In what was the worst practice injury to a star player in at least the last several decades of Minnesota Vikings football, the path of Teddy Bridgewater’s career and the team’s 2016 season changed with the buckling of the beloved quarterback’s left knee.
That was seventh months ago today. Aug. 30, 2016. On the practice field at Winter Park, several yards from the sideline and several more yards from a religious statue near the woods that border one of the two outdoor practice fields.
Bridgewater was rolling out when his leg buckled and he fell to the ground, surrounded only seconds later by the medical staff and deeply concerned teammates. As they would find out in the hours to follow, he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament and at least one other, dislocated the knee and suffered other damage around the joint.
“It was a bad day because he’s such a great kid and he had played great in the preseason and he had a good year the year before and then for it to happen on a non-contact, no-one-touch-anybody freaky deal, Eric Sugarman did an unbelievable job saving this kid,” head coach Mike Zimmer recalled Wednesday when meeting with reporters at the NFL owners meetings. “… It could have been really, really bad. Eric did an unbelievable job.”
Sugarman is the team’s director of sports medicine and head athletic trainer. Zimmer credited him with possibly saving Bridgewater’s career and his leg with the quick medical attention Sugarman administered.
Bridgewater’s leg has been saved, as displayed by a video he posted on Instagram earlier this week of him dropping back and throwing the football with his left knee still braced and left leg wrapped.
As for saving his career, that remains to be seen.
While Bridgewater has shot down all interview attempts since his gruesome injury, the Vikings have repeatedly said there is no timetable for his return. With reporters shuffling in and out of Zimmer’s one-hour interview in a room packed with an NFC coach at each table and surrounded by media, the subject of Bridgewater’s status was visited and revisited, to the point that Zimmer joked several times it was the first time he heard a question about Bridgewater.
How is the quarterback doing? What did you think of his Instragram post? Will he play in 2017?
“I have no idea. Honestly, I have no idea,” Zimmer said to that last inquiry. “I saw Teddy in the training room a week or so ago. He was in great spirits, working hard, doing everything. There is no timetable. I keep getting asked these questions, but when he’s ready, he’s ready.”
That has been the mantra for months. He’s progressing, but when and if he plays again is still a question that can’t be answered with any certainty.
His rehabilitation has progressed from work in a pool to doing some motions on dry land. He spends about three weeks a month in Florida training at the same facility where Willis McGahee rehabilitated his severely damaged leg, then comes to Minnesota to display whatever progress he has made for another week.
Sugarman has also monitored some of Bridgewater’s sessions in Florida.
“He’s getting to where his range of motion is good. He’s starting to move more. It’s strengthening the leg,” Zimmer said. “It was a rough injury.”
At least the progress has gotten to the point where there are some lighthearted moments in between the hard work. Even Zimmer, known from the outside as a hard-nosed coach, has progressed from those tortured moments in the days and weeks after the injury to the point where tickling Teddy is allowed.
“I walked into the training room the other day and he was in there and had his leg up and I tickled his foot,” Zimmer said. “He’s in a good place. This part of the process, this is the grind. He’s not around the guys and grinding every single day and it’s frustrating, so every little improvement that he sees is another milestone for him.”
One thing Zimmer doesn’t have to worry about is Bridgewater’s dedication to return. The head coach said he is “a hundred percent” confident that Bridgewater, the first-round pick of the Vikings in Zimmer’s first year as head coach of the team, is doing everything that is asked of him, even when he is training in Florida.
In addition to Sugarman’s occasional visits down South, teammates have stopped to see Bridgewater, according to Zimmer.
The bottom line is that Bridgewater is universally loved at Winter Park. He doesn’t always show the lighter side of his personality publicly, but that endearing trait is often on display when it’s just Bridgewater and his teammates, coaches or fellow Vikings employees.
He even teases Zimmer about the coach’s workouts in a pool.
Bridgewater is likeable and loved. He has dozens, if not hundreds, close to him and tens of thousands of fans cheering for his full recovery. Whether he is ever fully recovered is still a question in which the answer is being developed.
“I think he’s in a good frame of mind. The last time I saw him he was in a good frame of mind,” Zimmer said.
“The biggest thing is try to get healthy and go from there and try to figure out … I want Teddy. I don’t want him going somewhere else.”