FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Teddy Bridgewater can’t help but smile these days.
Even through the sweat and exhaustion that mark the blazing hot days of training camp, the New York Jets quarterback still appreciates the little things about being a professional football player.
Because he almost wasn’t anymore.
“I get excited every day I get to get my ankles taped, lace my cleats up and run out of the locker room and practice because it was taken away from me for two years,” Bridgewater said after a recent practice.
“To be able to just wake up and know you have the opportunity to continue to do something that you love doing, it’s a great feeling.”
Bridgewater has the type of perspective few players ever get, or want to get, for that matter. He was able to come back from the type of injury that would end most playing careers.
But when the Jets open their preseason schedule Friday night against the Atlanta Falcons, Bridgewater will step on the field — and probably smile some more.
And then, he’ll get under center for what will likely be his most extensive game action in almost two years.
“Right now, I am doing everything I dreamed of doing and that is waking up and continuing to play football,” Bridgewater said. “It’s a wonderful feeling. It gives me the chills right now just thinking about it, knowing how the previous two years were. But you take advantage of this opportunity. I look forward to every day.
“Some people may say, ‘This is training camp. This is the grind of things, and I can’t wait to get to the regular season, things will be easier,” but I look forward to it. You embrace the grind because it was once taken from you.”
On Aug. 30, 2016, the former Louisville star was practicing with the Minnesota Vikings when he went down with a non-contact injury. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and dislocated the knee joint, and it is believed that only quick work by the team training staff and doctors saved Bridgewater’s leg.
Playing football again didn’t seem likely, given the severity of the injury. But Bridgewater never gave up believing in a big-time comeback.
“Never, never,” he said. “I had nothing but positive thoughts. I didn’t allow any negativity to even creep into my circle. I knew that if I’m negative, I’m going to have those negative thoughts and it may hinder my progress.”
So, Bridgewater approached his recovery and arduous rehabilitation with the same type of determination.
He learned to move his leg again. And walk. Then, jog. And, now, run.
Bridgewater gradually regained strength in his knee and trusted that it would hold up when he dropped back to throw a pass.
On Dec. 17, 2017 — nearly 16 months after he went down in a heap of pain and uncertainty — Bridgewater walked onto the field at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis in the fourth quarter against Cincinnati. The fans gave him a standing ovation, and he went on to throw two passes in the Vikings’ 34-7 win, including one that was intercepted.
The stats didn’t matter. He had made it back.
Just as he always believed.
“I definitely feel like I’m good,” Bridgewater said of his health. “I’ve been working with the training staff here and we’ve been hitting it hard, and I’m excited. I’m looking forward to these upcoming preseason games and just getting out there and having fun playing football again.”
The Vikings moved on from Bridgewater during the offseason and allowed him to become a free agent. The Jets, with uncertainty at the quarterback position, signed him to a one-year deal.
The also brought back Josh McCown, the incumbent starter, and drafted Sam Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick out of USC who is considered the future of the franchise. Having them on the field with Bridgewater this summer has made for an intriguing quarterback competition.
“He has been a great team player, great in the meeting room and for the guys as well,” coach Todd Bowles said of Bridgewater. “I’ve got to say, this is the best three-quarterback combination room I’ve been around from a mental standpoint, so that is great to have.”
McCown is No. 1 on the depth chart, followed by Bridgewater and Darnold, and all three have had up-and-down moments on the field this summer. Off the field, all three quarterbacks have repeatedly talked about the camaraderie they have quickly established. And, there’s a ton of respect for Bridgewater willing himself to even get back to this point.
“Obviously, he’s had a long road recovery-wise from his knee, but his mind has been on football,” McCown said. “You can tell he’s sharp and I’ve been really impressed with everything he’s done. I think the future is really bright for Teddy. I’m excited for him.”
Bridgewater has been checking off milestones for most of the past 24 months. He’s not sure how long he’ll play Friday night, but whatever he does will be another positive.
The next goal on his list, though, is yet to be determined.
“I have to sit down and think about the next milestone,” Bridgewater said. “But for now, it’s just living in the moment, enjoying this opportunity and taking advantage of it.”
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)