Teddy Bridgewater has a way of making people believe in him, even if that means having faith he’ll return from a knee injury so catastrophic that trainer Eric Sugarman is credited with saving his leg.
Bridgewater’s situation pushes us to think about what it means to believe in someone. Does it require faith in that person beyond all reason? If so, then Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer’s feelings about Teddy Bridgewater could be compared to asking a Christian if there is a God and them replying, “Yes, absolutely. I hope.”
When Zimmer was questioned by reporters about Bridgewater’s progress last week, he paused, then said, “I love Teddy Bridgewater,” before giving his answer. Ask the philosopher Voltaire and he will say (or would say if he were alive) that if you love someone, you believe in them. But no matter the number of inquiries, the Vikings’ head coach has declined to say he’s sure Bridgewater will step back on the field someday. It’s clear Zimmer understands the severity of Bridgewater’s knee injury. He also knows Bridgewater’s story. And we believe in the things we know.
The 60-year-old head coach has gone out of his way to let the world see that he believes, and he’s done it in a way that bucks NFL culture. It’s rare to hear a head football coach express genuine emotion for another person. Football generally refers to players as weapons, road graders, gunslingers, blitzers, freaks, grinders and warriors, not complex human souls.
And make no mistake, Zimmer is a football guy. He played quarterback in high school under his dad, a legendary coach in Lockport, Illinois, then moved to linebacker in college. He became a college assistant coach in 1979 and hasn’t received a paycheck from a non-football entity since.
Never did a head coach represent football harder than last year when Zimmer stood along the sidelines with an eye patch after undergoing emergency surgery for a detached retina. Another coach had to stand near him to ensure that Zim wouldn’t be trucked by a wayward play and lose his eyesight. Zimmer also made sure to note that he could break down film with one eye.
Football guys don’t cut open their veins and bleed feelings. They don’t show belief and faith. They preach Next Man Up. But Zimmer is different when it comes to Teddy. On the sweltering day that Bridgewater went down on the practice field, Zimmer was so devastated he invoked the passing of his wife.
“My wife passed away seven years ago,” he said. “It was a bad day and the sun came up the next day.”
And keep in mind, Zimmer is usually brutally honest about players who are unavailable, saying, “I’m used to it,” when asked how he would adapt to missing Sharrif Floyd, who has been plagued by knee injuries. In 2014, Zimmer famously quipped, “You can’t make the club from the tub,” after growing frustrated with the recovery of cornerback Josh Robinson.
Remember, Zimmer is a disciple of legendary head coach Bill Parcells, who wouldn’t even give Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks special treatment. In 1999, the L.A. Times wrote this about Parcells’ approach to handling QBs:
“He rides quarterbacks the way a jockey coming down the homestretch at the Belmont might treat his racehorse. As long as there’s even a slim chance of victory, Bill Parcells is going to his whip hand.”
That’s not the way Zimmer approaches Bridgewater. Instead he’s protective.
In early November 2015, he launched into a tirade when he believed the Rams took a cheap shot at his quarterback.
“If we were on the street, we probably would have had a fight,” Zimmer said after the game.
Zimmer was infuriated when the media questioned him hiding the reason for sitting Bridgewater in a 2016 preseason game. Turns out he was worried that opponents would attack his sore shoulder if it were made public.
For any football coach, acting this way toward a player is unusual in a touching way. And it leaves you wondering why this coach-quarterback relationship is so different. Coaches spend their entire lives – 99 hours per week watching film, if you ask them – preparing for best case, worst case, punt fumble safety touchbacks on every down. They don’t believe in players, they control them, then cast them aside when they are no longer useful.
But Bridgewater has a way of humanizing people that makes them believe. Zimmer is arms-length enough to avoid ever completely revealing why, but people from Bridgewater’s past, understand how the Vikings’ head coach feels. And their stories are enough to make you believe too.
Eli Rogers and Teddy Bridgewater became close at Northwestern High School in Miami, a hotbed for star football talent.
Bridgewater was one of the nation’s most highly regarded quarterback recruits and Rogers was a three-star receiver.
Rogers grew up in a neighborhood called Brownsville, where most people with star football talent never get the chance to use it. The crime rate is 61% above the national average. One of every 22 people is somehow affected by a violent crime. If privileged people start life at third base, Rogers started in the parking lot with no bat.
