Due to the coronavirus pandemic, there will be no fans on hand Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, and Teddy Bridgewater is planning to spend his weekend in Minnesota mostly sequestered in his hotel room. But you can bet the former Vikings quarterback will see much love while he is in town to play his former team.
Bridgewater, in his first year with the Carolina Panthers, will return to Minnesota to face the Vikings for the first time as a starter. He was without a doubt the most beloved player on the team during his 2014-17 tenure with the Vikings.
“Minnesota has a way of showing their hospitality, so in some shape or form or passion, the people of Minnesota will show Teddy some love in a COVID-friendly way,” said defensive end Stephen Weatherly, who played for the Vikings from 2016-19 and started Carolina’s first nine games this season before being sidelined for the year with a finger injury.
Last weekend, Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph called Bridgewater the “most likeable player we’ve had in the locker room” in his 10-year career. And Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, in his seventh season, agreed Wednesday.
Through all the hoopla, Bridgewater is trying to remain on an even keel. He is again a starting quarterback four years after suffering a devastating knee left injury on Aug. 30, 2016 in Minnesota’s final preseason practice. Bridgewater suffered a torn ACL and a dislocated knee joint, and was for the 2016 season and pretty much all of the 2017 season.
Bridgewater’s only Vikings action in 2017 was in a late-season mop-up role against Cincinnati at U.S. Bank Stadium. After he was not re-signed by the Viikings, he spent 2018 and 2019 as a backup in New Orleans before signing a three-year, $63 million deal with Carolina.
Bridgewater lined up for one play at wide receiver in a Saints game on Oct. 28, 2018 at Minnesota. But on Sunday, he is set to start at quarterback after missing one game because of a minor right knee injury.
“For me, it’s just another opportunity to go out and do what I love to do,” Bridgewater said Wednesday. “You can’t make these games bigger than what they are. I’m aware of the story and buildup and things like that, but that’s the most important game because it’s the next game.”
Former fullback Zach Line, Bridgewater’s Vikings teammate from 2014-16 and during his two Saints seasons, disagreed about Sunday not being a big game.
“It will be special,” Line said . “I’m sure him and Zimmer are both pumped up. I’m sure they have a bond for life. He was Zimmer’s first quarterback pickup, and it was Teddy’s first home as an NFL player.”
Zimmer took over as coach of the Vikings in January 2014, and four months later, Bridgewater was the Vikings’ first-round draft pick (No. 32 overall) out of Louisville. Bridgewater became the starter as a rookie, and was expected to be Zimmer’s long-term quarterback until his devastating injury before the 2016 season. Bridgewater said he and Zimmer have “bonds that stay forever.”
“Teddy and I have a great relationship,” Zimmer said. “We’ve talked ever since he’s left. When the schedule came out, I don’t know if he texted me or I texted him, but I told him I was rooting for him in 15 games, just not when we played them, and he basically said the same thing. I’m proud of what he’s done. He’s a great kid.”
In 10 games with the Panthers (4-7), Bridgewater has thrown for 2,552 yards, 13 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a passer rating of 98.7. That’s 10 points higher than his 88.7 rating in 2015, when he led the Vikings to the playoffs and made the Pro Bowl.
Bridgewater said he tries not to think about the horrific knee injury he suffered in 2016 but doesn’t deny that he sometimes does before the start of games.
“Probably before the kickoff of games, I just remind myself, man, that you’re blessed and say those two words to myself, knowing what I’ve gone through to get back to his point,” he said. “I just realize that I’m extremely blessed.”
As for the love the fans and his teammates in Minnesota showed him, Bridgewater never will forget that.
“I was just being genuine in the locker room,” Bridgewater said. “Of course, I was a 21-year-old child still learning (in 2014). I think the fans there accepted me as one of their own, and I think we had some success when I was there. … Hearing Kyle’s words (last week), that means a lot.”
There have been other such good words coming from Bridgewater’s former Minnesota teammates. Running back Dalvin Cook talked Wednesday about how Bridgewater, a fellow Miami native, took him under his wing when he arrived as a rookie in 2017 and helped him after he tore his ACL in the fourth game.
“(Bridgewater) just laid it on the line for me of how to be a pro, how to handle your business, how to go to meetings,” Cook said. “Everything. … It’s something that carried on with me forever. Teddy was one of those guys that I idolized growing up.”
Cook said he never will forget Bridgewater’s return to action against Cincinnati in 2017 when it was “probably the loudest I’ve heard that stadium since I’ve been here.”
Jeremiah Sirles, an offensive lineman who played with the Vikings from 2015-17, only could imagine Wednesday what it would be like on Sunday if fans were permitted at U.S. Bank Stadium. “I guarantee if that stadium could be full, everybody would be on their feet when they announce Teddy Bridgewater as the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers,” he said.