MERIDEN — Ethan Dudley has a front-row seat at Platt football practice.
He’s along the sideline, following every play. He knows them inside and out.
And it’s turning him inside-out to be able to only watch.
His right knee bandaged and in a brace since undergoing reconstructive surgery, Platt’s two-time 1,000-yard rusher was perched in a wheelchair watching his teammates go through Monday’s two-a-day paces.
He called out to them. They called back, chatted him up on water breaks.
One of the team’s three senior captains, Dudley stays outwardly upbeat. That can take a lot of work.
“It’s real tough seeing all your guys out there, who you’ve played football with forever, and you can’t do nothing about it,” Dudley confided. “It’s heartbreaking. I’d give anything to be out there and I just can’t.
“It breaks my heart seeing these guys out here, and when it comes to the season it’s going to be even worse, but you’ve just go to live with it and move on. I told these guys 100-percent support from me no matter what happens.”
What happened roughly a month ago cost Dudley his third and final varsity football season in Blue and Gold. Playing in a summer 7-on-7 passing tournament on an off day from American Legion baseball — Dudley is a standout center fielder — he tried to avoid colliding with an opposing player and hurt his knee.
The swelling persisted for several days. Tests were ordered and the severity was detected: torn right ACL and meniscus.
Dudley underwent surgery last Tuesday. This Tuesday, he started a rehab regimen projected to have him back to 100 percent by January or February.
In the meantime, the 2018 football season will come and go for a two-time All-Conference running back who led the area last year with 1,329 yards and, in 2016, as a sophomore, ran for 1,020.
Dudley even proved to be a natural at safety when the Panthers suffered injuries on the defensive side of the ball in 2017.
Add to that his value as a team leader and the Panthers have sustained a major loss.
“He’s a great teammate. He’s humble; he’s supportive,” noted Platt head coach Jason Bruenn. “Even before surgery, he would jump in stretching lines. Whatever he could physically do, he was doing. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
“When you look at him and say, ‘Man, he can’t play senior year, 14 hundred yards and he’s a defensive player,’ but he’s just a great person,” Bruenn added. “That’s really what hurts the most: a kid like that who’s done everything the right way, who’s been a positive role model in the school, can’t finish out that football year.”
Season-ending knee injuries have been the scourge of some of the area’s best players over the years. Most recently, Southington linebacker/running back Ryan Montalvo missed all of 2016. Same for Maloney running back Freddie Hidalgo in 2017.
This year, Dudley isn’t alone even on his own team. Another Panther, Ian Agnew, is out for the year with a knee injury.
“E.J., he’s got a great mentality, a great heart, great person,” remarked senior center and captain Nehemiah Vargas. “It hurt us all big, but we have to fight through it. He’s showing a lot of strength. He’s coming out here any time he can. He’s supporting us as much as he can.”
Dudley will continue to serve in his captain’s role. Bruenn jokes he’s added the senior to his staff.
“I already told him he’s our running back coach. He’s got to help coach somewhere and he knows how to play running back.”
Dudley speaks highly of his replacements in the backfield. There’s Sean Bell Jr., who saw some varsity time behind Dudley last year as a sophomore. This year’s up-and-coming soph is Roberto Salas.
“I think they’re capable of doing anything,” Dudley said. “From what I’ve been seeing, they perform and they do what they have to do. And I’m going to help them progress and be the best they can.”
That support is a two-way street, something that could help Dudley in his recovery and help the Panthers rebound from a 4-6 season born of injuries and inner turmoil.
“This season is just dedicated to him,” said fellow captain Jake Baker. “We’re going to just play as a team and figure it out, work together and just do it for him.”
Grueling as it is, Dudley is looking forward to rehab sessions. There will be physical and psychological benefits. Rehab gets him on the mend. Rehab gets him active again.
“I’m going to try to be in there as much as possible,” Dudley said. “I take that very serious. Not a joke in there.”
If Dudley recovers as expected, he’ll be good to go for the 2018 baseball season.
This past spring, he was a key piece in Platt’s 13-7 run to the CCC South-Colonial Division title. He batted .385, legged out seven doubles and six triples, stole 11 bases and scored 24 runs. He was named to the All-Record-Journal Team.
“Baseball, I plan on having a great year. I want to show out. It’s going to be very emotional for me because football wasn’t there this year.”
Baseball could prove to be a path to college. Dudley is certainly capable of playing at that level. Same with football.
Dudley was drawing interest from schools in both sports. He takes heart in the fact that there’s plenty of video of his gridiron exploits as a junior.
“I’m not giving up on football,” he said. “It’s a setback from this year. It happens, but I’m not giving up on football.”
So, on Monday, Dudley had his teammates wheel him out to the practice field for the double session. He watched alongside Jake Baker’s grandfather.
At times, the captain called out. At times, he fell silent.
A visitor couldn’t help but note how incongruous it was to see an athlete who moves so fluidly sit so still. Out on the field, teammates couldn’t help but feel the absence of No. 4.
“I’ve played with him since freshman year,” Vargas said. “Having him run behind me and me being the lead block, it’s always so comfortable to just feel him right there, knowing that he’s the one running the ball.”