Teddy Bridgewater has no doubts
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 12 NFL Draft Issue. Subscribe today!
THEY STAND IN mute judgment, these credentialed men of the NFL. They hold tightly to their clipboards and stopwatches and preconceptions on the day Teddy Bridgewater ceases to be who he was.
It's an unseasonably cold day in mid-March, and the reverent silence of several hundred people settles over the indoor football facility at the University of Louisville. Grim-faced scouts surround a small bleacher in the middle of the field, each incessantly checking his stopwatch. As Bridgewater, wearing neon yellow shoes, lines up for his 40-yard dash, an enormous defensive lineman, who just ran his 40 shirtless, shouts, "Get that money, bro."
Pro day is an artificial world of fake grass and fake situations and fake pressure, where predictions become reality and the echo chamber rules, where two hours in shorts and a T-shirt (or no shirt at all) can contaminate an entire college career. It's where reality shifts, where nothing that came before matters, where dozens of tremendous game-day performances go to disappear, never to be heard from again.
Bridgewater's 40-minute throwing session will take on a life of its own in the weeks leading to the NFL draft. Most passes whistle into the hands and chests of receivers, but some float, others nosedive. Chris Weinke, Bridgewater's private coach, praises the good throws, pretends not to see the bad ones. But his pupil's expression never changes, even as the credentialed men move from one side to the other, seeking flaws from all angles. Looks are exchanged. Eyebrows are raised. Notes are taken. With each imperfect ball, the once-consensus No. 1 quarterback loses control of his narrative, which will be rewritten with each new rumor of another mediocre workout, which will alter each new mock draft until his stock becomes as elusive as the need for a pro day.
Scouts and coaches and front office personnel congregate by team, guarding their state secrets. "We're evaluators, but we're human beings," says Rams scout Danton Barto. "We root for human beings, and I root for Teddy." That's as specific, as real, as anyone will get.
Everything else about Teddy Bridgewater seems open for debate. He ran only one 40. Does he like to compete? He weighed 6 pounds less than the 214 he weighed at the combine. Is he too frail to stand up to NFL punishment? His hands are smaller than Johnny Manziel's and Blake Bortles'. Are they too small for the position? Nobody seems to care that these are the same hands that completed 71 percent of passes in his final season at Louisville, the same hands that led Louisville to a Sugar Bowl win over Florida his sophomore season, the same hands that put him in the discussion as the top overall pick before all the noise began to swirl around him.
How can one day mean so much? He's out there with no pads, no helmet, no defense to read, no fans in the stands, no team to lead, no game to win. After three years of thinking on his feet, making plays, throwing for 72 scores and nearly 10,000 yards, will he be defined by 40 minutes in a sanitized environment?
"I'm living in the now," Bridgewater says afterward. "That's how I approach it -- controlling the environment and what you can control. One day you're talked about, and the next day you can be forgotten. I can't control that."
The credentialed men know the history. They know Bridgewater has been judged before; they know he's overcome adversity. It's the history of a lot of young men in their world. But what they may not know is how seldom he hears the outside noise, or how high he's built the walls that surround him, or that he trusts one voice above all else -- the one within himself.
REMEMBER THE MOWER, Teddy, and you'll remember what it's like to feel confused and frustrated and powerless. You should have been in school -- everyone thought you were in school -- but instead you stood above that mower in the Miami heat, ready to pull the cord and run it across another stranger's Liberty City lawn, proving it's possible to be brave and dumb and scared all at the same time.
You were a freshman in high school, 14 years old, too young for the kind of news Mom announced to you and your three siblings in the living room two months earlier: "I have breast cancer," she said. With your dad only an occasional presence in your life, Mom was the magnetic pull that kept the family together. After you heard "cancer," the rest was pretty much a blur. There were tears, anger, defiance. The world stopped for a few minutes, then began to spin wildly, as if to catch up.
Your heart raced ahead of your brain. You decided you needed to be the man of the house, to take care of Mom by heading out into the neighborhood to mow lawns and wash cars. The good intentions made it slightly easier when Mom found out.
The notice from Miami Northwestern High School arrived in the mail -- 66 tardies. This did not go over well. You thought it was OK to miss art class to make extra money for her. You thought it might be a good idea to quit football to be home in the afternoons to help her through her chemotherapy treatments.
She had other ideas. You can still hear her words and see the look on her face. Countless times since, coaches have stood before you thinking they had the right message to inspire and motivate. You heard them through the humid stink of locker rooms and during dreary midweek practices. As hard as they tried, they never came close to finding that spot Mom found when she learned of the 66 tardies.
"I'm going to beat this thing," she said. "And we are going to get through this. If I don't quit, Theodore, you can't quit. If I can't give up, you can't give up."
