Ryan Moats says he is looking forward to playing at Auburn's homecoming game just like he is every time he gets a chance to put on a football uniform and play the game he loves.
The 5-9, 206-pound junior tailback will go into the game leading the nation in rushing yards with 928 in five games. Last year he rushed for 1,300, which was just 51 yards short of the Louisiana Tech single-season record. At his current pace, he will establish a new record with plenty of room to spare.
However, as a high school sophomore he was afraid his football career was finished before it really got started when he woke up in pain the morning after the third game of the season at Bishop Lynch High in Dallas, Tex.
The night before he was sick, but played in Lynch's game. He took a major blow to thigh in the third quarter, but didn't think it was a serious problem. He continued to play and finished the game. However, the following day, he was hurting with a sharp pain in his leg."
"I didn't know what was going on and I couldn't walk that well," Moats remembers. "I made my way up to the field house and they told me it was calcium. I went to the doctor to try to get rid of that.
"About two weeks past that, it didn't go away so they did an MRI on it and it was a staph infection in the bone on my femur. I had two surgeries on it and they said I probably wouldn't be able to play again."
Moats was not ready to give up football, but realized the medical condition was serious. "Basically what happened is the staph infection ate away at my femur," he says. "It ate a lot of my femur out of there. It was rotten bone, basically. They had to carve that rotten bone out of there."
Although the doctors warned him there was a good chance he wouldn't be cleared to play football, the damaged bone began to grow again and came back strong. So did Moats as a football player. By his junior year in high school, Moats was back on the field and playing like a star.
"With God's grace, my leg is fine," he notes. "I haven't had a problem with it all through all of these years. I guess He gave me a second chance and let me realize what football meant to me. I look at life a whole different way than I did before."
His recovery was so complete that he was named the 2001 Texas Private School Player of the Year after he rushed for 2,646 yards and 33 touchdowns with a 9.2 yards per carry average as a senior. However, he didn't get any scholarship offers from the major programs in Texas and decided to head east to Louisiana Tech.
Moats says when he got to Tech's campus in Ruston, part of his motivation was to prove colleges in his home state wrong for not offering him a chance to play. However, he says that is a secondary issue now that he is a junior for the Bulldogs. His main goals are to help his team win games and enjoy football from week to week.
"It is an honor to be at Tech," Moats says. "It is an honor to play football anywhere. I really don't care where I play, as long as I get to play football."
This week's game will match Moats vs. an Auburn defense that has not allowed a rushing touchdown this season. The tailback, who often runs out of one-back sets, has personally scored nine touchdowns this season. Tech's two losses this year have come against Miami and Tennessee. He says Auburn's defense reminds him some of both teams.
"I am thinking they are more like Miami, speed-wise, because Miami's speed was unbelievable," he says. "I don't know if they are that close to Miami, but from what I can see on film they are kind of a mix between Miami and Tennessee. Tennessee was more physical, Miami was more speed oriented."
With short and strong legs plus the ability to make defensive players look silly trying to tackle him, Moats has been compared to Barry Sanders numerous times when his running style is described. That is high praise for the Louisiana Tech junior, who before every game watches a highlight tape featuring great runs by Sanders.
"I don't know if I make the same cuts as Barry Sanders, but I hope to one day in my lifetime.," says Moats, who adds, "That is a big wall to get past there."
The tailback rushed for 125 yards on 16 carries against LSU's very tough 2003 defense. Moats was voted the preseason Offensive Player of the Year for the Western Athletic Conference. So far this season, he has lived up to his advance billing. Last Saturday night at home in Ruston, La., he and the 3-2 Bulldogs upset 17th-ranked Fresno State to move 2-0 in the WAC to tie Boise State for first place in the conference.
"It was a great win," Moats says of the 28-21 decision. "We finally played as a whole team. We finished the whole game from quarter one to quarter four. Against Tennessee, we played a great first half and we came out in the second half and kind of died out. I was happy to finish that game right."
Pro scouts are expected to be at Jordan-Hare Stadium for Saturday's 2:30 p.m. kickoff to see just how closely Moats resembles Barry Sanders vs. an Auburn team that is ranked sixth nationally in total defense. Like Sanders, Moats wears number 20 on his jersey. "He was elusive, powerful and had strong legs and speed," Moats says of the former Detroit Lions star. "He was the total package. I would like to think that's the way I am."