Everyone has a defining moment.

For Temple quarterback Chris Harris Coyer, who will lead his team against Wyoming on Saturday in the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque, N.M., some might assume it involves running over a defender or throwing a picture-perfect spiral.

Maybe it was his 68-yard touchdown run against Villanova in the season opener. Or the 74-yard TD scamper he had against Ball State.

The career-high three touchdown passes and 184 rushing yards he had in a backup role against Ohio will get a lot of votes.

Or maybe it was his driving 2 1/2 hours each way to watch all 15 of Temple's spring practices while he was still a senior at Oakton High School in Northern Virginia.

Maybe it's the stuff that we don't see, like the redshirt sophomore creating a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter at Temple.

It can be argued that there are so many moments that define Coyer. But in reality, his defining moment came in a Virginia High School League state semifinal back in 2008.

At the time, Coyer was a senior looking to upset Oscar Smith, a team ranked seventh in the nation by USA Today.

Instead, the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder had the scare of his life.

On Oakton's second offensive series, Coyer broke through the line of scrimmage. Lowering his shoulder, he plowed into a defensive back as a second defender hit him from behind. The force caused a posterior fracture in his C-7 vertebrae.

Losing feeling in his arms and upper body, Coyer was rushed to Inova Fairfax Hospital.

"When he broke his neck, he knew he would be a paraplegic if the injury happened two millimeters lower," said Chris Bruce Coyer, Coyer's father. "At that point, he knew that he had, let's say, a bigger calling."

The injury wasn't a serious as originally thought. Coyer wore a neck brace for a month. Doctors cleared him to play basketball in February.

The injury, however, gave Coyer a new outlook.

It's the reason he's such a spiritual individual. It's what has enabled him to deal with being an afterthought for much of his Temple career. And it's the reason he didn't flinch after suffering a game-ending shoulder sprain in the regular-season finale against Kent State.

"After going through something like [the neck injury], where at first you really don't know what's going on," Coyer said, "this is a very minor setback."

So minor that the 21-year-old will make his fourth consecutive start when Temple (8-4) faces the Cowboys (8-4), who finished third behind national powers Texas Christian and Boise State in the Mountain West Conference. The Owls are 61/2-point favorites.

"I'm ecstatic," he said of starting in his first bowl game. "I couldn't be more happy. This is something I wanted since I was a little kid."

Coyer's teammates may be just as happy - if not happier - that he's healthy. The dual threat provides what had been missing in the first eight games when Mike Gerardi and Chester Stewart were the primary signal callers.

"We are happy that he's fallen into the position that he's fallen into," Owls senior defensive end Adrian Robinson said. "We just want somebody to win. And that's what he does."

Prior replacing Stewart to start Temple's third offensive series at Ohio on Nov. 2, Coyer's only action came late in three blowout victories. But after accounting for 307 yards of total offense against Ohio in a 35-31 loss, the quarterback job was his to keep.

Coyer has completed 22 of 38 passes for 294 yards and five touchdowns without an interception. All of his pass attempts came in the last four games. In his seven games played, Coyer has rushed for 491 yards (8.6 yards per carry) and three touchdowns.

"He's a tough guy," Owls coach Steve Addazio said. "I think that's really, really important to him.

"I think he has the characteristics that you need to have. I think the kids have respect for him. He competes."

But getting an opportunity to show that he could compete in college took longer than Coyer expected.

Determined to make a contribution, his devotion to the program started before he graduated high school. During the spring of his senior season, Coyer attended all of Temple's spring practices. He would get up at 4 a.m. and drive to Philadelphia in time to make the morning team meetings.

"He did that every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday," said his father, who arranged for Coyer's excused absences from school. "He would return in time for track practice."

His frequent visits to Edberg-Olson Hall didn't initially benefit Coyer. After redshirting his freshman season, he saw only limited action in five games the following season.

"I definitely had my ups and downs," he said. Last year, "I didn't really know where I fit in. I was doing a little Wildcat stuff. But I really wasn't seeing any meaningful time."

At the start of this season, the knock on Coyer was that he wasn't a good practice player. As a result, the coaches preferred to use Stewart and Gerardi.

But all that started to change about the sixth week of the season. Coyer looked better at practice and was starting to become more of a vocal leader.

"He was ready," said Temple tight end coach Matt Rhule, who recruited Coyer. "He probably felt like he was past-due ready for it. But he was ready for it because of the work he put in and the timing he put in. I think for us, we thought about [playing him sooner] at times."

But while the signal-caller knew he was ready, he never voiced his displeasure over his lack of playing time. Instead, his focus was on being the best teammate possible. He and linebacker Matt Falcone formed a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter for football players.

But the nondenominational Christian doesn't just hang out with FCA members. He makes a point of going to sushi restaurants with several teammates throughout the season. And he's well-liked by most people associated with Temple football.

"He's like a Tim Tebow," Robinson said of comparing Coyer to the religious, lefthanded Denver Broncos quarterback. "That's the best way to describe him.

"Off the field, he's like that kind of guy. He's really a good guy."

Contact staff writer Keith Pompey at 215-854-2939, kpompey@phillynews.com, or @pompeysgridlock on Twitter. Read his blog, "Owls Inq," at www.philly.com/owlsinq