LARGO — Ralph Gray Decker pleaded guilty to punching Ohio State University football player Tyler Moeller at Gator's Cafe and Saloon last summer, which caused the Buckeye linebacker to undergo brain surgery and miss the football season.
Decker, 28, of Kenneth City, will soon face a judge who could sentence him to up to five years in prison.
But on Wednesday, dressed in a dark business suit, he faced someone else: Moeller's mother. Decker hugged her in a hallway outside the courtroom, and apologized.
Amy Moeller said afterward she believes Decker is sorry for what he did in the bar that July night, and added, "We're very happy that Mr. Decker has chosen to do the right thing."
Her son is still recuperating from the attack, hoping he will get to achieve his dream of playing one final season for the Buckeyes this fall, she said. She did not say what she thinks would be an appropriate sentence, but said her son's ordeal is "something no one should ever have to experience."
Decker pleaded guilty without a plea bargain and will be sentenced on Aug. 23. His attorney, Sean McQuaid, said Decker would be working till then to pay $11,000 in Moeller's medical bills.
In July, when Decker threw the punch, was supposed to be a time of celebration for the Moellers. Family members had arrived in the Tampa Bay area for a wedding anniversary.
During the visit, Tyler Moeller went to Gator's in Treasure Island. After midnight on July 26, a Treasure Island police officer heard "a lot of people yelling and screaming that Tyler Moeller was punched." People in the crowd pointed to Decker, who claimed he had been attacked.
However, Assistant State Attorney Evan Brodsky said Wednesday that Decker "struck the victim Tyler Moeller unprovoked, striking him in the face with his fist, knocking him unconscious, causing the victim to fall on the back of his head."
Brodsky said the case shows how "even one punch — and that's what this was — can have unbelievable consequences."
It's not clear exactly what prompted Decker to punch Moeller, although Amy Moeller denied it had anything to do with any Florida-Ohio State rivalry.
Amy Moeller said the attack was "life changing." One moment her son was fine, and "the next moment your son is fighting for his life."
At first, she said, her son suffered stroke-like symptoms and had trouble speaking. To relieve the pressure in his brain, two dime-like holes were drilled into his skull, she said. Now he has a metal plate there too.
He has relished the opportunity to exercise, but was literally told to walk before he could run. He was allowed to participate in spring football practices, but the linebacker was warned not to hit anyone in the drills, she said.
She said her son hopes to play football this fall as a sixth-year senior if college athletic officials allow it and he receives medical clearance.
Some people have asked why she would let her son play football again. She has two answers. First, it's not her decision. And second, "How can you tell someone not to follow their dream?"