It was last Thursday morning, and Brian Hartline’s back was a mess. He injured it against the Jaguars and was unable to practice.
Randy Starks, meanwhile, wasn’t even in the state. A family tragedy had him up north all week.
For the Dolphins, the news could hardly have been worse.
They were already down three starters — Davone Bess, Koa Misi and Nolan Carroll — and could ill afford to lose another one, let alone two.
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But considering their circumstances — one hurting physically, the other emotionally — few would have blamed either Hartline or Starks for taking the week off.
Neither would stand for it.
Both Hartline, the Dolphins’ leading receiver, and Starks — a critical part of the league’s 10th-ranked run defense — insisted on playing Sunday, helping the Dolphins handle the Bills 24-10.
Hartline caught two passes for 12 yards; Starks had a tackle for a loss. While neither made a game-changing play, both were on the field for the majority of snaps for their respective units (offense for Hartline, defense for Starks).
Hartline and Starks share something else. Both are free agents at season’s end. And so, if this is the end of their road in a Dolphins uniform, each left a lasting impression.
“It would have been difficult for us in this game if Brian didn’t play for us,” Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said Monday. “It says a lot about his character, his work ethic, what he stands for that he dressed.”
Sherman acknowledged that Hartline was in significant pain Thursday, keeping him from practicing.
Hartline, a fourth-year wideout who has set career highs in catches (69) and receiving yards (1,014), felt a little better Friday, but not great.
Yet knowing that Bess probably couldn’t go (he’s been hobbled by his own back injury for a few weeks), Hartline almost had to play. The only other wide receivers on the roster had a combined 36 career catches entering the game.
“I can’t say enough about an NFL player who not only plays hurt but plays well when he is hurt,” Sherman said.
“He was a significant contributor out there because if he wasn’t out there we really would have had to shake up the receiving corps, and it would have been pretty hectic.”
The Dolphins’ situation on the defensive line wasn’t nearly as perilous. It’s one of their positions of strength.
Still, Starks is a major factor on the inside, and the Dolphins entered Sunday with something to play for: They remained in the playoff hunt (although were eliminated when Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon).
And so he played, even with a heavy heart.
Starks’ mother, Beverly Joyce Starks, died on Dec. 15 at the age of 54, the Petersburg (Va.) Progress-Index reported last week. Her funeral is Wednesday. After playing against the Jaguars, Starks left Florida to be with his family, missing the entire week of practice.
Yet Starks made it a point of returning to South Florida by Saturday, was in uniform Sunday afternoon and played well, his defensive coordinator, Kevin Coyle, said later.
“Randy is a true professional, and you love his preparation,” Coyle said.
“[The Dolphins’ defensive linemen] will give you the impression that they are loosey-goosey at times and not really listening to everything, but when they get into the game, mental errors you don’t have to worry about that group making very many mistakes,” Coyle continued. “We knew that Randy would get the game plan.”
Getting the game plan is one thing. Mustering the emotional wherewithal to play when your mind is elsewhere (or your back is throbbing, for that matter) is something entirely different.
“I think his teammates were there for him,” Coyle said.
“The coaches were with him the whole way, and he knows that. He knows how much we care about him. His teammates really lifted him up here throughout the week and certainly on Sunday.”