TREASURE ISLAND — Both sides agree that it started with a question: Did Tyler Moeller really play football for the Ohio State Buckeyes?
It ended with a sucker punch, authorities said, that left the 21-year-old junior linebacker with a serious head injury that ended his football season before it began.
But the suspect who was arrested, Ralph Decker Jr., said he was defending himself and blames Moeller for the July 26 confrontation at Gator's Cafe & Saloon.
And Decker's lawyer said Wednesday that his client is receiving death threats from irate Buckeye fans after college football blogs put his personal information online.
The threats have been made to his cell phone, his e-mail, even to the title company where Decker works, they said.
"They've been calling his supervisors … and threatening him all day long," said St. Petersburg defense attorney Sean McQuaid.
Treasure Island police arrested Decker, 27, on a misdemeanor charge of battery after the altercation. But the extent of Moeller's injuries spurred the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office to investigate whether to file more serious felony charges. That review is ongoing.
Moeller's head hit the floor after the surprise punch, authorities said, and he lost consciousness. He spent days in a local intensive care unit. He later suffered a seizure, according to the Columbus Dispatch, and underwent neurosurgery in Ohio earlier this month.
This spring, Moeller was penciled in to start at outside linebacker for Ohio State University. Now he'll miss the entire 2009 season.
"It sounds like he was sucker punched," said Assistant State Attorney Richard Ripplinger. "It wasn't even a fight."
According to the authorities and an online letter posted by the victim's mother, here's what happened:
The Moeller family was vacationing in Florida. Tyler Moeller went to Gator's at 12754 Kingfish Drive with several family members.
After midnight July 26, Decker and victim exchanged words. They discussed whether Tyler Moeller played football. Decker tried to find out himself by checking the Internet using his PDA phone.
"We're not sure what he found," Ripplinger said. "But apparently after accessing the thing, he hit him in the face."
"He never saw it coming," Amy Moeller wrote online about her son, "and did nothing to provoke it."
Three witnesses said Tyler Moeller was "sucker punched," according to a police report. A security guard quickly grabbed Decker and held him for police.
But Decker's attorney, McQuaid, said his client told him a different story. He said Decker was talking to Moeller's sister about her brother being a football player when the linebacker approached him.
Decker said he played for Ohio State but gave a different player's name, the lawyer said, instead of his own name. An Internet search showed Moeller's story didn't match up, Decker said, which led to harsh words.
Decker told his lawyer Moeller then came at him, backing him up 8 to 10 feet while threatening to "kill" and "knock you out." So Decker punched first.
"He's concerned about this guy's well-being," McQuaid said. "But he does believe it was self-defense. Now remember this guy is a football player with Ohio State. He's a big guy.
"When a big guy is coming at you at a bar, drinking and saying those things, it's reasonable to defend yourself."
Both sides accused the other of drinking heavily.
Decker is 6 feet, 185 pounds, according to his arrest report. He was arrested for grand theft and burglary in 1999 but the charges were dropped. He has been cited for several fishing infractions over the years.
Moeller is 6 feet, 216 pounds, is from Cincinnati, and he majors in family resource management. He attended Ohio State's picture day with a dark scar across his scalp but is resting at home with his family.
"It's a devastating thing to have happen, period," Amy Moeller told the Dispatch. "To him, it's devastating that it's football season, but to a mother …"
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.