Perhaps the only person not surprised that Tyler Moeller was lost for the season with a torn left pectoral muscle was the senior defensive back himself.
Three plays into Ohio State’s 24-13 victory Saturday at Illinois, the hybrid linebacker/safety went running off the field with his left arm dangling loosely from his body and did not return to action. The eventual diagnosis did not come as a surprise because Moeller has been battling a partially torn muscle for the last 2½ years.
In other words, he was playing with a ticking time bomb in his chest – and he knew it.
“Before the game I was putting on my game pants, and as people see our game pants are pretty tight,” he said Tuesday evening. “I struggled to put them on and I felt a little tweak. I didn’t think anything of it because it tweaks all the time. I thought it was a ticking time bomb and something was going to happen eventually.”
That eventually occurred Saturday afternoon, five games into the season. As soon as it happened, Moeller said he knew the extent of the injury.
“I knew exactly what it was,” he said. “I’ve felt it tear before and this was a bigger tear so I knew it was fully torn. The trainers didn’t even have to tell me what was wrong.
Compounding the situation is the fact that Moeller missed the entire 2009 season after being attacked in a bar during the summer. He subsequently had surgery on his skull to relieve pressure on his brain.
Not only did that injury put his life in jeopardy, but it also prevented him from being able to rehab the partially torn muscle.
“During the time he was rehabbing with his head injury, he could not work on anything that would raise his heartbeat and all that,” head coach Jim Tressel said. “So in essence, he probably spent seven or eight months doing nothing, which did not allow him to rehab.”
The 6-0, 210-pound Moeller said he has not bench pressed a pound since initially suffering the injury during the summer before the 2008 season. Not wanting to sit out, he wore a protective strap designed to minimize the pain.
In all, the senior said he has partially torn the muscle nearly a dozen times.
“I don’t think anyone ever knew that,” he said. “I’ve been using my right arm to hit and get off blocks. It’s a rule you can’t do surgery because it was only a partial tear.”
Because he redshirted as a freshman in 2006, Moeller’s 2009 campaign was a lost year he was hoping to recover by way of petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. That process could not begin until the season ended, however, meaning Moeller was going through this year with the attitude of a senior.
Now as a result of the latest injury, Tressel said they can begin that process immediately.
“Now, will it happen fast? I don't know,” the coach said. “Normally if a guy's in a rehab situation and there's more games left and, who knows, he might get back, but in this particular case, it's well-documented he cannot play the rest of the year.”
The senior said he is not sure if he has played his final down as a Buckeye.
“I’m not very confident,” he said of the petition. “I’m hoping there will be a next year. I don’t know how you can look at everything that’s happened to me and not give me another year but you never know what will happen.”
Despite missing nearly the entire Illinois game, Moeller sits fourth on the team with 20 tackles. His 4.5 tackles for a loss lead the team and he is one of seven Buckeyes with at least one interception this season. He was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week after recording seven tackles including a sack in a season-opening victory against Marshall.
“It’s really sad,” senior defensive tackle Dexter Larimore said. “It’s something that you really cringe to see because of what has happened to him last year. To watch him recover and do all the right things and come back and really get after it in the weight room, get after it in the film room, just doing all the right things and then all of a sudden one play goes wrong and he’s out for another year. It’s sad, especially as a competitor and a friend of his.”
He was replaced by freshman Christian Bryant. From the sidelines, Moeller said his primary goal now is to make sure his replacement is ready to hold up his end of the bargain.
“Now I help Christian out,’ he said. “I can lift with my legs. I’m still trying to get back to where I was before last year. I’ll take this as a blessing. I have to get my chest. If I try to go to the next level and they look at my chest and I can’t bench, who will take me? I need to get my chest back and get my legs under me and get me stronger and hopefully get another year and be back here better than ever.”
Moeller’s surgery is set for Wednesday at 11 a.m.
“I’m bummed out but I’m not looking at it as being bummed out,” he said. “I’m taking advantage of the situation and keeping my head up. You can’t look at life like that with all the negative things about you or they’ll keep happening.”
Asked why he keeps playing the sport, Moeller had a simple answer.
“Because I love it,” he said. “I love the game of football. It’s funny because people e-mail me and message me and tell me I’m an inspiration. There was a 10-year-old kid who the same head injury that happened to me last year and his dad e-mailed me and said how he looked up to me. I said, ‘I look up to you. You’re 10 years old. You have a lot of life to look forward to and this happened.’
“A lot of people have gone through worse. I’ll bounce back next year, recover and get better. You have to look at the bright side and get through it.”