Duttlinger

Heritage Hills junior Blake Duttlinger competed on the mat to wrestle on Tuesday after having his left leg ampuated below the knee. He started walking with the prosthetic through the school hallways on Tuesday.

LINCOLN CITY — When Blake Duttlinger awoke in his Spencer County farmland home on Sept. 18 it was like any other Saturday morning.

However, the day proved to be life-altering when Duttlinger’s leg got caught in equipment and he was airlifted to Ascension St. Vincent hospital in Evansville.

After five days of doctors attempting to salvage it and discussing the next step with them and his parents, Duttlinger decided to part with his left leg for a below-knee amputation.

All that was on his mind after the operation what a return to normalcy.

“At the beginning it was dark and it’s going to be,” Blake said. “But once you start to get perspective again, you got to start thinking, ‘It could have been worse.’ You don’t think about what would have happened if you didn’t do this because you are going to try for a long time and you can’t see it. You just think of normal life before. Now that it’s happened to you, don’t think about what would have happened if this didn’t happen. You think about it could have been worse. It could have been above the knee. I could have not been pinched and I could have bled out while I was there.”

Blake’s LifeHe describes himself as not the most gifted athlete — he’s surrounded by talented ones at Heritage Hills — he dabbles in football and wrestling.

But in a lot of ways, having clawed for every inch he’s gotten, his rehab to walk has some parallels to his way back to sports. Life will be a continued drive to succeed that far outreaches sport.

“He’s not naturally gifted as far as being very athletic,” Ben Duttlinger, his dad, said. “From that standpoint of things, he’s had to work very hard on the football field and wrestling mat for everything that he’s achieved, for whatever that might be. I think that’s almost prepared him better for having to overcome this because he just looks at it as something he’s got to work at and overcome.”

He was 5 feet, 10 inches, 125 pounds before the accident, he lined up at wideout and defensive back. As a wrestler, the two-time regional qualifier came into the year targeting 140 pounds.

“He and I were messaging back and forth on the phone, he was like, ‘Man, I’m not making 138,’ ” wrestling coach Adam Zollman said. “I can believe that. I said, ‘Where are we going to be?’ He’s like, ‘I really don’t know.’ He thought 126, but then the food choices while he was there laid up weren’t great so he kept coming down.”

His return to grappling came swiftly for a student-athlete on the mend from the drastic accident.

Courage from the communityBlake’s stint in the hospital totaled 12 days and four surgeries. During that time, an outpouring of support showered him with love as he endured tragedy.

“You never really appreciate your community until it kind of helps you,” Blake said. “They’ve been very helpful. When I was in the hospital people would send me loads of food, snacks and cards and fidget toys, little knick-knacks and some cool stuff. After I got out of the hospital, they did a meal train. They brought food over; a few fundraisers for medical bills and stuff. It just shows how much people care. It’s been really amazing.”

Valerie Duttlinger, Blake’s mom, was aided immensely by her aunt Amy Tempel, friends, and the family’s Catholic church to help raise money for medical costs.

“As far as community support goes, the community support was almost as overwhelming as the actual accident but in a good way,” Ben said. “Small communities pull together and this one was a prime example of small communities pulling together. We had tremendous financial support that came from all areas. People we didn’t even know.”

Blake’s direct support starts with Ben and Valerie.

“First and foremost is my parents, they’ve been here the entire time,” Blake said. “One of them was always at the hospital with me, sometimes both of them. Now at school, I’ve got classmates that help me, and hang out with them a lot. They are like, ‘Dude you’re an inspiration. You’re doing great.’ It really helps.”

The father and son added in unison that the care from nurses was second to none.

Blake has met three amputees at his house in the aftermath of the accident.

His biggest takeaway came from discussing the nuances of adding plies of socks over the sleeve, covering the end of his amputated leg when it feels off.

While pushing through friction and discomfort is often welcomed in the athletic arena, he noted that pushing past a blister could lead to even more loss of his limb.

On the mendThere were two colossal comebacks for Blake and more that could be on the horizon.

First, he returned to the Heritage Hills ‘Jungle’ 20 days after his mishap. He sat behind the end zone in a wheelchair taking in Heritage Hills vs. Southridge on Oct. 8. The PA announcer gave him a shoutout.

He partook in the pregame ritual with the team, donning his No. 25 jersey and helmet that’s custom for players upon entrance to the stadium and leading into the coin toss.

“It’s kind of bittersweet, I mean it kind of reminded me that this is my life, I’ve got limitations,” Blake said. “But it was also nice to see everyone cheering for me. My teammates were very supportive. It was just a surreal experience.”

But on the flip side of the coin, the potential is there for other avenues and he recognizes that.

“Something I’ve heard so many times, ‘You can do whatever you want,’ ” Blake said. “No limitations really. A few but not really impactful.”

Blake didn’t settle for anything. He was fixated on rolling around on the wrestling mat, well before it became a reality at practice on Day Two for the Patriots. Fresh out of his final surgery, he inquired about the timeline for pounding the mat.

“When the amputation came up, I think the first thing I said was, ‘When can I start wrestling again? Or when is (weight) lifting?’ ” Blake said.

Ben said the doctor grinned in reaction, shook his head, and asked ‘When you can stand the pain?’

Nothing about this narrative was straightforward or typical for high school athletes.

He dropped down to 114 pounds in the hospital, 24 pounds below his desired mat weight.

He lost more weight after returning home.

In one way, one less limb could become a blessing in disguise.

Anthony Robles, a national champion at Arizona State University at 125 pounds, born with one leg, serves as a blueprint for what is possible for ambulatory athletes. Now, Blake is brushing up on YouTube clips to emulate the motions of Robles.

“It’s very doable,” Blake said. “The fact that the opponent has to get down at your level, and that you’re not at the same level, and I’m comfortable down low when they’re not because they have to bend their knees more, it’s kind of an advantage.”

Initially, like most amputees, Blake had severe pain but after pushing past it, he’s moved to mastering a new stance and shots. The next phase is endurance. He said his adrenaline surge gets him through bouts, but mentally and physically he’s spent after matches.

On Tuesday, Blake put the straps on and grappled varsity at 120 pounds. He lost by technical fall while posting one escape. At weigh-in, he had to sit on the sensitive scale for it to pick up his weight.

All these acts sustained him in the aftermath of this life-altering injury. He wants to get back on the farm, too. His aims to use his prosthetic leg to push in the clutch to operate a tractor once more — he started when he was 13 years old.

It’s quite the real-life reversal.

“The very beginning, I was worried about losing my leg before I’d even thought about amputation,” Blake said. “(My leg) was in there. I didn’t think it was going to be that bad. I just thought it was stuck and that I had a broken bone or two. That’s all I thought it was.”

The next step for Blake, who set foot in Heritage Hills for the first time on his new leg on Tuesday after a six-week process to get the leg, is taking this dramatic reversal to the mat for his reversals of old.

“It’s taking some getting used to,” he said of the prosthetic. “Definitely better than the iWALK (alternative crutch) I’ve been using. Definitely a lot more tired at the end of the day. Overall, it’s been pretty good.”

He said the transition to this new device isn’t as tough as the accident.

“The problems since then (are) slowly regaining (independence),” Blake said. “It’s been a struggle getting back to what I used to be. I had my first session of physical therapy (Friday). It was painful. But other than that, probably getting myself ready for wrestling (is a challenge). Right now, I’m in the worst shape of my life, endurance wise. That will probably be a struggle, getting it back to what it was.”