From the day he took that ambulance ride out of 9520 Viking Drive to the day he returned to practice, Teddy Bridgewater spent 59 weeks thinking, wondering and working toward this moment.
So it wasn’t all about how much he did with the Vikings on his first day back Wednesday, it was that he did anything.
“Just being able to get back on the football field, that was a mini-milestone,” Bridgewater said. “Still got some work to do.”
Bridgewater spoke to Twin Cities reporters Thursday for only the second time since his gruesome injury nearly 14 months ago. He exuded the same ear-to-ear grin he had through his 17-12 record as the Vikings starter before dislocating his left knee and tearing multiple ligaments during a routine August practice drill last year.
In his first full practice since that day, he was allotted roughly one-fifth of the team reps in order to ease his surgically repaired knee into action.
“Didn’t feel rusty at all,” Bridgewater said. “Just good to be out there with the guys — in the huddle, calling plays, looking those guys in the eyes and seeing those guys trust in me and I trust in those guys.”
Experiencing that again is a dream realized for the 24-year-old Bridgewater, who said doctors “probably” told him along the way he may never play again.
“I’ve been thinking about that moment every day,” Bridgewater said, “because I use it as motivation. I use that to tell myself, ‘Hey I’m one step closer.’ Being out there, running out of that tunnel [Wednesday] just did something to me, in a good way.”
Bridgewater didn’t want to put a timetable on when he thinks he’ll be able to play again, using an analogy: “So if we’re not being smart and doing everything to get to the race, I’m not running the race.”
Bridgewater’s once-separated knee joint put, as the Vikings have suggested, his limb at risk. But after months of rehabilitation, he said he’s “very confident” in his knee and added he’s bulked up elsewhere throughout the process.
“I know my upper body is a little stronger,” Bridgewater said. “I think I’m throwing the ball with more zip. I don’t think Latavius [Murray] believes that, but it’s a fact.”
He and the Vikings are taking baby steps as his rehab intensifies. Working him into practice during the regular season presents its own complications, since reps are a crucial, finite resource while game-planning for that week’s opponent.
The current focus is putting Bridgewater into “uncontrolled environments,” head coach Mike Zimmer said this week, which includes a couple 11-on-11 reps taken away from starter Case Keenum during team drills.
Early observations were that Bridgewater moved around “fine,” offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said, while wearing a noticeable brace on his left knee.
“When you go out there and you’re playing 11-on-11, it’s uncontrolled,” Shurmur said. “There are blockers, you have to move. It’s very important, and you just need to do it. It’s like time on task. We’ll just try to get him as many as we can and keep bringing him along, much like we’ve been doing since the injury.”
Bridgewater’s practice reps serve two purposes: first, to show if he’s physically ready to return to action and secondly, to acquaint himself with Shurmur’s offense.
While he was on the on the physically-unable-to-perform list, Bridgewater was involved in “every meeting,” Shurmur said, and took the practice scripts to replicate on his own.
Bridgewater figured he was ready to practice “a couple weeks” ago.
The Vikings have until Nov. 8 to decide whether to activate Bridgewater or shelve him for the season.
But that’s not a question to Bridgewater.
“I definitely believe I’ll play this year,” Bridgewater said. “I can’t just sit here and say it. I have to continue to put the work in on the field, on the practice field and show the training staff or higher authority I eventually can get back to the player I was.”