Those words hung in the air of your house like a clenched fist. They seeped into your consciousness and stuck. That stormy look in her eyes sent you back to school and kept you on the field. Those words changed your life for one reason: You did more than hear them -- you listened.
You still have them tucked away, Teddy, for times like these, to block out the noise.
THE COLLEGE COACHES who came to Liberty City to recruit the ninth-rated quarterback in the 2011 class were given a detailed outline of Bridgewater's immediate future, by Teddy himself: He would graduate from high school in December and enroll early to take part in spring practice; he would start as an 18-year-old true freshman; he would go to a BCS game his sophomore year; he would be in the Heisman race as a junior; he would graduate from college early -- becoming the first in his family to earn a degree -- and enter the NFL after three seasons.
Bridgewater would repeat the plan in a matter-of-fact tone for every coach, as if reading from a grocery list. None of them expressed shock at either the specificity or the confidence. "It's all in the delivery," Bridgewater says. "Some of them liked it, because that's what you want out of a quarterback." Miami's Randy Shannon earned his trust and commitment, but when Shannon was fired after Bridgewater's senior season, Teddy looked elsewhere. A year earlier, Louisville had hired Charlie Strong, a former Florida assistant, and the promise of short-term permanence -- about the only kind that exists in college football anymore -- won him over.
Strong employed a pro-style offense, and Bridgewater fulfilled all those promises he made: started as a true freshman, beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl as a sophomore, was mentioned in the Heisman discussion as a junior and graduated in less than three years with a degree in sports management. Of the record 102 early entrants in the 2014 draft, Bridgewater is one of only four with a degree.
"That is why he is the person he is and the player he is," Strong says. "He knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish. He saw what his mom went through, and he wanted to plan out his life so he doesn't have any bumps in the road."
Fittingly, Bridgewater also became known for comebacks at Louisville. Four times during that Sugar Bowl season, he carried the Cardinals to come-from-behind wins. Last year, in his final regular-season game, he threw for two fourth-quarter scores and beat Cincinnati in overtime. "My life story comes into play with my decision-making, my determination," says Bridgewater. "Even when my mom was going through breast cancer, I had to make a decision -- whether I was going to give up and live in misery because of what she was going through or live my life with a purpose and allow her to live through me."
And now his mom, Rose Murphy, cancer-free for four years and remarried, says, "It gave me strength to watch him play." She was never more inspired than when he beat Rutgers his sophomore year with a broken left wrist and badly sprained right ankle, throwing for 263 yards and two touchdowns to secure an eventual BCS bid. He showed up to the postgame news conference wearing a cast on his arm and a boot on his foot. That's the kind of performance that reportedly once made offensive coordinator Shawn Watson tearfully call him "one of the five best people in my life."
Bridgewater would tell struggling teammates, "Blessings are never denied, but they may be delayed," because it always helped when his mom said it to him. He would conclude by patting his teammate on the helmet and saying, "Your time is going to come."
He led Louisville to a 23-3 record his final two seasons. Bridgewater's performance took him to the top of draft boards (temporarily) and sent Strong to Texas, the first black head coach in school history. When reached at his big office in Austin, Strong is told that Bridgewater repeatedly gives the coach credit for his being on the cusp of the NFL. "Yeah?" Strong says with a quick laugh that borders on incredulous. "Look where Teddy got me."
STANDING OVER THAT mower, you were feeling determined, confused and more than a little pissed off. Your worldview didn't reach beyond Liberty City: Mom, cancer, fear. What chance does a talking head's opinion of your pro day have against that? The key then is the key now: Channel it, Teddy, and make it work for you.
You and Mom have always been believers in signs, that some bigger power is directing life's traffic. Mom says she first saw the signs when you were 4 or 5, sitting on the floor hunched over your plastic figures -- cowboys and Indians one day, wrestlers the next -- and lining them up in elaborate formations.
Your two sisters and brother teased you and poked you and tried everything they could to goad you into a response, but you sat, unfazed, immersed in what looked like minutiae to all but you. You wouldn't even look up.
Those plastic figures became the football-playing humans you study as they run across every manner of screen. That concentrated focus became an obsession so complete that you spent your college years isolated from the extraneous sports chatter on TV and turned your Madden game into a tool for "virtual reps." Your devotion elicited praise from coaches and scouts, who saw the ability to identify patterns and formations amid the chaos of a broken play. At some level, you will always see blitzing linebackers as nothing more than annoying siblings, white noise to ignore on the way to something bigger.
All along, it was never your obsession with patterns that amazed everyone. It was your refusal to be distracted, your ability to never hear the noise.
THE IMG ACADEMY in Bradenton, Fla., is about as far as you can get from Liberty City. Rich kids from all over the world are here to chase athletic dreams concocted by themselves or their parents; they're ferried around a pristine campus in trams as if they're at an amusement park, living in a high-rise dorm, eating food cooked by chefs, walking on manicured lawns.
