DAVIE, Fla. — Brian Hartline is coming home and the memories are generally good. But one in particular isn’t.
The last time the Miami Dolphins wide receiver played a game at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio, he broke his left tibia and fibula in an injury he called similar to the gruesome one suffered last March by Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware.
It was August 28, 2004, the first game of Hartline’s senior season at Canton’s GlenOak High School. Hartline received a punt in the waning seconds of the first half and a teammate inadvertently blocked an opponent into Hartline’s leg.
“I just snapped it, my tibia and fibula right in the middle,” Hartline said in an interview with FOX Sports Florida. “It was the first year the new turf (artificial turf that was put in the stadium to replace natural grass) and it kind of contributed a lot to that. … You freak out a little bit. I was committed to Ohio State, and coach (Jim Tressel) called (to reassure him of his scholarship). They said the bone would heal, so I wasn’t overly concerned. But in the back of your mind, you’re always thinking, ‘Uh, oh. What if?’ “
Hartline recovered from the injury. He went on to star with the Buckeyes, and is now in his fifth season with the Dolphins.
On Aug. 4, Hartline will return to his high school’s home field, five miles from his family home, for the Hall of Fame Game against Dallas. It will be the first game he plays at Fawcett Stadium, which has that same artificial turf, since that tough night nine years ago.
“Maybe,” Hartline said about it being weird because of that. “But I think it’s just weird in general because I haven’t been back in that stadium since my senior year of high school.”
Overall, though, everything should be comforting for Hartline as he returns to his hometown.
“I’m excited,” Hartline said. “There’s a heck of a ticket list that’s being (put together) right now. My mom and my girlfriend (Kara Conard) and the family are kind of in charge of that. … I’d say it’s going to be north of 50, maybe 50 to 60 (tickets being distributed).”
But that’s just immediate friends and family members. Hartline’s mother, Laurie, has been running into all sorts of other people who plan on going to the game primarily to see Hartline.
“They’re excited in Canton,” she said by phone. “Everybody’s looking forward to seeing him.”
Hartline grew up regularly going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is next to the stadium. Hartline actually was a big Cowboys fan, which he picked up from his father. Dale Hartline now finds it quite interesting that Miami will face Dallas in the family’s hometown.
“A ton,” Brian Hartline said of how many times he’s visited the Hall. “I’m looking forward to going back. Hopefully, we’ll have time to go through it again as an older player and a current player… It’s a pretty cool experience. The Super Bowl rings (on display) are pretty cool. I always got a kick out of that.”
Hartline would love to win one of those someday with the Dolphins. He’s just glad his football career wasn’t derailed in 2004.
It looked at first like a routine play in what would be a 42-7 GlenOak win over Akron’s Central-Hower High School. Hartline’s brother, Mike, who would go on to star at Kentucky, was playing quarterback that night for the Eagles. In the stands were Hartline’s parents and Dale Hartline’s father, Jack.
“I was hardly paying attention, talking to my dad,” said Dale Hartline. “Then, all of a sudden, Laurie said, ‘Brian is hurt. I think he broke his leg.’ She’s a nurse. So she ran down to the field first.”
Laurie Hartline hurried down to comfort her son. Since she worked at a nearby hospital, where Hartline would be taken, she called to see which doctor and anesthesiologist were on duty. Her son then was taken in for emergency surgery, which included a rod inserted in his leg.
“I remained very calm at first,” she said. “But then when he was in recovery, emotion overtook me. … During his recovery at home, (Hartline) was so worried about ever getting back on the field and what’s going to happen to me. But I said, ‘Just keep your rehab going, and it will be fine.’ “
Everything indeed turned out fine. Not only had Ohio State coaches assured Hartline a scholarship still would be waiting for him the following February, Tressel soon paid him a reassuring visit.
Hartline was in a cast for nearly two months before starting rehab. Even though his doctor wasn’t particularly keen on it, Hartline requested the rod be taken out in December so he could prepare for the track season.
The doctor didn’t think he’d be able to run at all as a senior. But Hartline was back for the indoor season and he excelled in the spring.
“He had missed a state title by less than a second the year before (finishing second in the 300-meter hurdles) and that haunted him,” said Dale Hartline. “So he said, ‘I’m going to run.’ Then he went out and won state titles in both the 110 and 300 hurdles (in the spring). He’s such a competitor.”
That spirit carried on to Ohio State, where Hartline would earn the Paul Warfield Award as the school’s top receiver. After joining the Dolphins, Hartline had a breakout season in 2012, catching 74 balls for 1,083 yards.
“He’s a consummate pro,” said former Ohio State and NFL star receiver Cris Carter, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame the day before the Dolphins face the Cowboys. “I’ve been watching since he was in high school. He’s a great kid.”
Carter watched Hartline closely on a recent visit to Dolphins training camp, where Hartline has continued to impress with his savvy play. Several Miami players believe Hartline could have even better numbers this season because defenses will have to key on speedy receiver Mike Wallace, signed as a free agent after starring for Pittsburgh.
“He has some really, really crisp routes,” Wallace said of Hartline. “He’s a smart player. He’s always going to be at the right place at the right time. He’s going to make all those catches for you.”
Wallace will make his Dolphins debut against the Cowboys. Meanwhile, Hartline will return to the scene of his most difficult moment in sports.
“We’ve talked a little bit about that,’” said Laurie Hartline. “I said, ‘Have you thought about it?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ But I think he’ll quickly be able to let it go.”
After all, Hartline had plenty of memorable games for GlenOak at Fawcett Stadium. Now, he can try to have one with the Dolphins.