“I think it’s a blessing. He’s a tremendous guy. It’s inspirational. It’s definitely nice to see a guy come out and be able to run around, going through what he did.” – teammate Dexter Larimore
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Possibly the darkest moment of Tyler Moeller’s 22 years came when a doctor told him he’d never play football at Ohio State again.
It came not long after he had been punched in a Florida bar last summer while on vacation with his family. He had a fractured skull and a serious brain injury. At least one specialist said it was the end of his playing days.
“It was definitely a scary moment,” Moeller said Wednesday. “Football is my life. I’ve been playing it so long. It’s hard to imagine my life without it. Being at the peak of your career and having someone tell you you can’t play football again – and everything has worked up to this – is definitely hard.”
Moeller has returned to the game. He hasn’t experienced contact, but the junior from Colerain High School in Cincinnati has participated in spring drills that will end with Saturday’s annual intrasquad scrimmage at Ohio Stadium.
A versatile defender who came to the Buckeyes as a linebacker but is now considered a hybrid defensive back in nickel and special situations, Moeller won’t play in the scrimmage. But he’s happy just to be back around his teammates and to be past those dark moments of doubt.
“Physically? I feel really good,” he said. “I feel like I’m getting back to where I was a year ago, getting all the kinks and the rustiness out. My head feels great. I could do anything now except hit. My progress is going good.”
His presence has been reassuring to his teammates and Ohio State’s coaches.
On the first day of spring workouts, defensive lineman Dexter Larimore got emotional when he was asked about seeing Moeller back on the field.
“I think it’s a blessing,” he said after seeing Moeller, one of his best friends and a roommate. “He’s a tremendous guy. It’s inspirational. It’s definitely nice to see a guy come out and be able to run around, going through what he did.”
Moeller, a state player of the year as a senior at Colerain, redshirted as a freshman and then spent two years as a backup. The 2009 season was supposed to be his moment to shine.
The details will likely come out when Ralph Gray Decker, charged with felony battery, goes on trial in June. He was charged after allegedly striking Moeller on July 26 at Gator’s Cafe & Saloon in Treasure Island, Fla. Moeller was there with his family to celebrate his grandparents’ 50th anniversary.
“The thing that happened to him is something terrible,” Larimore said. “I just don’t think that should be right. I think that guy should go to jail for a long time, or at least have to pay a lot of money or something.”
Moeller, because of the court case, declines to talk about it now, other than to say he has only a hazy memory of the incident.
“I remember parts of it,” he said. “I remember maybe 15 minutes before it happened, something like that.”
Moeller was taken to a Florida hospital but was released a few days later. Back in Ohio, he was at a team function in August when his right side and right arm went numb and he couldn’t speak. Moments later, he regained the feeling in his body and was able to talk. But the episode served as a warning sign.
The next day, he went to the hospital where it was determined he had bleeding on the brain. Doctors had to drill holes in his skull to relieve the pressure, then inserted a titanium plate. He was told to refrain from any physical activity or exercise, eliminating the possibility of playing football.
After that initial prediction that he would never play again, other doctors said he would fully recover. He began conditioning last year and has stepped it up this spring. But, still, no contact. And Moeller always lived for contact on a football field.
He’s already thought about what it will be like to tackle someone again.
“I’m just going to come out the first day I can hit again and just hit someone as hard as I can,” he said. “I’m good to go after that. I’m not going to worry about it again. Because you can’t play football worrying about injuries.”
Ohio State has had to make sure Moeller doesn’t do too much too soon. Coach Jim Tressel remains optimistic that Moeller will be a better player after what he’s been through.
“He’s chomping at the bit to get back out there,” Tressel said Wednesday. “I thought it hurt us quite a bit last year not to have him. So I’m hoping that he can step up and take off.”
The Buckeyes play their annual spring game this Saturday. It was just a year ago that Moeller marked himself as a player to watch.
“He had a whale of a game,” Tressel said. “Everyone was talking about him after the game. Then we didn’t get to talk about him at all in the fall.”
These days, Moeller has an appreciation for what he almost lost. His grades have been better since the incident – over a 3.0 grade-point average each semester – because he’s had more time to study with no football.
Now he just wants things to be like they were.
“It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “I just want to forget everything that happened in the past and play next year and show people what I can do – show people what I could have done a year ago. Just get everything behind me.”