The campus is a self-contained ecosystem of personal improvement and self-absorption. There are strength coaches and speed coaches and mental coaches. Bridgewater -- IMG's highest-profile NFL draft client, who is paying for his stay with credit ensured by future earnings -- has sessions with them all, in addition to his reps with Weinke, the former Heisman winner.
Perhaps abiding by the theory that the only way to prepare for overanalysis is with overpreparation, Bridgewater is called into a room one day and told to sit at a table until he finishes the jigsaw puzzle set out before him. On another day, he's given a sheet of paper with a list of objects: wool, a can of Crisco, a chocolate bar, a handgun, a can of malt liquor, a rope and a lighter with no fluid. He is presented with a situation: You are in the snowy wilderness, 20 below zero, and you have to survive armed with only those objects. The idea is to expect the unexpected, but sometimes the link to football is hard to see.
Weinke will spend five tough weeks with Bridgewater prior to his pro day, accentuating the good habits and attempting to exorcise the bad. Weinke will be gruff and direct and unyielding. In the end, he will say, "If I'm wearing the hat of GM or head coach or owner, I would want Teddy Bridgewater to lead my football team."
But the chatter in the air will go from background noise to crescendo as the draft nears. Just about everything will be on the table, as difficult to put together as the jigsaw puzzle, including the possibility that there are teams intentionally talking the QB down in the hope that he falls to them. Bridgewater will profess to hear almost none of it. He will acquire an unofficial mantra: Everything is a positive. He sees it all as just another in a series of signs. Like gaps in the defense, they're obvious once you take the time to really read them.
ONE QUESTION KEPT jabbing at your 14-year-old brain: Why pink? There is no answer, so the answer is that it's just one more sign. Eight years old, riding home from Little League practice in Mom's Kia, daydreaming and feeling pretty good about yourself, you blurted out, "I'm going to buy you a pink Escalade when I make it to the NFL." Kids say crazy stuff all the time, but for some reason this one lodged itself into your mother-son relationship, residing somewhere between an inside joke and a rallying cry for hard times. Why did you choose pink? When people ask, you say: "It's another amazing thing along the way, because pink is the color associated with breast cancer. We talk now and just shake our heads. She can change the color if she wants, but it's going to be pink when she gets it."
But the credentialed men don't see the same signs you see when they cut open your background like a biology-class frog. They see a single mom who drove a school bus for the Miami-Dade public school system and made sure her children had what they needed. Not always what they wanted, but what they needed. They see a father who was far more out of your life than in. They see four elementary schools in six years. They see a kid standing over a mower and 66 tardies. Are those red flags? Are those indications of instability in a draft filled with country-club QBs whose idea of moving around was attending four QB camps in a summer?
You see it as a sign of something far different. Four schools from kindergarten through fifth grade meant always having to adapt, to make new friends, to observe group dynamics and judge character on the fly. You look at it this way: every school a new huddle.
ROSE MURPHY SEES to it that her son's success is not his alone. She visits hospitals around Miami, talking to the children of cancer patients to let them know that her story -- and her son's story -- can be their story as well. Whenever Teddy is in town, Rose makes sure he accompanies her on the visits. "You have to give back, just like I'm giving back," Rose tells him. "You encourage people, you help people, you let those kids know there's hope."
So Teddy stares into those kids' eyes and sees himself in their fear and confusion and powerlessness. He tells them about hope and strength and prayer, and a little about how nobility and wisdom can be blurred in the process. "My mom went through it," he tells them. "I went through it. You're going to be all right."
Amid the sideline crowd at her son's pro day, Rose watches Teddy wobble a few passes while thinking he'll ultimately be all right. She finds him when it's over, after he's completed a few glad-handing TV interviews. On this day of all days, with all those scouts and GMs and six head coaches standing around, she holds up a paper bag and asks, "Theodore, do you want your sandwich?"
Every head within earshot turns to see how Bridgewater will respond, partly because they analyze everything and partly because they just want to see how a 21-year-old -- one of the top four quarterbacks in this draft -- will react. Some sons, as any parent knows, might wince, or worse. Bridgewater, however, acts as if it's no big deal. He smiles and tells his mom he'll get it after he finishes a news conference.
As her son jogs away, Rose says to no one in particular: "I thought they were going to give him a break to have a bite. The boy needs to eat." Nearby, a man in a Texans jacket turns away with an amused look and scribbles in his notebook.
Then the scouts and coaches and decision makers start to head out in slow-moving clumps of logoed polos, team caps and personalized computer bags. They take with them altered perceptions and new opinions. Bridgewater, unaware, has already disappeared into the interview room, leaving the noise behind.