Iowa's Moeaki, Richardson save best for last

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

An unlikely union took place Saturday night in the north end zone at Kinnick Stadium. Twice.

As Iowa tight end Tony Moeaki caught two long touchdown passes in a win against Michigan, offensive lineman Dace Richardson happily watched from the line of scrimmage before joining the celebration. Moeaki was never touched as he raced for scores of 34 and 42 yards, but anyone who knows his story and Richardson's understands that their path through college football has never been easy.

"I tried to be the first one there, but those receivers always beat me [to the end zone]," the 6-foot-6, 305-pound Richardson said after the game. "I was so happy for him. I've known him for a long time. We grew up together and I'm just happy that he's back playing."

Moeaki and Richardson both starred for Wheaton Warrenville South High School in Chicago's west suburbs. Both were four-star recruits in Iowa's heralded 2005 recruiting class, which arrived after the Hawkeyes posted three consecutive seasons of 10 or more victories.

Both players saw the field as true freshmen for the Hawkeyes. But for most of their careers, neither man could stay healthy.

Pick a body part and Moeaki has probably sustained an injury there. Whether it's a hand, an elbow, a foot, a hamstring, a calf or an ankle, Moeaki has dealt with it all, plus a concussion last fall. Moeaki missed a huge chunk of the 2007 season, earning a medical hardship waiver, and has also missed games in 2008 and this fall. When he's healthy, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Moeaki is one of the Big Ten's best tight ends, but it has been a constant struggle.

As for Richardson, by all accounts he wasn't supposed to be on the field Saturday night. His playing career had been declared over multiple times in 2007 and 2008 because of knee problems that required multiple surgeries. Richardson started the first seven games in 2006 before injuring his knee. He appeared in just three games the following season before undergoing reconstructive knee surgery. Richardson went through another surgery to clean out cartilage. Before last season, Richardson had another setback with his knee.

"You always feel terrible any time someone's career has ended prematurely," head coach Kirk Ferentz said at Big Ten preseason media day in 2008.

But Richardson never gave up, rehabbing his knee and returning to the field for spring practice. After coming to Iowa as a tackle, he moved over to guard, a position where the team needed bodies.

When Iowa opened the season against Northern Iowa, Richardson started at right tackle in place of the suspended Kyle Calloway. He started the next four games at left guard before moving to right guard against Michigan.

"They both have had rough pasts up to this point," left tackle Bryan Bulaga said of Richardson and Moeaki. "Now that they're both back on the field, both guys are stepping up and doing a great job out there. Obviously, Tony shows a little more because he's at a skill position and making big plays, but Dace is doing a great job. He's able to play left and right guard. Whatever the coaches are asking him to do, he's doing it at a high level.

"To be able to have both of those guys out there helps the team in a lot of ways."

Moeaki had missed Iowa's previous three games with an ankle injury and barely practiced last week. He wasn't certain how his ankle and foot would hold up.

Sprinting down the field to the end zone, he looked just fine.

"Running out of the tunnel with my teammates, that's always special to me," said Moeaki, who earned Big Ten offensive player of the week honors. "It's fun to be out there."

The feeling is mutual for Richardson.

"We've both had troubled pasts with injuries," Richardson said. "I knew when Tony had his chance to get back out, he'd do amazing things and show the world how good he is.

"It must be nice to come off from injury and score two touchdowns."

As an offensive lineman, Richardson might never know the feeling.

Then again, after what he's been through, don't bet against it.