MINNEAPOLIS - The Minnesota Vikings are hosting the Denver Broncos this week for joint practices at TCO Performance Center, which means Teddy Bridgewater is back in Minnesota where his NFL career started.
The practice facility is far different, switching to the state-of-the-art facility in Eagan from Winter Park in Eden Prairie. But Bridgewater was on the practice fields Wednesday, the same guy with a smile on his face that Vikings’ fans and Mike Zimmer grew close to, and saw plenty of Bridgewater No. 5 jerseys in the bleachers.
Bridgewater was a first round pick in 2014 by the Vikings, with the No. 32 overall pick. He played in 13 games, starting 12 as a rookie. Then he led the Vikings to an 11-5 record and playoff spot in 2015, having all but won a playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks on a bitterly cold day at TCF Bank Stadium before Blair Walsh hooked a field goal.
Everything changed during an August practice just before the start of the 2016 regular season, which is now closing in on a five-year anniversary. Bridgewater went down with a career-altering non-contact knee injury on a drop back he’s done hundreds of times. Practice stopped and ended early, Bridgewater was rushed to a hospital and team trainers tried to just keep his leg intact.
Many thought he would never play football again, and he was determined to not let that be his story.
"I found myself thinking more about it lately than I have in the past, just about the day I was injured, because I use it as motivation," Bridgewater said after Wednesday’s practice. "Before, I used to brush it off and say, 'Man, it happens,' and keep going. Now it's like, 'Man, here I am. I could have been counted out, and I almost had to get my leg amputated,' and things like that. When I wake up in the morning I'm blessed I get an opportunity to put my feet on the ground and go out here and play football. It's the game that I love to play, so I have so much fun playing this game. More fun than I've ever had the more that I think about what I went through here."
Since that time with the Vikings, Bridgewater had a short stint with the New York Jets before heading to the New Orleans Saints for two seasons as the back-up to Drew Brees. Last year, he started 15 games for the Carolina Panthers and threw for more than 3,700 yards with 15 touchdowns.
Now, he’s competing with Drew Lock for the starting job with the Broncos. He’ll play against the Vikings on Saturday in the preseason, though Lock will get the start. He says his entire career has been a learning process.
"I’ve been able to take away different lessons from each place, whether it’s in Minnesota, where I just grew as a man. I went from a young boy to the man, Teddy Bridgewater. When I stopped in New York, it just taught me briefly that I can still do this. And it just reassured my confidence in things like that," Bridgewater said. "And when I stopped in New Orleans, I learned the value of process. I watched a guy like Drew Brees be the same person every day. Then I go to Carolina and I learned to stand on my word and my integrity."
He said he considers himself blessed just to be on the field again, and cherishes every snap he gets.
"The biggest takeaway from all my stops is that I learned I'm a survivor and no matter the circumstance, no matter the situation, it's just how are you going to survive? You can lay down and be eaten alive, or you survive and keep hunting. So that's been my mindset," Bridgewater said.