When Rogers was eight years old, his mother contracted AIDS.
Sometimes Rogers couldn’t understand things his mother was saying because of medication. Sometimes she couldn’t provide the happy, safe environment that every child deserves. So Bridgewater opened his home to Rogers. Bridgewater’s mother Rose Murphy became a second mother to Rogers. The two boys spent time together as any friends would in high school, but Bridgewater made sure Rogers did not turn into one of those 22. Instead he pushed his teammate to become one of every 50 high school players that receives a Division-1 scholarship.
“Teddy is a great person,” Rogers said over the phone. “That’s all there is to it. He’s humble, he’s funny. He’s just a great man.”
On the football field, they had chemistry like Montana and Rice. Every time Bridgewater would be in a tight spot, Rogers would come up big. Turns out, the receiver did that off the field too.
When Bridgewater was 15, Murphy was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Rogers did the only things he could: Pray for his second mom and understand what his best friend was going through.
“With both of our parents battling their problems, that just gravitated us toward each other more,” Rogers said. “God places people in your life for a reason, you know? At the time, Teddy was in my life, we were in each other’s life for a reason. That purpose was fulfilled with us both here now, we’re both in the NFL, we’ve both fulfilled our dreams. That’s all you could ask for.”
Between Bridgewater’s junior and senior years, he threw for more than 5,000 yards and tossed 54 touchdowns with Rogers as his main target. When the time came, both players committed to Miami University. And when head coach Randy Shannon was fired, both backed out and made the decision to go to Louisville. It was there that Rogers saw his quarterback remain level-headed, though he was being hyped as a potential No. 1 overall pick. During Rogers’ college career, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound receiver caught caught 131 passes from Bridgewater.
Rogers points out that part of the reason teammates believe in Teddy is that he takes charge when he’s needed most and Bridgewater’s calmness under pressure comes from those difficult years they worked through together.
“That’s definitely a part of his poise on the field,” Rogers said about the influence Bridgewater’s mother’s battle with cancer had on his mentality. “He may crack a joke or two on the field in a heated moment but [what he’s gone through] is a big factor.”
In training camp last year, as the receiver was fighting for a spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster, Bridgewater sent a photo of the two in ninth grade with the message, “Never forget.”
Rogers responded: “You know I’m never going to forget. We came from nothing.”
In late August, the young receiver was preparing for his debut with the Steelers when he heard his friend went down with a severe knee injury.
His first reaction was to believe in Teddy Bridgewater.
“I felt bad for him because I know what that feeling is like,” Rogers said. “My rookie year I was injured for the entire season, so I felt bad for him, but I knew he would bounce back because he always does and he’s a resilient person.”
Shawn Watson was one of many people close to Teddy Bridgewater who was confused by his fall on draft night.
Were NFL teams so foolish that they could really pass on the draft’s best quarterback because he had a bad pro day? Were they really concerned about his hand size? Are they seriously drafting the overly-cocky, entitled, off-the-field nightmare boy Johnny Manziel instead of the brightest leader in the draft?
Watson had a front-row seat as Bridgewater’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for all of his legendary college performances. He remembers the guy who came off the bench with a broken wrist and injured ankle to throw two touchdowns in a 20-17 win against Rutgers – a win that pushed the Cardinals into a BCS Bowl game. He can still see the quarterback who starred in a Louisville Sugar Bowl shocker over Florida, then went 35-for-45 with 447 yards, three touchdowns in his final college game, a victory in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
“I remember [around draft time] and talking with him on the phone and he wasn’t shaken by it at all,” Watson said. “He’s so stable. He’s a very faithful man and he understands that he’s going to be OK. He knows his faith and his source of his strength is bigger than all that and he just has to keep being steady and living his convictions. He wills things to happen because he’s so convicted. He wills things to happen.”
Watson did his best to convince Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, a college teammate of his, to take Bridgewater.
“I remember telling him when [Spielman] was down looking at the guys, ‘Teddy is a franchise guy. He’s the real deal. And I’m talking about as a person first and as a player.’ Because I think you have to have the people quality to be a high-level guy and he is that person.”
