IOWA CITY - Turn back the clock to mid-September 2007 and you'll find Tony Moeaki on the threshold of stardom.
Recruited out of Wheaton-Warrenville South High School as the No. 1 tight end prospect in the country, he seemed to finally be on his way to fulfilling his vast potential. After two seasons of backing up Scott Chandler, he was Iowa's starting tight end. He had caught 14 passes in the first three games of the season and scored three touchdowns against Syracuse.
Then in the fourth game, at Wisconsin, he broke his wrist and dislocated his elbow on the same play, and watched his career path detour into a distinctly different direction.
Had everything gone according to plan, he would be in training camp with some NFL team right now, vying for a roster spot. Instead, he is back at Iowa for a fifth season, trying to get back on track.
"I'm approaching the season like it's any other season," Moeaki said. "I'm excited to be back. I couldn't imagine something unlucky happening again."
Moeaki hasn't had much luck the past two years.
After that unfortunate tumble at Wisconsin that resulted in two serious injuries, he underwent surgery and not only missed the rest of the 2007 season but also spring practice.
Back on the field last fall, he was making a routine cut in pre-season workouts when he broke his foot. He probably tried to come back too soon from that injury, which led to hamstring and calf ailments. He also suffered concussions against Iowa State and Illinois. He managed to see action in parts of nine games last fall, but seldom lasted a full game and never was 100 percent.
He needed a second surgery to repair the foot after the season and missed spring ball again.
But now, granted a fifth year of eligibility, he said he's 100 percent healthy.
"If there's justice at all - and sometimes there is - hopefully he'll go through this season totally unscathed," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Moeaki, soft-spoken and normally very serious, jokes that it was the plan all along to cram a career's worth of injuries into one year.
"It's been frustrating, but injuries happen all the time," he said. "I never was hurt in high school or in my first three seasons here. It's just been this past year or so."
His teammates now see a deeper resolve to bring all that potential together into one final glorious season. No one sees it better than offensive lineman Dace Richardson, who has known Moeaki since the sixth grade and regards him as a brother.
"He's always been determined," Richardson said. "That's just the way he is. He works hard in everything he does. He's a leader for all of us."
Richardson has had injury woes of his own. He had a knee injury so serious that his career was once considered to be over. He and Moeaki have fought their way back onto the field together.
"We make jokes about how it must be something in the Wheaton water or something like that," Richardson said. "Even though we laugh about it, we've worked hard in the off-season to make ourselves even stronger so when we get to the season we won't have problems."
Richardson isn't the only one who thinks Moeaki can still become an elite tight end. The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder has been named to the preseason watch list for the John Mackey Award, which goes to the best tight end in the country.
"With Tony, our fans haven't had a chance to see the same guy we've seen," Ferentz said. "He's an excellent football player, couldn't be a better team leader or team member. It would be a great boost to our whole football team if he has the kind of year we think he's capable of."