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Teddy Bridgewater spills emotions after being active in game

Vikings quarterback returns for first time since suffering horrific leg injury almost 15 months ago

LANDOVER, Maryland — It was an intensely personal moment laid bare because of the public nature of Teddy Bridgewater’s work. His horrific, career-threatening injury, his grueling rehab and the chance to finally reclaim his career — so much weighed on his mind. And as the Minnesota Vikings quarterback cried uncontrollably Sunday afternoon before kickoff here against the Washington Redskins, one could certainly understand why.

“I was excited to be back out there,” Bridgewater said. “Coming out of the locker room. Lacing my cleats up. Buckling my shoulder pads. Buckling my helmet. Running out of the tunnel. Hearing the national anthem. It just makes you cherish every single thing.”

For the first time since the 2015 season, Bridgewater was active for a regular-season NFL game. Only about 15 months ago, he coped with the possibility of losing a leg. Back then, the face of Minnesota’s franchise didn’t know whether football would be part of his future. Bridgewater, however, persevered. He made it back. And although Bridgewater remained on the sideline throughout the Vikings’ 38-30 win, there was no bigger star at FedEx Field.

The Vikings made that clear.

“He’s just such a great guy,” said wide receiver Adam Thielen, who torched Washington for a game-high 166 receiving yards and a touchdown on eight catches. “Now that he’s active, it’s fun to see him prepare [again].”

Said Vikings first-string quarterback Case Keenum, “He’s a fan favorite. He’s my favorite, too. I may have a Teddy Bridgewater jersey at home. He’s a great dude and a great teammate.”

Active in a meaningful game for the first time since he started in Minnesota’s playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Jan. 10, 2016, Bridgewater was Keenum’s backup. He dutifully performed clipboard duty, assisted head coach Mike Zimmer and Keenum in analyzing what Washington did on defense (well, attempted to do, anyway) and was Keenum’s biggest cheerleader. Bridgewater had a lot for which to cheer: Keenum tossed a personal-best four touchdown passes to guide the NFC North-leading Vikings to their fifth consecutive victory.

After each of Keenum’s big plays, his backup was among the first players to greet him on the sideline, offering congratulatory handshakes and pats on the back. Bridgewater flashed so many smiles, you genuinely got the feeling he was happy for Keenum. We’re confident Bridgewater was thrilled for himself to be back so close to the action.

Many NFL observers doubted we’d ever see Bridgewater in such a position again.

During practice on Aug. 30, 2016, Bridgewater’s left leg essentially snapped in two after he planted his foot awkwardly on a noncontact drill. He suffered a dislocated knee and torn ligaments, prompting fears he could lose his leg. As Bridgewater lay on the ground, many of his shaken teammates dropped to one knee and prayed. The gruesome scene was all the more painful for the Vikings and their fans because the personable young man embodied the organization’s hope for the future.

In only his second NFL season, the Vikings’ 2014 No. 1 draft pick (32nd overall) directed the team to an 11-5 record and the NFC North title. Bridgewater improved across the board statistically from his rookie season, and the Vikings believed they were set for a decade or so at football’s most important position.

As soon as doctors cleared him to begin rehab after major surgery, Bridgewater began the long climb. Minnesota traded for veteran quarterback Sam Bradford, who impressed statistically — Bradford’s 71.6 completion percentage in 2016 was the highest single-season mark in league history — but nonetheless failed to lead the team back to the postseason. Bradford last week was placed on season-ending injured reserve after having knee surgery and likely won’t return to the Vikings, who used Bradford’s former roster spot to add Bridgewater from the physically unable to perform list.

Not surprisingly, the Vikings have proceeded cautiously with Bridgewater’s comeback. He mostly stayed out of the public eye while working diligently with team medical personnel, preferring to avoid the fishbowl existence of an NFL quarterback as long as possible. On Sunday, Bridgewater was completely out in the open.

His emotional pregame moment occurred while he sat on the bench. Teammates and coaches approached to wish him well, and some in the announced crowd of more than 74,000 shouted kind words. Bridgewater lost it.

“Once I got the final word on the injury that I experienced, I never lost faith” about making a comeback, Bridgewater said. “Going out there today was very emotional for me. It’s been a long process.”

Despite the extent of Bridgewater’s leg damage, Thielen never doubted his teammate would do all he could to get what he wanted.

“I’m impressed,” Thielen said. “But at the same time, just knowing Teddy, I knew if there was one person that was going to do it, it was Teddy. His attitude, the way he comes to work … that’s the impressive part. His attitude through everything.”

Don’t forget Bridgewater’s strong support system. He definitely hasn’t.

“I’m proud of the team that worked with me,” Bridgewater said. “I’m proud of the training staff. I’m proud of the strength and conditioning staff. My family, my friends, these guys in this locker room, I’m proud of everyone who … helped me get here.”

Of course, Bridgewater’s journey is far from complete.

He turned 25 this past Friday, so he’s still young enough to have a long, productive career. First, though, he’ll have to prove that his reconstructed leg is again strong enough to withstand the violence that occurs during an NFL season. There’s only one way to do that: play.

The issue is, Keenum, a journeyman, has far exceeded expectations on a fill-in basis for the red-hot Vikings. Making a change now wouldn’t seem like the smartest move. Zimmer has a plan, “and we’ll just see how it goes,” he said, declining to reveal his thinking. “Sometimes plans change. We’ll sit down this week and we’ll visit about it and go from there.”

On Sunday, Bridgewater took another step. He still has many to go. But at least he’s back in the game. For someone who has fought so hard, that’s a great place to be.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.