EAGAN, Minn. – Three years removed from the catastrophic injury that almost cost him his left leg and NFL dreams, Teddy Bridgewater's emotional and inspiring comeback story pens a new chapter on Friday.
Before Bridgewater lines up under center in the Saints' preseason opener, he’ll exchange customary hugs and high fives with the people who saw him through one of the worst times of his life. On the sideline opposite the New Orleans bench will be his former coaches and teammates from Minnesota; the ones he has kept in touch with this summer, such as Adam Thielen, Xavier Rhodes and Dalvin Cook, and others who routinely gushed about his presence as a leader in the locker room during his four seasons with the Vikings. The defenders once used to steering clear of the red No. 5 jersey in practice will now have free rein to get after the quarterback.
Perhaps the most emotional moment of the night will be the embrace Bridgewater inevitably shares with his former coach. Few outside of Mike Zimmer know the full extent of Bridgewater’s painstaking journey and all that it took for the quarterback to get back on the field.
Football may be a grown man’s game, but it is rarely sans emotion. All the what-ifs Zimmer has contemplated over the years of what their journey together could have been will never dissipate. While the coach’s main objective Friday is to test the strength of his team in its first live action of the season, seeing Bridgewater’s perseverance pay off is a feeling he is sure not to forget.
“I’m so happy for him,” Zimmer said. “He texted me the day after the Super Bowl this year. I wish him all the best in the world. I want to hit him like any other quarterback, but I don’t want to hurt him. He’s a great kid. I’m proud of him that he’s been able to overcome that injury and I’ve heard that he’s been doing pretty good down there. So I’m proud of him to overcome that injury because when we got the statistics back when his knee got hurt, it was not really a very positive outlook for him to make it back.”
During training camp ahead of the 2017 season, just a year removed from when Bridgewater dislocated his left knee and tore his ACL when he planted his foot wrong in practice, Zimmer wasn’t sure whether the quarterback would ever be the same player the Vikings drafted with the 32nd overall pick in 2014.
After more than a year of extensive rehab, Bridgewater made his way back to the active roster but saw action only in the waning minutes of a fourth-quarter win over the Bengals in December 2017. The news the Vikings got from their medical staff at the end of the 2017 season wasn’t as positive as Zimmer had hoped for the player who had, for a while, put an end to the revolving door the franchise had at quarterback for more than a decade.
The two parties eventually moved on, with the Vikings turning the chapter towards the Kirk Cousins era and Bridgewater ending up with the Saints last August via a trade with the Jets.
As the Vikings got ready to play the Saints in Week 8 last season, Zimmer asked New Orleans coach Sean Payton about the strides his former quarterback was making. The Saints signed Bridgewater to back up Drew Brees, but Payton noted the promise he saw in Bridgewater from the start.
“He (Payton) told me how much he likes Teddy,” Zimmer said. “And he said he thinks he’s got the future quarterback in the building.”
Bridgewater signed a one-year, $7.25 million contract to stay with New Orleans in March and is expected to "play a lot" on Friday, according to Payton.
This isn’t just a meaningless preseason game for the quarterback. Not after everything he has been through.
“This is the best that I’ve ever felt in my six years,” Bridgewater said. “I feel great. I’m looking forward to just going out there and competing and getting the opportunity to lead my teammates down the field.”
That competitive fire is something Zimmer saw from the beginnings of Bridgewater’s career.
“He’ll try and stick it to us just like we’re going stick it to him,” Zimmer said.
Bridgewater, after all, was supposed to be the quarterback Zimmer would have for the rest of his career as a head coach before eventually riding off into retirement. While that’s no longer the case, the ties between these two run deep, and it’s never been solely related to football.
Inside the locker room in the Mercedes Benz Super Dome, Zimmer knows the passion Bridgewater exudes. For all those years, he saw it up close. Now, it’s time that others get to experience it before witnessing another step in the quarterback’s journey back.
“I’ll tell you a story,” Zimmer said. “When my dad died, his mom called me. I was driving in the car. She called to give her condolences. It’s hard to say thank you and all that. So I said, ‘I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate Teddy.’ She stops me and says, 'Coach, I didn’t call you to talk about Teddy. I just wanted to (send condolences).' So that’s the upbringing that he’s had. I think that kind of carries over into every part of his life.”