COLUMBUS, Ohio – Tyler Moeller has always been a vicious hitter.
Then he took a vicious hit in a Florida bar and his world was flipped upside down.
Now after a troubling year of doubt and questions, he's back practicing at Ohio State, hitting others with the same passion he did before a sucker punch nearly took him out of the game.
"I feel leaps and bounds better," the senior defender said earlier this week after a practice heavy on the pad-cracking. "Those big hits aren't so big anymore. I feel great. I feel back to myself hittingwise."
Just over a year ago, Moeller was with his family on vacation in Florida. At some point he got into a conflict with another customer in the bar/restaurant. The other guy, who later pleaded guilty to felony battery, punched Moeller, who fell back and hit his head on the floor, suffering a fractured skull and a brain injury.
The Cincinnati native was in the hospital for weeks undergoing surgery to relieve pressure on his swollen brain. He had dozens of ugly stitches all over his head, suffered short-term memory loss and, at least for a while, it was as if his personality slipped away.
At least one doctor told him he'd never play football again. Subsequent analysis determined that he was making a good recovery. Perhaps — perhaps — with some time away he might once more return to the field.
So he spent all of the 2009 season watching from the sidelines instead of starting at the star position, sort of a hybrid between linebacker and defensive back.
The low point might have been the team's apex. Devin Barclay's 39-yard field goal in overtime gave the Buckeyes a stirring 27-24 win over Iowa, sending Ohio State to the Rose Bowl and initiating a wild celebration on the field-turned-mosh pit.
Moeller was on the sidelines and couldn't even join in.
"I had to sit down. I got dizzy. It was bad," he said. "I wanted to play and I wanted to cheer on the team and I couldn't do any of that. I was just a new person. I had to just sit and watch us. It was tough situation to be in."
He returned to classes and went through spring drills but was not permitted to hit or be hit while doctors kept an eye on him. But they later cleared him to rejoin the team and fully participate in all drills.
Now Moeller is back to being himself.
"Tyler Moeller loves to play the game," coach Jim Tressel said. "We missed him sorely. If you think back to the spring game of '09, he would have been one of the first guys you thought of when you walked out of the stadium saying, 'Boy, this guy has arrived.' Then we didn't have him, so it's going to be huge to have him back."
Safety Jermale Hines had doubts that Moeller might be able to return, but those doubts have evaporated in the late summer heat.
"Tyler was born ready," he said. "Tyler is the hardest hitter on the team by far. He's ready. Tyler's going to go 1,000 mph and hit people. Everybody knows that."
Even Moeller, dubbed "Rat" by an assistant coach who thought he scampered around creating havoc like a large rodent, has been surprised by how well things have gone so far.
He said the only lingering effect of the head injury is a loose flap of scalp that moves freely when he tugs on it, the result of the surgeries. Moeller laughs when an observer cringes as he moves the untethered skin around.
But he has no headaches, no pain, no memory loss.
"I feel great," he said. "I feel like me again, officially."
His teammates couldn't be happier.
"He's probably one of the most physical guys for his size," linebacker Brian Rolle said of the 6-foot, 210-pounder.
Tressel believes that Moeller serves as a beacon for others.
"He loves the game," Tressel said. "He loves to practice, he's fast. He adds so much. A year ago when he was walking around not playing, that's almost a little bit of a downer, if you know what I mean. Guys were looking and saying 'Oh man.' They knew how much he wanted to play. There wasn't anything uplifting about that.
"Just his presence this year, in my mind, will be uplifting."
On a typical August day of practice, Moeller certainly wasn't standing around watching others hit as he had a year earlier. He was dealing some punishment to opposing ballcarriers who entered his zone. It was just like old times, the times before he took the hit that almost ended his career.
"I feel really good. And I feel really good about this team," he said with a grin, pinching the sweat from the bridge of his nose with two fingers. "I feel good about camp so far — although it'd be nice if it were a little colder."