal fell short of winning a walk-on job but became a practice player. He spent the national championship season helping scholarship players, acting as sort of an on-call workout partner.
"It was unreal," Vandal said. "It was a good year to be here."
After taking most of last season off from basketball to focus on academics, Vandal saw an opportunity to achieve his goal of becoming a walk-on, meaning that he would not only practice with the Huskies but also dress for games.
In October, a couple of weeks before UConn's first exhibition game, Vandal received the good news while eating out in Manchester with team manager Ben Renert and other walk-on candidates.
"I broke down crying at the table," Vandal said. "It had been a goal of mine. I think that working through all those surgeries and everything I went through, it was really just a culmination of all that hard work.
"When I think back on the times when I thought I wouldn't be playing basketball anymore, I just think how lucky I am right now. It's unbelievable that I'm here. I feel so blessed to even have this opportunity."
Given the demands of his Athletic Training major, Vandal has to do a lot of juggling to fulfill his school and basketball commitments. He's required to perform 25 hours of volunteer field work per week during his senior year. He's scheduled to finish his course work in August and plans to become a physician's assistant.
Even with the hectic schedule, Vandal continues to cherish every moment as a walk-on. He thoroughly enjoys playing on the scout team during practice, working with players during pregame warm-ups and rooting on the Huskies from the bench during games.
His teammates appreciate Vandal's contributions. R.J. Evans of Salem has known Vandal, a former AAU teammate, for a long time.
"I knew it was his dream to come here and be part of the basketball team as a walk-on," Evans said. "He's been nothing but terrific as a walk-on. He comes in every day and works hard, pushes us on the sidelines.
"In the games, he's always talking on the bench. He gets just as hyped for games as we do and that's something most walk-ons don't do because they probably know that they're not going to play."
Vandal's ultimate goal is to score a basket this season.
On Dec. 17th, against Maryland-Eastern Shore at the XL Center in Hartford, Vandal made his first and only appearance so far, playing just one minute. He didn't take a shot, grab a rebound or make an assist.
"I've clocked one minute in my career and it's been the best minute of my life," Vandal said.
If he ever wants to relive that momentous occasion, he can watch the game again. His mother recorded Vandal's shining moment.
"When I went home for Christmas break, my mom replayed the minute over again on TV," Vandal said. "I don't really remember any of those things happening. It was totally erased from my memory I was so excited."
Nothing will be able to erase Vandal's memory of his walk-on experience this season. He's enjoying every single minute.