EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Teddy Bridgewater has been all about mini milestones, the past 400-plus days.
He reached a significant one Wednesday afternoon as he returned to practice for the first time since suffering a severe leg injury in a preseason practice almost 14 months ago.
Bridgewater met with the Twin Cities media on Thursday and said he had been dreaming of taking the practice field at Winter Park for over a year.
"I've been thinking about that moment every day. I used it as motivation," Bridgewater said. "I used it to tell myself, 'Hey, I'm one step closer.'
"Being out there and running out of that tunnel yesterday, it did something to me in a good way," Bridgewater added.
Bridgewater suffered a leg injury on Aug. 30, 2016, in a non-contact drill. He missed all of the 2016 season after throwing for 3,231 yards and 14 touchdowns while leading the Vikings to an 11-5 record and an NFC North title in 2015.
While returning to practice was a major step in his return to football, Bridgewater said he has bigger goals for himself going forward, even while he keeps the same day-by-day approach he's used during his grueling rehab process.
"I definitely believe I'll play this year," Bridgewater said. "But I can't just sit here and say it, I have to put the work in on the practice field and show the training staff or the higher authority that eventually I can get back to the player who I was.
"Right now, I'm focused on practicing and being around the guys, interacting on the football field before I think about playing in live action," Bridgewater added.
The former first-round pick said he has total faith in his leg that was injured less than two weeks before the start of the 2016 season.
"I'm very confident. I wouldn't have went out on that practice field if I wasn't," Bridgewater said. "I'm going to continue to work hard. I'm going to continue to strengthen it and get more mobility and gain more confidence."
Bridgewater's teammates said that although the former first-round pick hasn't played football in more than a year, they still regard him as a team leader in Minnesota.
The 24-year-old quarterback was a team captain before the injury wiped out his entire 2016 season.
"Guys really respect what he does," said Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen. "The most important thing as a leader is having guys around you that respect you and actually listen and trust what you're saying. We have a lot of guys in this locker room with a lot of faith and trust in his abilities."
Stefon Diggs, who missed last week's game with a groin injury that he suffered in Week 5 at Chicago, did not practice Wednesday but did observe part of Bridgewater's return.
"I wasn't out there too long, but when I was out there, he looked great," Diggs said. "If that doesn't inspire you, I don't know what will, somebody coming back from an injury like that with a smile on his face, ready to go and get back to work. I'm just happy he's back."
Bridgewater said Thursday morning that he thought his first practice went well, and that he showed little signs of rust. The quarterback said he bulked up a bit over the past year and felt like he had more zip on his passes.
"It was great to be back out there yesterday working with the guys. It's been a long 14 months," Bridgewater said. "But it was great to be back out there and see the reaction from the guys, reaction from the fans. It meant a lot to me. I have to continue to get better now.
"I was feeling pretty good … I'd been working in the doghouse, in the backyard by myself," Bridgewater later added. "To be able to get out there with the guys, it was pretty fun."
Bridgewater said he is unsure when he will play this season, but added that he has gotten into his usual weekly routine of breaking down film, setting a sleep pattern and mentally programming himself to play.
He also said he's ready to be tested physically — including taking contact — down the road, but added he isn't going to rush into anything.
"You have to be smart with [contact] because the plan is to get to the race in order to run the race," Bridgewater said. "If we're not being smart and I'm not doing everything to get to the race, I won't be able to run the race.
"That being said, we're just going to compete at a high level and don't hold anything back," Bridgewater added. "Eventually when I get out there against an opponent, they're going to be coming after me. It's going to be fun."
Through it all, Bridgewater said he endured ups and downs while rehabbing from a potentially devastating injury.
But he never lost faith along the way, always telling himself he would make it back.
For Bridgewater, returning to practice Wednesday was just one of numerous mini milestones to come.
"It's not hard taking it day-by-day at all. I learned to appreciate each day," Bridgewater said. "Each day I wake up, put my feet on the ground and am thankful. I'm able to walk, stand up on my own.
"There was a time I needed help and assistance," Bridgewater added. "I learned to appreciate the smaller things."