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'Hey, Teddy': Vikings Laud Bridgewater Before QB's Return to Play Minnesota

EAGAN, Minn. — Kyle Rudolph is in his 10th season in Purple and is the longest-tenured player with the Vikings.

Over the years, Rudolph has seen hundreds of players come and go in the locker room.

But along the way, there has been one who has stood out among the rest: Teddy Bridgewater.

"I'm pretty certain making this statement that in the 10 years I've been here, he has to be the most likeable player that we've had in the locker room," Rudolph said. "I mean you just talk to people in the front office, coaching staff, players that played with him, workers in the category, everyone loved Teddy. You loved his energy and positivity that he brought every day, his work ethic that he brought every day.

"He was a guy who, for me personally, I was a huge fan of and was really impressed with the progress he was making [before] his injury. Obviously, that was unfortunate," Rudolph added. "And no one really knew if he was going to play football again. To see Teddy back as a franchise quarterback and playing really well, for me, as a huge Teddy Bridgewater fan, it's good to see."

Sunday is shaping up to be a reunion between Bridgewater and the Vikings, the team that selected him with the 32nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Bridgewater is now the starter in his first season in Carolina, where the Panthers have a 4-7 record.

The quarterback made 28 starts in Purple from 2014-15, winning 17 of them, including an 11-5 mark in 2015 as Minnesota claimed the NFC North.

And after a bitter one-point loss to Seattle in the Wild Card round — a game in which Bridgewater put Minnesota in position for a potential win with a 24-yard pass to Rudolph — it seemed as if all arrows were pointing up for the Vikings.

But on a sunny Tuesday afternoon — Aug. 30, 2016 — everything changed when Bridgewater went down in practice. It was a non-contact injury, but a devastating knee dislocation that included a torn ACL and other ligament damage.

Bridgewater reflected Wednesday about the moment his life and career were changed forever.

"Honestly, I try not to think about it," Bridgewater said. "But before the kickoff of games, I just remind myself that, 'You're blessed.'

"I say those two words to myself knowing what I've gone through and to get back to this point," Bridgewater added. "I'm just extremely blessed."

Bridgewater endured a lengthy and arduous rehab, missing the entire 2016 season before returning to the field for the first time in Week 15 of the 2017 season at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the Panthers.

Few had a better view on Bridgewater's journey than Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, who tore his own ACL in Week 4 of 2017 and spent many hours with the quarterback in the training room.

"He was a lot just for me getting back. I had some tough days in the training room with Teddy," Cook said. "He would just tell me, 'Push through, you've got to see the light at the end of the tunnel.' It just used to be little things that he would pitch at me and throw at me to get me through it.

"I could be going through some pain in the training room, trying to get my extension back, trying to get my range of motion back, and he'd make me laugh through it," Cook added. "It would just be those little things, and that's just his character, who he is. It's always good to have a guy like Teddy around so you really don't have dull moments with him."

And away from the training room, Bridgewater made an impact on the entire locker room. In 2017, that was especially true with a rookie running back like Cook, who shares Miami roots with Bridgewater.

"I remember it all. I was just happy that I had him in my corner when I got here," said Cook, whose locker was next to Bridgewater's at Winter Park. "I was just so far away from home and I'd never been this far away. And just to have a guy in my corner that can relate to me and know what I've been through with some of the struggles and knowing the effect of being away from home, it was great for me to sit back and analyze Teddy's situation.

"He was going through his knee injury and his mind was in that recovery stage of getting back on the field. So I was just picking his brain and seeing how he went about his business, his recovery, just everything," Cook added. "He handed it to me, he put it all on a platter and just laid it on the line for me of how to be a pro, how to handle your business, how to go to meetings. Everything … the little details … Teddy gave it to me."

If Bridgewater had moved on after a few seasons, the Vikings would still be glad to see him Sunday. But given all that the quarterback has overcome in the past four-plus years, it's safe to say he still has plenty of fans inside Minnesota's organization for every other game of the season.

That includes Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, an old-school coach who never wavered in his praise and respect for Bridgewater.

"He's just one of those guys that's always in a good mood," Zimmer said of Bridgewater. "Everybody gravitates towards him. Nothing really phases him, just goes about his business."

Bridgewater returned to the field for the first time since his injury on Dec. 17, 2017. He played just nine snaps, but the moment was more than that.

It was about the standing ovation for Bridgewater from the sellout crowd, and about Case Keenum and Rudolph spurring them on.

"I was on the sideline, and that's probably the loudest I've heard that stadium since I've been here," Cook said. "It was loud. It was crazy. … I'm glad I got to experience it.

"It's probably one of the greatest moments, after the "Minneapolis Miracle," since I've been here," Cook added. "Just a memorable moment to see a guy come back from something so gruesome … and to see him back on the field, it's amazing."

Bridgewater said Wednesday that the moments were a blur, and that he's appreciative of all of the support he received from the Purple faithful. But he's also focused on the task at hand, and in his usual steady demeanor, isn't too caught up in the hoopla surrounding Sunday's reunion.

"I can't even recall. I remember being welcomed back and feeling the love from coaches, the staff, the fans, everyone involved with the Vikings organization," Bridgewater said. "Each week, my mind just kind of focuses on what's next. I'm aware I get the opportunity to go back to Minnesota and play a game there and see some familiar faces again.

"You can't make these games bigger than what they are," Bridgewater later added. "I'm aware of the storyline and the buildup and all that, but this is the most important game because it's the next game."

Bridgewater will likely share a few personal moments and share some socially distanced hellos in pregame Sunday morning.

But when kickoff nears, the mood will shift from fun to business.

Just ask Zimmer, who explained an interaction between the coach and QB when the NFL schedule was released in early May.

"Teddy and I have a great relationship. We've talked ever since he's left," Zimmer said. "When the schedule came out — I don't know if he texted me or I texted him — but I told him I was rooting for him in 15 games, just not when we played them, and he basically said the same thing.

"I'm proud of what he's done. He's a great kid, great family," Zimmer added. "It is a little different when you're as close to somebody … but you're still trying to beat the heck out of him as best as you can."


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