Ohio State linebacker Tyler Moeller is back after missing last season recovering from injuries suffered from an assault in Florida during the offseason.
Terry Gilliam / AP
COLUMBUS - A tuft of hair covers what was a year ago a couple of nasty gaps in Tyler Moeller's cranium, cinched together by rows of harsh, metal staples.
Today, some of Moeller's scars are hidden, some are not.
At this time in 2009, the Ohio State Buckeyes were excited about Moeller assuming a starting role at linebacker, historically a position steeped in history and manned by some of the all-time Scarlet and Gray greats.
Moeller had packed his resume with an assortment of explosive hits on special teams and as a backup to earn the job, and would replace departed All-Big Ten performer Marcus Freeman. Moeller was certain to be an impact player on another great Ohio State defense.
But just prior to the start of
preseason camp, while on a family vacation in Florida celebrating his grandparents' 50th anniversary, Moeller was assaulted in a restaurant and sports bar. According to multiple witness accounts, a Tampa area man, Ralph Gray
Decker, heard that Moeller was an Ohio State football player and began trying to provoke Moeller into a fight.
When Moeller ignored Decker's taunts, Decker reportedly struck Moeller in the back of the head, while Moeller had his back turned. Knocked unconscious, Moeller fell, striking his head on the bar floor.
He spent several days in the intensive care unit of a Florida hospital, and upon returning to Columbus, suffered a seizure and stroke-like symptoms. Moeller underwent surgery at OSU's University Hospital to relieve the bleeding and pressure on his brain brought on by the injury and subsequent swelling.
"At that point, I didn't know what the future held, and I'm not sure I thought about it that much," Moeller said recently as the Buckeyes gathered inside Ohio Stadium to meet with the media. "I remember I wasn't all there. I don't think I had much of a personality."
At that point Ohio State coach Jim Tressel gave a grim assessment of Moeller's future. "There was a moment where I was nervous about he may not play again ... and he loves this game," Tressel said.
Moeller had received a pretty bleak prognosis from his doctors, telling him he likely was done with football forever. That was another serious blow to the former Ohio high school Division I defensive player of the year from Cincinnati Colerain.
"That was tough - yeah, tough - because I had really been looking forward to camp and the season," Moeller said. "I was always hopeful, thinking there had to be some way I could come back and play, but it was still depressing to deal with. I was away from a lot of things that were familiar."
The Buckeyes pressed on without him, winning a fifth straight Big Ten championship and then the Rose Bowl, while Moeller made slow, incremental progress with his recovery. The season was difficult, with frequent dizzy spells and headaches.
But Moeller was eventually cleared to lift weights, then run, and he slowly worked his body into shape for spring football. He was cleared to take part in the spring workouts, but held out of any contact.
"It wasn't everything, but I was feeling better, and it was a big step to get to play in the spring," Moeller said. "I felt like I had made a lot of progress just to get to that point."
Moeller continued to improve through the summer, and was practicing without limitation when the Buckeyes opened pre-season camp a couple of weeks ago - just more than a year removed from the incident that put his career and his life in peril.
Tressel and the Ohio State coaches have Moeller playing the "star" or nickel defensive back position - a linebacker/safety hybrid that seems ideally suited for the 6-1, 210-pound Moeller.
"Tyler's a talented guy who can play both the linebacker and safety positions, so he seems perfect at the nickel," Ohio State senior linebacker Brian Rolle said following an Ohio State practice this past week. "It's great to see him back out there with us, just running around and hitting people like he used to do. We're a better defense with him on the field."
The Buckeyes employ their nickel defense - which puts an extra defensive back on the field in likely passing situations - close to 70 percent of the time, so Moeller expects to play plenty this year.
"I feel real lucky, blessed really, to be out here playing football again," he said. "It didn't look good for quite a while there, but you have to believe everything happens for a reason. Now I'm just trying to get ready for the season, working hard like everyone else."
At about the same time Moeller was starting camp with the Buckeyes, his assailant Decker was facing justice in a Florida courtroom. Decker initially gave an account of the incident that contradicted those offered by dozens of witnesses, but he recently pleaded guilty to felony battery.
He could have been sentenced to five years in prison, and the judge handling the case said a stiff prison sentence was her initial preference, but with the consent of the Moeller family, Decker was given probation after paying about $12,000 in restitution for Moeller's medical bills.
With that chapter closed, Moeller looks toward the Sept. 2 opener with Marshall as his next landmark event. It will be his first game since the Fiesta Bowl loss to Texas that closed the 2008 season. Moeller is a senior in his fifth year at Ohio State, but because of the attack and the lost season that came as a result, he could receive an additional year of eligibility from the NCAA and return in 2011.
"It's been a roller-coaster ride. I've had my ups and my downs, and this whole thing has definitely changed me, but I'm so thankful and blessed to be here doing what I love to do," Moeller said.
"I'm just going out there and playing like I used to play."
For the Buckeyes, that's something that a year ago seemed virtually impossible.
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