'This can't be real': The moment Teddy Bridgewater went down

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's November 14, 2016 Pain Issue. Update: Teddy Bridgewater was cleared to practice and is expected back on the field Wednesday. Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine today!

THE MEN WHO agree to talk about what happened do so reluctantly. Their eyes invariably drift to the spot in question: the grass practice field, somewhere near the 30-yard line, right hash. It happened with the offense heading north, 22 men on the field, no contact allowed.

They won't talk about what the injury looked like, out of respect. These are men who long ago came to terms with the inhumanity of their game. They laugh about concussions and broken bones as a defense mechanism, the way an electrician might laugh with his buddies about getting a jolt from a faulty circuit. Occupational hazard.

But this is different. They close their eyes and wince, the image flashing in their minds. They shake their heads reflexively, as if they can dislodge the memory and evict it from their brains. They watched Teddy Bridgewater go down on that field on Aug. 30, his left leg separating at the knee, during the first minutes of a Vikings preseason practice. Every time they think about it, every time they stand near this field and close their eyes, they see it again.

INJURIES IN THE NFL are commodified, sloganized, reduced to transactions. They're interchangeable, disposable, devoid of pain. They're dehumanized, disembodied, such an expected part of the game that they've got their own capitalized catchphrase: Next Man Up.

Check the injury report, adjust your fantasy team. See how easy this is? How painless? One goes down, another pops up.

"I hate that exact saying -- 'Next man up,'" Vikings guard Alex Boone says. "That's f---ed up because it makes it sound like we're barbarians. Like we don't care: 'F--- it, he's hurt, move on.' It's terrible to say that. A guy gets hurt and all of a sudden everyone is like, 'Oh, who was that guy?' "

In a sense, Next Man Up is an essential and ordinary part of the lexicon. In a sport with so many injuries, a coach has no choice but to rely on a cut-rate, impersonal slogan to motivate and distract. While he's telling his players to step up, team personnel are scanning the waiver wire, pulling up reports on practice-squad players and making calls on trades. It's impossible to ignore statistics like this one: In 2015, NFL players missed 1,639 games -- almost 100 per week -- because of injury. Those three words -- Next Man Up -- have become such a vital part of the culture that many players hear it with the same anesthetized indifference.

"Even when we watch other games, it gets lost," Vikings safety Harrison Smith says. "We react the same way. There's a human part of it that gets lost."

But sometimes an event changes all that. Whether through proximity or sheer gruesomeness, the collective pain of a group of men rises up to relegate Next Man Up to a heartless cliché.

"It was very surreal," Boone says of Bridgewater's injury. "Sometimes you forget how brutal this game can be."

Minnesota's coach, Mike Zimmer, canceled practice. NFL teams never cancel practice. The game never stops. In a way, it's a repudiation of Next Man Up to send everyone home -- an acknowledgment that some injuries transcend the transactional. Sometimes, even in such a brutal world, circumstances dictate that the next man can't reasonably be expected to step up, at least not right away.

"It happened at the beginning of practice, and obviously Coach made the right call to cancel," Vikings quarterbacks coach Scott Turner says. "We weren't going to get anything done that day."

At his first news conference after the injury, a still-shaken Zimmer said his team would mourn for a day and move on. If anything, this meant his players needed to recommit to the mission. "No one is going to feel sorry for us, or cry," he said. "I'm not going to feel sorry for us either." He said he'd spoken with his mentor, Bill Parcells, for advice on how to deal with the trauma his team experienced. He said he spoke with his deceased father "in spirit." As he continued, the coach in him drained from his eyes. He transformed from functionary to human being, and when he was asked a question about grieving -- a question that somehow seemed utterly appropriate -- Zimmer paused and looked down. After a deep breath, he looked to the sky as his lower lip quivered. "My wife passed away seven years ago," he said. "It was a tough day. The sun came up the next day, the world kept spinning, people kept going to work. That's what we're going to do."

HARRISON SMITH WAS running downfield with his back to the play, making sure he didn't get beaten on a deep route. Even in a practice, and a noncontact drill, that's important. It's six weeks later, and he's standing next to that field running the calculus through his head. He concludes that he must have been the person farthest from the injury. He pauses a moment to give thanks. When it happened, he heard a scream from a receiver who had turned back toward the play. It was an expletive that carried an unmistakable pitch: pain.

