Teddy Bridgewater roamed the sideline as the margin on the scoreboard grew wider and wider. Chants of “Ted-dy Ted-dy” started inside U.S. Bank Stadium. A stream of teammates and coaches approached him with kind words or a pat on the backside.
Bridgewater said he wasn’t nervous waiting for his moment. Emotional? Not particularly, he insisted. Just happy.
The road from Aug. 30, 2016, to Sunday afternoon probably felt like an eternity at times, his football career jeopardized by a devastating knee injury in a non-contact practice drill.
Bridgewater has crossed many milestones in his recovery, but none more significant or rewarding than hearing his name called to enter an NFL game again.
“It was a great feeling,” he said.
Bridgewater’s return didn’t happen under the cloak of a quarterback controversy. It came in mop-up duty in the Vikings’ 34-7 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals that clinched the NFC North title.
Mike Zimmer has waited for an opening to get Bridgewater into a game. A beatdown of the no-show Bengals provided a perfect opportunity to give Case Keenum an early exit and let Bridgewater enjoy an emotional return in front of home fans.
When that moment arrived early in the fourth quarter, fans gave him a standing ovation so loud that Bridgewater placed his hands over his ear holes because he had trouble hearing the play-call inside his helmet.
“I’m just glad the glass didn’t break on the roof because I was a little worried once I found out he was going in,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said.
“It was special for everybody to see,” receiver Stefon Diggs said. “You felt the energy.”
Alas, the script had an imperfect ending. Bridgewater’s first pass was high and deflected off Jerick McKinnon’s hands to a Bengals player for an interception. His second and final pass was dropped by Michael Floyd.
His stat line mattered little. Just being on the field again gave Bridgewater joy.
“It was amazing hearing the crowd chanting and things like that,” he said.
The reaction in the stadium and along the Vikings sideline spoke to Bridgewater’s popularity. He remains a beloved figure inside the organization. Bridgewater noted that Keenum helped lead the cheers.
“Case is an awesome guy,” he said. “To see him standing behind me was just amazing.”
The Vikings have emerged as legitimate Super Bowl contenders with a chance to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs because Keenum has performed brilliantly in relief of Sam Bradford and Bridgewater. Keenum is their leader now.
The sidebar is that Bridgewater got his feet wet again and now can check that box. Bridgewater was his usual stoic self afterward, saying, “I didn’t really feel much” when asked about his emotions.
“I was actually relaxed and calm,” he said.
Rudolph was more reflective. He recalled the “devastation that ran through our entire team” the day Bridgewater’s left knee caved and then seeing him so resolute at the hospital later that night.
“I knew there was no way he would be done playing football,” Rudolph said. “He was so determined to get back out there and play. Today was not a surprise for me.”
What gave him so much confidence when the prognosis seemed grim?
“Adrian [Peterson] was there, so he joked with Adrian that his knee rehab recovery would be way better than Adrian’s [in 2012],” Rudolph said. “He had every right to be down, and he wasn’t. He had a big smile on his face.”
Bridgewater smiled a lot again Sunday as he discussed his first game back. Like when someone asked if he wishes he had been hit once to get that out of the way.
“No, not at all,” he said.
He smiled when he talked about the support of his teammates.
“We have a group of men in this locker room who uplifted their brother throughout a hard time in his life,” he said.
And he smiled about getting a second chance at his career.
“Usually when you have a dream and you wake up, you don’t remember what happened in that dream,” he said. “I’m fortunate to pick up right where my dream left off. Nothing tops that.”