When you ask what’s behind the smile, the smile becomes bigger.
“Man, it’s so much joy," Bridgewater said. “Of knowing, man, there is a community down in Miami. Liberty City. Bunche Park ... all these communities thrive off the success that I’m having.
“There’s so many people who had the opportunity to make it to the level that I’ve made it, but along the road there were things that stopped them from reaching their full potential."
Four years ago, on Aug. 30, 2016, the then-Minnesota Vikings starting quarterback was faced with a huge obstacle in reaching his full potential. Bridgewater simply was dropping back to pass in practice, a non-contact drill, when his left leg buckled. He collapsed. His ACL was torn and his knee dislocated.
It was so horrific that some teammates immediately dropped to the ground and prayed. Coach Mike Zimmer called off the rest of practice.
There were concerns from the doctor who performed the surgery that Bridgewater might lose his leg.
His career, his dream, was on the brink.
Even in his darkest hour, Bridgewater never lost his smile or positive attitude that makes him the player first-year NFL coach Matt Rhule chose to be the quarterback to rebuild the Panthers.
Even after the Vikings moved on from him after the 2017 season, even after the New York Jets traded him before he played a game, even when he was backing up Drew Brees in New Orleans, Bridgewater believed he again would be a full-time starter.
“Honestly, it hasn’t taken long at all,” Bridgewater said as he prepares for the Sept. 13 opener against the Las Vegas Raiders. “When you look back ... I was never supposed to play ball again. ... At the end of the day, every day was an opportunity to get better.”
It’s that attitude that makes Bridgewater smile.
It’s that attitude that makes Bridgewater, 27, play for others more than himself.
“He says he’s the neighborhood hope dealer,” said Bridgewater’s mother, Rose Murphy. “If you can have a neighborhood dope dealer, you also can have a neighborhood hope dealer.
“He wants kids to know your neighborhood doesn’t define who you are.”
'I live for challenges'
Bridgewater doesn’t remember what day he went down. His focus from the time he was in the back of an ambulance until now has been on returning to the level he was at in 2015, when he led the Vikings to an 11-5 record in his second year out of Louisville.
The first thing he truly remembers is asking trainer Eric Sugarman, “Hey, am I done?”
“He couldn’t give me an answer,” Bridgewater recalled. “He was asking could I still feel my foot. I was like, ‘Yeah, but the feeling is starting to go away.’ I heard him yell at the [ambulance] driver, ‘Can we hurry this thing up?’ ... It kind of told me how serious everything was.
Once the leg was back in place, Bridgewater knew he’d be OK but that it would be a long, challenging process.
“I live for challenges,” Bridgewater said.
Moving to a backup role -- except for a brief stretch last season, when he went 5-0 as the Saints' starter while Brees recovered from a thumb injury -- never fazed Bridgewater.
He never got discouraged, as current Carolina backup Will Grier did last year, going from college star to backup.
“Oftentimes it’s a struggle when you get lost in always being the guy,” Bridgewater said. “I always treated myself like, ‘Hey, at the end of the day I’m Theodore Bridgewater. Twenty-four hours out of the day, I bleed just like the next man.”
Bridgewater gets that attitude from his mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was 14. He watched her go through radiation and chemotherapy treatment. He watched her pray.
He wanted to give up football to take care of her.
She wouldn’t let him.
“Where he came from, the injury he had, it’s just amazing,” Murphy said. “It just fills my heart with joy he still can fulfill his dream.”
'I don't mind being the hated guy'
The Panthers took some heat for releasing former franchise quarterback Cam Newton, 31, who had consecutive injury-plagued seasons. He arguably was the most iconic sports figure ever in Charlotte, a larger-than-life player who led Carolina to a 15-1 record and trip to the Super Bowl in 2015.
Rhule said Bridgewater was a better fit for what he and the organization wanted, and that didn't sit well with some Panthers fans.
Bridgewater heard the so-called haters.
“I don’t mind being the hated guy ... because at the end of the day, the more people hate you, the more you can do to make them love you,” he said.
Bridgewater has fun on social media with his critics. He mentioned one Newton fan who goes by the name “Freeze” on Twitter and how people took his happy birthday wish as hate born out of sarcasm.
It was just his quirky, yet endearing sense of humor. It’s part of what makes him a good leader.
It’s that leadership, his reputation as a pinpoint passer and his ties to new Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady from New Orleans in 2018 that made Bridgewater a better fit than Newton.
Statistics don’t lie. Bridgewater has a career completion percentage of 65.2, including 67.9% last season with the Saints. Newton’s career percentage is 59.6. Newton's best weapon was the ability to beat you with his legs as well as his arm.
Bridgewater isn’t known as a runner, but he does like to dance on the field and in the locker room like Newton.
“Cam’s got way more rhythm than me,” Bridgewater said when asked if he was a better dancer. “I’m just an old-school bopper.”
Like Newton, Bridgewater also likes to ride a bike to the stadium, particularly on game days, as he did at New Orleans.
“We love Cam. We miss Cam,” outside linebacker Shaq Thompson said. “But what’s next? Teddy. Teddy’s going to be Teddy.”
The Saints knew well before free agency they couldn’t offer Bridgewater a deal close to the three-year, $64 million contract the quarterback received from Carolina.
Or a chance to start.
“Look, he’s an extremely talented player,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’s a tremendous leader. He’s smart. He was a guy that prepared extremely well and had the skill set that you’re looking for to play the position.”
The knock on Bridgewater has been his arm strength and his ability to throw deep accurately, even though at times during camp he has shown amazing touch on long passes.
But what Bridgewater will be called upon to do in Brady’s system is to be accurate on the short and intermediate routes to keep the offense moving at a fast pace.
He's done that consistently in camp.
Teammates rave about how Bridgewater studies pass progression in the ice tub and how he commands the huddle. Wide receiver DJ Moore calls him a “cool dude” who rubs off on everyone.
Chris Perkins, Bridgewater’s quarterback coach at Northwestern High School in Miami, isn’t surprised.
“He’s always had a free spirit,” Perkins said. “He loves to play the game. And when he’s smiling, it’s for a whole bunch of people.”
Enjoying every moment
Bridgewater offered inspiration on social media with this post in February:
This is why Bridgewater continues to smile despite the setback of Aug. 30, 2016, and why he believes the Panthers can win now.
August 30, 2016— Teddy Bridgewater (@teddyb_h2o) August 30, 2020
While riding in back of that ambulance, I didn't know what my football future had in store for me. In the midst of so much uncertainty and pain, I found peace and my purpose in life.
Dear August 30, 2016.....
“Football is like paradise to me,” Bridgewater said. “With everything going on in the world, whether it’s family issues or other issues in life, and I step foot on that field, all those things go away.
“I can deal with the rest of that stuff after the three hours, but for those three hours, I’m going to smile and enjoy every single moment.”