You play this game long enough, you learn to recognize it.

He must have pulled a hammy, Smith thought.

Smith swung around to the receiver and saw that he was looking toward the backfield. He was reacting to someone else's pain. Smith followed his eyes to see helmets flying and teammates jumping away like the grass was on fire. He heard them screaming, and Bridgewater screaming, and he saw powerful men rendered powerless.

EARLIER IN THE summer, a barbecue at Boone's house. Bridgewater arrived two hours late, and Boone confronted him.

"I'm so sorry," Boone said. "The food's overcooked."

Bridgewater laughed. "Dude, don't worry about it. I'm two hours late."

"No, it's my fault," Boone said.

Boone mocks himself now, apologizing for something that wasn't his fault. "I remember thinking, 'Yeah, you were late. Why am I apologizing?'"

Bridgewater's coaches, from Charlie Strong at Louisville to Zimmer in Minnesota, consider the quarterback an honorary son. The worst thing his teammates can say about him is that he's the closest thing the locker room has to a teacher's pet. They laugh at the way he tends to parrot Zimmer's philosophy.

"I swear he's the nicest guy I've ever met in my life," Boone says. "He's a sweet guy -- and that's not a word you usually associate with football players, but he really is. His genuine sincerity toward everything is just ... you're like, 'Wow, he's really a good person.' He never says a bad word, he's never mad."

Wide receiver Adam Thielen says, "Across this league, everyone has respect for Teddy," and he cites Sam Bradford as proof. Bradford texted get-well wishes to Bridgewater the day after the injury -- about the same time the Vikings' front office started asking tight ends coach Pat Shurmur, once Bradford's offensive coordinator in St. Louis and Philadelphia, for a detailed scouting report on his former quarterback. Three days after that, Minnesota traded a first-round and a conditional fourth-round pick to the Eagles to turn Bradford into its Next Man Up.

Nobody knows when Bridgewater will play again. The team says he'll be back next year, but there's no guarantee. His knee dislocated, and the impact tore multiple ligaments connecting the patella to the tibia and fibula. When the Vikings traded for Bradford, back when nobody expected Minnesota to start the season 5-1, it was noted that Bridgewater is under team control through 2017.

"Everyone still loves Teddy," Bradford says. "Teddy's the guy. There's no moving past Teddy. That's just how it is, and how it should be."

MATT ASIATA WAS maybe 10 yards away from the 30-yard line, right hash, when he heard a burst of noise he couldn't identify. He looked back and saw Bridgewater on the ground, and saw the bodies scatter, and saw the helmets popping off his teammates' heads like so many bottle caps. They all remember the scattering bodies and the flying helmets, no matter where they were. The next thing Asiata heard was the voices, all the voices, people going crazy, with Bridgewater's a few registers above the rest.

Asiata couldn't quite comprehend it. He had just seen him in the huddle, had lined up behind him at running back for a play in a noncontact drill. Nobody ever gets badly hurt in a noncontact drill. Asiata listened to the screams and thought: He must be faking it. It's a prank, something Teddy thought up with the linemen. This can't be real.

But the noise kept coming, and the trainers filled the void left by the scattered bodies. Asiata ran back toward Bridgewater and then veered off. He and a couple of teammates took a knee and said a prayer. They closed their eyes to pray for their teammate. They closed their eyes so they wouldn't have to see.

"Everything happens for a reason," Asiata says, without much conviction.

YOU'RE PHOTOGRAPHED WALKING into a store and driving through an intersection and standing in an elevator. There's video of you paying for gas and boarding a plane and ordering a burrito. Someone goes missing, there's always a photo from a last known location. Have you seen this person? Someone commits a crime. Help find this man.

There are no available images of Bridgewater's injury. They exist, no doubt -- every NFL team records every second of practice, from the moment players begin stretching until they leave the field. And yet it seems nobody outside the organization has seen the moment Bridgewater went back to pass in a noncontact 11-on-11 drill, tripped in some fashion and landed in a way that caused his left leg to dangle in an anatomically impossible way nobody wants to talk about.

What remains is an incomplete, and reluctant, oral history.

"It was kind of a freak deal," Thielen says. "He was dropping back and got tripped up and just awkwardly stepped on his knee. It's hard to talk about. It was bad."

Running back Jerick McKinnon shakes his head slowly when asked to describe what he saw that morning. He looks toward the practice field, to the 30, right hash.

