Inside a steakhouse near Ohio State’s campus, Thayer Munford delivered a toast that moved a room to tears.

It was an evening in early 2017, and Munford had arrived for an official recruiting visit. Before dinner, then-coach Urban Meyer asked the half-dozen high schoolers to name people they admired in their lives.

Most said they were thankful for a parent. 

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Munford brought up his mom, then praised others. He told them about Nate and Rebecca Moore, a couple that took legal custody of him for his senior year, helped him lose 50 pounds and raise his GPA and standardized test scores enough to pave a way toward major college football.

Without their support, he worried he could have become a high school dropout or involved in crime prevalent in his native Lincoln Heights, a tough area north of Cincinnati.

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“If God didn't put those two people in my life, or put me with a family that didn't care, I'd be on the streets, in a gang, selling drugs, to be honest,” Munford said this week. “That's where most males end up being.”

As he finished his thoughts at the recruiting dinner, Munford noticed that many present, including Meyer’s wife, Shelley, started crying.

“I was like, ‘Wow, what did I do?’” Munford said. “All I did was tell ’em the truth.”

Afterward, Nate Moore, who was there, offered a prediction: Munford was going to receive a scholarship offer from Ohio State. The tribute was too touching not to sway the coaches.

The offer came the following day.

“What would you say if I said I want you to be a Buckeye?” Nate recalled Meyer asking Munford.

It was a quick pitch. Munford signed his letter of intent at the start of the next signing period.

Munford has since developed into one of the most dependable offensive linemen for Ohio State. Entering a game Saturday against Cincinnati, the 6-foot-6 junior has started 14 of the past 15 games, and he began this season as their sole returning starter on the offensive line.

Most of all, his presence at left tackle gives blind-side protection to quarterback Justin Fields.

But throughout high school, Munford never seemed like a safe bet. Poor grades and ballooning weight limited his potential as a football prospect. The course changed in spring 2016 when his mother, MeLisa Thompson, asked Rebecca Moore if her only child could live with their family for his senior year.

Their phone conversation remains vivid.

“She said you have to take him,” Rebecca said. “You have to get him out of there. And I said, without hesitation, you know we will.”

Rebecca could relate to the plea. She had been adopted when she was 9. Munford moved in with their two children. Thompson had no second thoughts. She thought the Moore family could best help him play football in college.

“As parents, we have to let our children go pursue their dreams,” Thompson said.

With a 1.7 GPA and scoring only a 13 on the ACT late in his junior year, Munford was at risk of not meeting the NCAA’s eligibility requirements.

“If there was anybody that could get his grades fixed, we knew it was us,” Nate Moore said. “Not that we were some kind of miracle workers or anything like that, we just knew him. He was our guy.”

Nate had been coach at Cincinnati La Salle for Munford’s first two seasons of high school before taking the job at Massillon.

Without the coach around, Munford’s grades worsened as a junior. Moore had assisted with Munford’s academics when he noticed him failing classes as a freshman. He bought Munford a backpack, kept him from practicing until homework was finished and helped him obtain services to assist with an uncovered reading disability.

Once Munford moved in with the Moores, they hired tutors for academics and instituted a strict diet for his weight, cutting out fast food. And Munford loved fast food. His favorite stop was Burger King, with a go-to order that included two Double Whoppers. It was why he weighed 363 pounds.

Instead, they ate zucchini noodles for dinner most nights as Munford slimmed down, ultimatelyto 315 pounds, the weight desired by most top college programs, including Ohio State. His taste for fast food waned, and he has since learned to cook more. He boiled red shrimp when the family vacationed on Alabama’s Gulf Coast this summer.

One of his biggest strides with the Buckeyes has been maintaining his playing weight. He was listed at 310 pounds when this season began after recovering from a back injury.

“He's lighter than he's ever been,” offensive line coach Greg Studrawa said.

Moving households in high school wasn’t without challenges.

Munford attended Massillon as a senior while he lived with the Moores. But after transferring, the Ohio High School Athletic Association limited his time on the football field, issuing a suspension for alleged recruiting violations because Moore was the school's coach. Munford played in only four games as a result.

Being away from Cincinnati was difficult. Munford missed his mother most of all.

“I’m a mama’s boy,” he said.

The two were especially close as Munford grew up. They watched the Disney Channel together. They wrestled for sport. She took him to local parks. In the first couple of months away from Lincoln Heights, he was homesick. He called her every night and asked to return home.

She told him to stay and urged him to continue pursuing his goal. She set the path for Munford.

“He is only at Ohio State,” Rebecca Moore said, “because his mom was willing to give up her only son, her only son, her life. And I think that is the story.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman