CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For some players, a devastating knee injury can be crushing. For Teddy Bridgewater, it was an awakening.
On the four-year anniversary of suffering a torn ACL and shattered kneecap which essentially left his left leg dangling by one ligament and his budding NFL career in serious doubt, the Panthers quarterback took time for a moment of reflection, offering thanks to the day he got hurt.
“While riding in back of that ambulance, I didn’t know what my football future had in store for me," Bridgewater tweeted. "In the midst of so much uncertainty and pain, I found peace and my purpose in life. Dear August 30, 2016..... Thank you.”
Bridgewater makes his return as an NFL opening day starter Sunday when Carolina plays host to the Las Vegas Raiders. Sure, he started five games last season with the Saints — and won them all — but this is different. He’s no longer just a temporary fill-in for Drew Brees.
He now has a second chance to be the No. 1 quarterback again.
The Panthers invested $63 million over three years in Bridgewater, and the QB has proclaimed, “this definitely feels like my team."
His comeback story is the culmination of a whirlwind four years during which Bridgewater, once a promising young NFL QB who won 17 games his first two seasons with the Vikings, spent nearly 18 months rehabilitating a shredded knee, was let go by Minnesota, signed with the Jets and then got traded to the Saints.
It was enough adversity to challenge any player's faith, but Bridgewater said the injury has given him a new perspective and appreciation for playing in the NFL.
And a new, deeper desire to win.
“They told me I wouldn’t play football ever again,” Bridgewater said. “They told me it’d take 18 months to come back from my injury and I came back faster….they told me I wouldn’t win last year and we won five games. So for me, it’s just approaching every day with that mindset to win."
Wide receiver Stefon Diggs was at Vikings training camp practice on Aug. 30, 2016 when Bridgewater went down during a non-contact drill. Diggs was the intended receiver on a post route, but when he turned to find the ball it was nowhere to be found.
Instead, he saw his quarterback on the ground.
“You kind of could hear a pin drop in the middle of a grass field at that moment. That’s how quiet it was," said Diggs, who now plays for the Bills.
Normally when a player goes down with an injury, teams will switch spots on the field and continue working while the trainer attends to the fallen player.
Not that day.
The ambulance pulled onto the field and practice was called off as Bridgewater was rushed to the hospital. While in the ambulance Bridgewater knew things were bad when the trainer implored the driver to speed up.
Bridgewater was experiencing a loss of feeling in his feet, and the concern was permanent nerve damage.
Back on the field, Vikings players were distraught. Some dejectedly threw their helmets and others knelt on the ground to pray for a young leader they'd come respect after leading the Vikings to an 11-5 record in 2015.
“To know that a guy that does everything right, a guy that grinds and works his butt off. ... I remember everybody was hurting in practice," Diggs said. "Everyone was in the locker room like, ‘damn, that’s the season.'”
Bridgewater has a difficult task in Carolina of replacing Cam Newton, one of the most popular players in franchise history. But he learned from playing behind Brees in New Orleans that he just has to be himself.
The Panthers want him to make quick decisions and get the ball out fast to playmakers.
Offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who worked with Bridgewater while with the Saints, is confident Bridgewater can be thrive in Carolina. Brady said he is the type of player who “makes everybody better." Brady said Bridgewater has a football IQ that is “through the roof” and lights up a room with an infectious personality, making him a natural leader.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule believes he is a “perfect fit."
It's an inspiring second chance for Bridgewater.
“To see this come full circle, for him to get his chance again. ... is definitely a story to remember and something that we can take heed to just keep pushing and stay motivated,” Diggs said.
Said Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey: “What he’s been through, the resilience he’s shown and the will to come back and fight — that's a guy you want to fight for as well."
Bridgewater is a firm believer that the injury happened for a reason — and he's better because of it.
“Knowing what I know now, I would just go back and tell myself the moment I was on the ground screaming in pain, ‘life is just a race,’” Bridgewater said. “We all have to run our own race and within that race, we have to focus on what is in our lane. For me, at the time, I stumbled in my lane. It’s a race that I have to finish, and I’m not finished yet."
Then, he added, "but at least I’m back in the race.”