MINNEAPOLIS -- Matt Spaeth's imposing physique looked a little less so, as he walked into a room at Minnesota's football facility with his right arm held in a sling.
His college career is over, but his dedication to -- and impact on -- the Gophers won't soon be forgotten by his coaches or teammates.
Spaeth, a two-time first team All-Big Ten selection who has become a promising pro prospect, recently had surgery to repair a severely separated shoulder and will not recover in time to play for Minnesota in the Insight Bowl against Texas Tech on Dec. 29. Actually, he's not supposed to heal fast enough to fully participate in the NFL scouting combine, which runs from Feb. 21-27.
After getting hurt in the Oct. 21 game against North Dakota State, Spaeth could have chosen surgery immediately to hasten the rehabilitation and avoid the risk of further injury with the potential of a big payday looming.
But that wasn't the way he wanted to finish. Spaeth, one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award that's given to the nation's top tight end, came back in two weeks and contributed in the last three games. All Gophers wins. All needed to qualify for postseason play.
"In doing that, he showed the type of person he is," said center Tony Brinkhaus, who lives with Spaeth. "He showed tremendous character and I think it rubbed off on the rest of the team."
The school's all-time leader in receptions (109) and yards (1,293) by a tight end, passing Ben Utecht who now plays for the Indianapolis Colts, Spaeth is supposed to need four months to fully recover from the surgery and two months before he can start
running. He is, however, aiming for less than that.
"It's the same people that told me I probably won't come back and be able to play, so I think it'll be moved up a little bit," Spaeth said.
The team's medical staff was alarmed when he took his shirt off in the training room the day after the NDSU game. Though it didn't hurt him the night before, Spaeth woke up that Sunday in serious pain and found a shoulder that had turned completely purple.
"Seeing their reaction really scared me," he said. "Usually they're really optimistic about everything, because they want you to stay optimistic."
Spaeth, who is listed at 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, worked his way back ahead of schedule, though, and clearly left an impression on his teammates and friends. Quarterback Bryan Cupito's stated goal is to win the bowl game for his buddy, and he said he understands why Spaeth didn't want to wait any longer to have the procedure.
"He'll be successful, so hopefully he remembers me," Cupito said, playfully hinting his desire to get a little piece of Spaeth's expected signing bonus.
Spaeth will certainly be missed, but it's on defense where Minnesota (6-6) could use the most help against air-it-out Texas Tech. The Red Raiders (7-5) are led by quarterback Graham Harrell, who completed 66.9 percent of his passes for 4,110 yards, 36 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.
"It will be a big challenge for our defense but also a challenge that we welcome because it will help us prepare going into next season," linebacker Mike Sherels said. "It's always good to see different types of teams, especially being a young defense."