In the home opener, played at Canton’s Fawcett Stadium, Hartline sustained a gruesome, year-ending compound fracture while fielding a punt.
“I remember literally hearing your leg snap,” Maag reminded Hartline last week in the way only a close friend can.
In an ironic twist, Hartline will return to Fawcett nearly nine years to the day of his catastrophic injury. The Dolphins have been chosen to play the Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game, held at his old high school stadium on Aug. 4.
“I remind [Dolphins coach Joe] Philbin of that all the time,” Hartline said with a chuckle.
Hartline needed surgery, and a metal rod remained in his leg for months. And yet, he was able to run track in the spring, winning the state title in hurdles. He went on to play four years at Ohio State before getting drafted by the Dolphins.
Time and distance separated the friends, but even as a pro, Hartline often would return home. During one of those visits, he found Malka ready to spread his wings.
“When you get older, you start butting heads,” Hartline said. “His dad is kind of old school. He wanted to do something. I wanted to do something.”
Ultimately, they decided to jointly buy an underperforming drive-through convenience store in Canal Winchester, an eastern suburb of Columbus. With Malka’s know-how, they stocked the place with popular items of all prices — from 79-cent cigars to $66 bottles of champagne.
The shop, under the new ownership, reopened two weeks after the Dolphins’ 2012 season ended. But it wasn’t until springtime that they were able to bring Maag aboard, so Hartline found himself working 12-hour days during Central Ohio’s frigid winter months.
It was during one of those marathon shifts that word of the start-up went national. In March, Hartline was asked to go on Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard’s radio program to talk about his new contract. But the conversation veered suddenly when Hartline told the hosts why he sounded out of breath: He was busy running back and forth to cars, delivering cases of beer, snacks and smokes.
From there, the story became a viral phenomenon. Inside Edition stopped by to do a piece on the store. ESPN The Magazine sent a photographer for a two-page photo shoot; the picture proudly hangs in Smart Stop’s office.
Suddenly, people started patronizing the place simply for the chance to meet Hartline. When he’s not in town, some try to leave memorabilia for him to autograph. One even had Hartline sign his truck’s tailgate. Former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett is a regular.
“It keeps us from going stir crazy in here,” Hartline said. “Really, it’s amazing. When people come in, time flies. Cars start building up. You get, like, eight deep.”
That success allowed them to expand faster than Hartline ever imagined. Fifteen minutes away from the Smart Stop, Malka discovered another intriguing opportunity: a Valero gas station was up for sale. The price was good, but that was because it needed serious work.
And so, that’s where they spent much of last Monday, hauling massive foam panels off a truck for a 300-square foot, walk-in beer cave that will be the centerpiece of the new store. They hope to have the gas station open in early August, but as of last week, it looked a long way from being ready.