teddy_top
Out of the darkness, sharing his light
Teddy Bridgewater's comeback wasn't easy, but the way he reached people always has been.
By Darin Gantt Nov 26, 2020
Photographs By Brandon Todd

Teddy Bridgewater did a superhuman thing.

But Teddy Bridgewater is still very human.

Most fans and even his work acquaintances don't see anything but happy Teddy, smiling Teddy, singing Teddy, upbeat Teddy. And that version is still the largely accurate one, most of the time, because he feels an obligation to be that guy.

Those closest to him have seen the other side, but only briefly, because that's the Teddy the world needs to see and the one he wants to present.

Vikings assistant coach and former cornerback Terence Newman may be one of the few who have seen the Teddy that's largely hidden from view. He's seen the flashes of doubt, the moments when the star quarterback wasn't sure if he was ever going to play again at all, much less play well.

And when Newman saw those glimpses, he made sure they went away. Because he knows what Teddy means to people.

Too often when we watch football games — games played by men in helmets and armor, covering faces and bodies that we rarely see — we assume the men inside are indestructible because they look that way. And because so many people are invested in fantasy football, or even their lives outside ball games, they're OK going on with the assumption the people inside those suits of armor must be indestructible too.

The Teddy that everyone sees — smiling, dancing, telling jokes and singing songs and being great at playing football — certainly appears to be.

That's because he's back now, after effectively destroying his left knee in a non-contact fall during Vikings practice in 2016. That story's been told. They called an ambulance in the middle of practice. It was that bad. And that injury has practically become another cast member in the screenplay of his life, something to move the story along to this year, as if The Injury was a plot device designed to deliver him to Charlotte, so he could overcome a big thing and share his light with others.



INTO THE DARKNESS

The days after the injury were hard.

If you need graphic details of the injury, they're out there on the internet. The short version is, his knee dislocated, tearing the ACL and doing a lot of other damage as well. It took two surgeries to fix, and there were immediate concerns in Minnesota that he might not walk normally, much less play football.

But before the injury, teammates were used to Bridgewater being the guy to keep other people up. So when Newman would walk into the Vikings training room, he could see right away what kind of day it was going to be.

Former CB and current Vikings assistant coach Terence Newman played with Bridgewater at Minnesota from 2015-17.
Former CB and current Vikings assistant coach Terence Newman played with Bridgewater at Minnesota from 2015-17.

"I remember, there were times I'd walk in there, and I saw the look on Teddy's face and knew he wasn't right," Newman said of Bridgewater's first days of a rehab process that would last more than a year. "When I saw that look, I'd make eye contact, and I'd walk in, and I'd walk back out and in again, so we could start over and he could get back to where he needed to be.

"He appreciated the fact I knew what he was going through. But acknowledging the fact I knew what he was going through was something he needed. I was not going to let him feel bad for himself in that moment."

The message was unspoken, but it was clear.

Too many people were expecting Teddy to be Teddy, for themselves, for the team, and for everyone around them.

On those days, Teddy had to be Teddy for himself, so Newman would back out of the room, allow Bridgewater to reset, and walk back in for that flash of the Teddy everyone sees, so he could get back to being the guy everyone assumed he was every moment of the day.

"When you're looking in the face of difficulty, you have to make sure you're smart with it," Newman said. "What you want to do with adversity is smile at it. It's like, 'Today's not that day, Teddy, too many people need your energy.'

"He had some bad days. Being around him, he's been in some dark places. But he has an energy that people need."

Too often, Bridgewater is reduced to a stock character in football, the guy who overcame The Injury.

Even his name lends to the effect of removing the person from the personality profile. Football players are usually referred to by last names, the ones stenciled across the backs of their suits of armor. Bridgewater may be a quarterback, or he could be a banker. Theodore is clearly a lawyer or a trust-fund baby. Ted could be the guy who sells you some insurance, or the guy who fixes your roof.

But Teddy is approachable. Teddy is comfortable. Teddy is warm. Teddy is welcoming, making you think about cartoon bears in children's books (of which, of course, there is one).

Even Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who shares a close bond with his former player, only lets you see the surface, and like most people, only refers to him by his nickname.

Zimmer referenced text messages between the two of them he wouldn't share. He clearly doesn't like discussing the team's decision to part ways with the former first-rounder for medical reasons. Like most coaches, he clearly loves Teddy.

"Even when I went to see him in the hospital, he was still upbeat then," Zimmer said. "He's never going to get down and be woe-is-me."

Except sometimes, he was.

Xavier Rhodes and Teddy Bridgewater during a Vikings practice.
Xavier Rhodes and Teddy Bridgewater during a Vikings practice.

Colts cornerback Xavier Rhodes, a former Vikings teammate, saw it from time to time. And like Newman, seeing his friend hurting made him uncomfortable.

"When he was in the early days of that rehab, he was in a lot of pain. You could see it in his eyes," Rhodes said. "Every now and then he'd look at you and say 'I ain't going to lie, this hurts so bad.'

"But 10 minutes later, he's back to being Teddy."

That obligation to keep others up is a key component to his leadership, and really his personality.

"If you're down, he will stay around you until he sees you happy," Rhodes said.

"He's funny without trying," Newman said. "He's got a sharp tongue and a quick wit, and when he needs to, he can be hilarious."