Watson’s experience coaching Bridgewater gives us a window into why Mike Zimmer feels so strongly about his quarterback. From Day 1, Watson, who has been a position coach in Division-I college football since 1985, found that Louisville’s star recruit from Miami believed in the words of John F. Kennedy, who said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
“He said, ‘I want you to coach me hard. I want you to hold me accountable to the highest standard,’” Watson said.
Watson is at Pitt now, where his quarterback Nathan Peterman was drafted in the fourth round by the Buffalo Bills. In order to teach Peterman how to read blitzes or execute a two-minute drill, the 57-year-old coach digs back into his film from 2011 through 2013.
“You know whose film I’m still using to teach my quarterbacks? Teddy,” Watson laughs. “All my cut-ups are him. I sit back and I think, ‘Man, this is the greatest player I’ve ever been around.’”
So when Bridgewater brought the Vikings to the postseason in his second year and won over Minnesota’s head coach, Watson was the least surprised person on earth.
“For me as a coach he challenged me because he wanted to be great,” Watson said. “He is the type of person that you can tell he’s driven. He pulls you in because he’s such a driven person. He’s willing to do the work, he’s so hungry. Sometimes it’s hard to put into words because I don’t think I do it justice – what type of man he is when it comes to people. I know this: He took a program at Louisville and put it on his back and elevated to a really high level. He did that as a player and with his performance, but what goes unseen is when you get to the locker room. He’s got such a unique personality, I mean, he’s for everybody. I think he gets as much out of seeing other people succeed as he does his own success. It’s very unique, especially in today’s world.”
And when Watson’s former pupil went down with a career-threatening injury in late August, Teddy’s ex-OC had a very similar reaction to his best friend: To believe in Teddy Bridgewater.
“I don’t question what the outcome is going to be,” Watson said with emotion in his voice. “He’ll do it. I know him. He’s got a competitor’s heart. He’s going to find his way through all this. I don’t doubt it for one second.”
Bridgewater’s Viking teammates are behind him, but they might not be as optimistic as Rogers or Watson because they saw his knee injury happen.
“When the play happened, it felt like the end of the world,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs wrote in an article for the Player’s Tribune. “I’d never seen people react like that. They had looks of horror on their faces, and no one was moving. The whole field, the whole arena, was silent. All you could hear was Teddy shouting in pain.”
You get the feeling that we’re lucky that there weren’t cameras rolling. Sights like Joe Theismann’s leg breaking underneath Lawrence Taylor, or Napoleon McCallum’s knee bending backwards on Monday Night Football against the 49ers are still turn-away-from-the-TV worthy years and years later.
Vikings players are aware of the reality that Bridgewater might never play again. Doctors have compared his injury to that of Marcus Lattimore, the South Carolina top prospect running back who never played in the NFL after tearing every ligament and dislocating his knee.
Nearly nine months after the injury, the team is still completely silent about his recovery, which in turn tells you everything you need to know. Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole reported that Bridgewater would likely miss the entire 2017 season. Teddy has been sure to toss a few hints around that he’s on his way back though. He Snapchatted a clip of him throwing at a park and has posted other snippets running and doing small drills.
Current starting quarterback Sam Bradford, who admirably filled in for Bridgewater despite being thrown into a brutal situation, told the media in late April that he’s given advice to Teddy on recovery. Bradford tore his ACL in back-to-back seasons in 2013 and 2014. You might think it would be awkward for Bradford to take over as the offense’s leader with beloved Teddy still being around the team working on his recovery, but somehow it isn’t. Bridgewater has tried to help his receivers see through the eyes of Bradford.
“You might not see him on the field on Sundays, but Teddy’s impact on his team is still felt every week,” Diggs wrote. “He texts me and tries to help me play my best from a QB’s point of view. He feeds me that inside look, that inside scoop. He gives me positive energy on a daily basis. We play Madden a lot too…and he usually wins. I’ll cop to that.”
While the Vikings opted not to pick up Bridgewater’s fifth-year option, a loophole in the Collective Bargaining Agreement will allow them to “toll” his contract, carrying it over through 2018 at his current rate of pay. If he is able to play, the Vikings will have to make a decision between going back to Bridgewater or signing Bradford long term.
At the owners meetings this Spring, Zimmer was asked about the possibility of trading his young quarterback if he recovers.
“I want Teddy, I don’t want him going somewhere else,” the Vikings’ coach replied.
If you love someone, you believe in them. And Mike Zimmer believes in Teddy Bridgewater.