"I saw it all," he says. "I ain't going to go into it. I don't have any words to describe it."

Three weeks after Bridgewater's injury, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson tore a meniscus in his knee during the team's Week 2 game against Green Bay, possibly ending his season. Peterson left the field with the help of trainers, partially under his own power, and the route to the locker room took him past a field-level restaurant at the Vikings' slick new U.S. Bank Stadium.

Those in the Delta Sky360 Club (which, in 16,455 square feet, "elevates the sports bar concept to a magnificent VIP experience") were forced to witness a man's private agony. It disturbed the reverie, intruded on the fantasy that we are somehow not complicit in the game's brutality. A player goes down while you're watching on TV and they cut to a commercial. When they come back, he is miraculously gone, and the attention moves to the inadequacies of his replacement.

Or, in more serious cases, a player gets wheeled off, strapped to a gurney, to polite applause. Usually, the player raises a hand, maybe gives a thumbs-up, and the cheers rise with a mixture of happiness and relief. He can move, the applause says, therefore our guilt is assuaged. We understand the bargain, but we'd feel really bad if someone died for our amusement.

Injury reports are transmitted to fans at U.S. Bank Stadium through two huge video screens that hover above each end zone. A generic model of the human anatomy appears below a player's name and number. The body rotates to create the illusion of three-dimensionality while a target circle wanders the body to create suspense -- where will it land? -- until it rests on the spot of the injury. The injured player is off somewhere, safely out of sight. Words appear:

Brandon Fusco, Concussion, Will Not Return.

It's the great injury game show, sponsored by Twin Cities Orthopedics.

HE JUMPED AWAY, scattering with the rest of them. He thinks he threw his helmet, but his memory isn't trustworthy on this subject. Alex Boone's first thought was, Holy f---, did that really happen? It felt like an electrical surge traveled up his spine, the way you feel when helplessness collides with empathy. He yelled. Everyone who was in Bridgewater's immediate vicinity yelled, and the yells emanated outward, to the linebackers and receivers and defensive backs, like echoes. The ones closest looked down and saw Bridgewater's left leg bent at an unnatural angle and let their screams mingle in the summer air, right along with his.

Boone's second thought was, There's my friend. My friend is in pain. He considers this now, how the people close to the sounds and the pain didn't see it as a transaction or a line on an injury report. "I didn't think, 'Our quarterback's injured,' " he says. "It was, 'My friend is injured.' " A thousand thoughts swirled through his mind. He thought about the barbecue, and how protective he'd become of Teddy, on and off the field. He thought about Bridgewater's mom. It sounds crazy, but he did. His mom. Boone looked at the helmets popping off heads and spinning into the air, and he heard someone yelling to call 911, and he thought about how nobody ever calls 911 for an injury at an NFL practice, and then he looked down at Bridgewater's left leg and thought, Who's going to tell his mom?

Boone saw that the human scattering served a practical purpose: It cleared a path for the trainers and first responders, the people who could do more than scream and swear and think about Bridgewater's mom. They went to work the way they're supposed to: quickly and with expertise. The buzz up the spine, the helplessness, dissipated some. When a knee dislocates and the ligaments tear free of the bones, leaving the fibula and tibia to their own devices, the next concern is nerve damage that might lead to amputation. In the coming days, after Bridgewater undergoes extensive surgery, the Vikings' trainers and the local first responders will be credited for saving his leg.

The Vikings walked quietly to the locker room and gathered as a team to say a prayer.

THE INJURED MAN recedes, quietly and respectfully. One minute you're the man, rounding into your prime, bonding with your receivers and fighting through overcooked meat at a lineman's barbecue, and the next it's Sam Bradford's time.

The screams wax and wane. The injured man Dopplers in and Dopplers out.

Bridgewater is around the facility, they all say. He helps Bradford understand the offense. He is upbeat, working out, still a part of the team. Perhaps his car is parked in one of the reserved for injured player spots in the team lot, not more than 50 yards from the grass practice field where everything in his life suddenly changed. His presence is mostly spectral. He is not visible when the media are allowed in the locker room, and he does not watch the games from the sideline. He has not spoken publicly. To the outside world, he is invisible.

It's what passes for decorum inside a merciless culture, a way of ensuring a peaceful transition of power. It seems there's a corollary to Next Man Up: the necessary disappearance of the Last Man Down.