Austin Owens / The Lantern
Tyler Moeller is no stranger to bad luck. Perhaps that’s how he knew more of it was coming when he suited up to play Illinois on Saturday.
While the senior defensive back was pulling up his uniform pants, he could feel a tweak on the left side of his chest that had bothered him since partially tearing his left pectoral muscle in 2008. By his own count, he’s partially torn the muscle 10 to 12 times during the last two-and-a-half years.
Those injuries never fully healed, and Moeller could sense that it was only a matter of time before it would cost him.
“I kind of thought it was a ticking time bomb,” Moeller said. “Something big was going to happen eventually.”
Sure enough, something did happen.
During Illinois’ opening drive, Moeller tried to wrap up Illini running back Mikel Leshoure. Moeller’s left arm was pulled back violently as the hard-charging Leshoure burst through his arm tackle. Before hitting the turf, he could feel the muscle rip from the bone.
As he got up and rushed toward the sidelines, Moeller knew his fate.
“I knew it was totally torn when it happened,” Moeller said. “I ran off the field, and the trainers didn’t even have to tell me what was wrong. I knew what was wrong.”
Moeller had completely torn his left pectoral muscle, finishing his season and possibly his career at Ohio State. The NCAA must grant him a medical redshirt and a sixth year of eligibility for him to return.
But none of that news could dim the radiant smile Moeller wore on his face as he addressed the media on the eve of his surgery Tuesday night, accepting his latest misfortune.
“Bad things happen,” Moeller said. “You have to keep your head up and you have to work hard. Then you can overcome everything.”
Moeller, who missed all of last season with head injuries he sustained during an attack in Florida, will have to overcome another setback.
“It’s really sad for a guy to be able to put so much work into something and have it taken away twice in a row,” defensive tackle Dexter Larimore said. “It is kind of tough for everybody on the team, especially since he was a great player for us and did some great things.”
The injury comes just as his career was finally taking off.
Before Moeller came to OSU in 2006, he was a relentless pass rusher at Colerain High School in Cincinnati. He spent his Friday nights wreaking havoc in the offensive backfield, recording 15.5 sacks and 29 tackles for loss as a senior.
But questions regarding his 6-foot-1-inch, 210-pound stature clouded the outlook of his future. Seen as too big to play safety but too small to play linebacker, Moeller developed into a solid defender on special teams during the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
“I wanted to be a linebacker,” Moeller said. “I always had the mentality. I wish I had the mentality to play safety because linebacker kind of beat me up.”
During the summer of 2008, Moeller partially tore his left pectoral muscle for the first time. Unable to fix the injury with surgery and too focused on the season to bother with rehab, Moeller essentially played 2008 with only one functioning arm.
“I was younger then, so I wasn’t as intelligent as I am now,” Moeller said. “If I could do it again, I would definitely rehab it a lot more.”
He made his first career start at linebacker, strangely enough, against Illinois in 2008. He recorded seven tackles, including two for a loss and forced a fumble.
Before the 2009 season, Moeller was expected to win a starting linebacker job, even though doubts about his chest problems and size still lingered.
But those issues would prove to be the least of his troubles.
On July 26, 2009, Moeller was with his family in Florida to celebrate his grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. He doesn’t remember much else from that night.
While eating at Gators Cafe and Saloon in Treasure Island, Moeller was punched in the face by Ralph Gray Decker, 28, of Kenneth City, Fla., in what was described as an “unprovoked” attack by an assistant state attorney.
The back of Moeller’s head smacked against the ground as he fell, leaving him to spend the coming days fighting for his life in a Florida intensive care unit.
Details of the altercation with Decker remain murky because of legal issues, but on June 3, Decker pleaded guilty to assaulting Moeller and in August was sentenced to two years of probation. He’s paid the Moeller family more than $11,000 in medical expenses.
After the attack, Moeller had severe memory loss and trouble speaking. Doctors learned there was bleeding in his brain and had to drill two dime-sized holes into his skull, which now has a metal plate.
Moeller said the surgery had him worried for his life, even if only for a little bit.
“I was worried in the beginning, going into surgery,” Moeller said. “But after surgery I knew I was fine and was going to be OK.”
Even though some doctors suggested he should’ve ended his football career, Moeller’s passion for the game wouldn’t let him stop.
“Why would I want to keep playing? Because I love it,” Moeller said. “I love the game of football.”
He spent the next few months preparing for his return to the football field. Unable to train for more than seven months, he spent most of his time away from the football team, focusing on his school work.
He couldn’t participate in any contact drills until summer practice, but by the time the season started, coach Jim Tressel had a spot for him that would maximize the speed and physicality of the undersized Moeller.
Inserted at the “star” position, which is a hybrid between a linebacker and a defensive back, Moeller’s tenacity resurfaced immediately during the season-opener against Marshall as he registered seven tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. It was good enough to earn him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.
Moeller would spend the next three games harassing the offensive backfield unlike any time since high school, recording 12 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss during that span.
But his comeback would be cut short after his season-ending injury against Illinois. And even though the injury isn’t comparable to the one he suffered at the hands of Decker, the two injuries are related.
Because of the brain surgery, Moeller was unable to exert himself physically enough to treat the lingering pectoral damage he suffered in 2008, leaving him vulnerable to more damage. He hasn’t bench pressed in two years.
The Moeller family has forgiven Decker for his crime. Tyler, who no longer suffers from short-term memory loss, said he’s moved on from the attack.
“I don’t really think about it anymore,” Moeller said. “If he’s sorry or not, I don’t really care. I wish him all the best. I hope he controls his inner demons.”
The Buckeyes’ loss of Moeller can’t be understated. As one of the most effective pass rushers and leaders on the team, Tressel knows he won’t be easy to replace.
“You just feel sick for him because you saw the pain he was in last year not being able to help his teammates and now he was, and now he was having fun,” Tressel said. “So, yeah, it’s very disappointing and obviously it hurts us.”
Moeller won’t be able to train for the next three months but he expects to be much more involved with the team this year and help freshman Christian Bryant take over his role at the “star” position.
Regardless of whether his career as a Buckeye is over, the ever-resilient Moeller expects to play football again at an even greater level.
“I know I can play at that caliber level, and if I can get a medical redshirt, I’ll be better than ever,” Moeller said. “I’ll have a chest to work with and my legs will be stronger.”
As unlucky as Moeller has been for the last two years, he refuses to let bitterness consume him. Moeller thrives on confidence, even while on the road to recovery.
It’s a road he knows very well.