Newman described Bridgewater as "a bit of a chameleon," in that he can fit into nearly any group or situation. That's helpful in a football locker room, which is filled with people from every geographic corner and demographic category of the country. Rich guys, poor guys. Black guys, white guys. Smart guys, and guys who let other people think for them.

"Everyone has a choice in what they do and who they are," Newman said. "He's just such a genuine person. He cares about all the people he comes across in a day."



BRINGING THE LIGHT

After he overcame The Injury, he made a cameo with the Jets but was traded to New Orleans. He's talked about rediscovering the joy of football there, and that's certainly what was projected.

"Teddy, that's my dog," Saints running back Alvin Kamara said. "He just had a calmness about him (that) I think made him likable. He was a great locker room guy. He was just calm. Always calm, cool Teddy. . . .

"He definitely has a certain energy about him. Like, when I say calm and cool, just like, I think the way he approaches like the job, it's never like, the moment is never too big for him. Now having fun, he always had fun, like, it was never a moment where he was down in the dumps about something or like, let the game get to him. If it was a mistake, I mean, he's going to keep moving, he stays calm. He definitely has fun with everything he does."

The people in Carolina have only known him for a short time, but they're quickly figuring that out.

Teddy Bridgewater

Panthers coach Matt Rhule has coached long enough to know that injuries can take players to "deep, dark places."

"It's not like 'Hey, I'm injured, I can't play,'" Rhule said. "You wake up, you're in pain, you're constantly having to push your body to the next step. It's getting up early. It becomes part of your life. It's really hard. It can wear on you, it can be depressing, it can be hard, it can be mentally exhausting."

"I think it speaks a lot to Teddy's mental state, his support network, his family, his loved ones. I think it speaks a lot to the doctors and all the rehab people, all the medical people that helped him get to this point.

"And it speaks to his faith. I think it took a lot of faith, both in himself and things far greater than he to get where he is."

Knowing that struggle only adds to the respect he's gained for his quarterback, who plays a role for the Panthers far beyond calling plays and throwing passes.

"He's someone who positively affects the people around him," Rhule said. "He's someone who makes sure the people around him are having a great day. And that's important to me."

Hearing all these stories about him, there's also a temptation to think Bridgewater's perfect. That's not always the case.

"He is definitely cheap," Rhodes said. "He'll definitely try to get out of paying a bill if he can.

"Of course, he also ends up picking it up for other people, more often than not."

Bridgewater happily copped to that. He joked a few weeks ago about celebrating his birthday at Olive Garden for "some salad and some bread." A recent social media post showed him standing next to his minivan, wearing some new promotional gear for the "Little Bear Teddy" book his girlfriend Erika Cardona wrote.

He wrote, "If it's free, it's for me," but said he was only talking about the clothes. The minivan wasn't comped, and it's definitely on purpose.

"I think people may have thought I was talking about the van," he said. "But my van's about me staying low-key."

Low-key Teddy is another key aspect here.

Asked what his friend would likely do when he retired from football, Rhodes laughed and said: "Gain 40 pounds."

"He's so laid back, so chill, I could see him just relaxing and getting big," Rhodes said.



But that's for later.

Right now, Bridgewater's still in the middle of his own story, and what it means to others.

As you might imagine, he's not thrilled talking about The Injury. If it was your leg, you probably wouldn't be either. But he's generally polite about it and dutifully hits a few of the highlights when asked, as quickly as he can to get through the conversation.

That's consistent with his approach over the years. Many football people try to be boring on purpose in interviews, so they don't reveal much or attract opponents' attention. Some of them are actually boring, but it appears this is an affectation for Bridgewater, designed with a football purpose in mind.

Teddy Bridgewater speaking to the Minnesota media for the first time after his injury.
Teddy Bridgewater speaking to the Minnesota media for the first time after his injury.

"If you're seeking out the media, saying things all the time, that's just added stuff you've put on your plate," Newman pointed out. "You could also choose to move in anonymity and be free. To handle the job professionally, there's a right way and a wrong way to do it.

"You know Teddy's going to make great decisions on and off the field, and he doesn't make things harder than they have to be. I imagine that's a great change of pace there because there's one less thing to worry about."

To get Bridgewater talking about anything, he has to be talking about what his comeback means rather than the comeback itself. As usual, he shifts the focus to others.

Along with his spectacularly efficient play, it's why football coaches — even the ones who haven't coached him — love him. He has the ability to bring the spotlight back to the collective effort. When asked about this week's emotions, returning to the place his career began and almost ended, he regurgitated one of the hoariest football cliches, which also happens to be true.

"I'm aware of the storylines and the buildup," he said. "But this is the most important game because it's the next game."

That would be true, except for the larger point when it comes to Bridgewater.

Everything he's doing here has a larger purpose.

The coming back from The Injury was for him, and for football, but it also allowed him to show that resilience to people who need it.

"I just remind myself, there's always someone out there going through something 10 times worse than what I may have gone through or might be experiencing at the moment," he said. "It's all about the mindset that I have. I tell myself every day: I get the same 24 hours as the guys cleaning toilets or mopping floors at hospitals and schools. It's all about how I maximize my 24 hours.

"I see myself as a humble servant. One of my purposes in life is to make those around me better. Whether that's being positive, just giving a smile, just little things that go a long way. At the end of the day, I go home, look in the mirror, and say, 'Did I maximize my 24 hours, be the best version of myself?' and I can be pleased with myself every day."

And usually, so can everyone around him.

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