LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Saturday's University of Louisville football game against Memphis is not Senior Day for Teddy Bridgewater. I know that. Indulge me anyway.
I don't think we're going to see him here again, not on the field at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, not as a college player. In fact, I hope that's the case.
There's too much sense of loss when you see athletes with bright futures undergo injuries. At this point, so close to reaching a professional dream, you root as much for them not to get hurt as you do for them to win, if you've gotten to know them at all. We've seen enough Michael Bush and Nerlens Noel replays to understand the bigger picture. I think the sickest feeling I've ever had at a football game was when they carted Bush off the field in the season opener of his senior season.
Bridgewater will graduate in December. I know what his eligibility classification is, but forget that. He's a senior. For the next few paragraphs, he's going to be treated like one. He came to college to play football and get a degree. He's done both. I'm not trying to make anybody's decision. He and his family are fully capable of doing that.
My aim today is to look back. I don't know what kind of professional quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will be. But I do know the mold that he fits into at the University of Louisville. And it's an old mold.
In fact, all you have to do to get a glimpse of it is to look at the statue beyond the north end zone.
Bridgewater in his time here has drawn comparisons to a lot of players. But when it comes to legacy, demeanor and approach, his U of L career fits into the Johnny Unitas tradition.
At U of L, Unitas played for a program that wasn't even in the NCAA yet, often played both ways, and through all of it demonstrated his toughness and leadership amid adversity.
Cardinals coach Frank Camp wasn't going to start Unitas as a freshman, but when he came off the bench midway through the season, he completed 11 passes in a row and nearly scored a comeback victory in his first game. The first game Bridgewater entered for full-time duty, his freshman season on the road against rival Kentucky, he turned a 7-3 lead into a 24-17 victory.
Unitas was a quick study in Camp's system, and had the rather lengthy playbook memorized quickly. He would call his own plays throughout his U of L career.
Bridgewater in three seasons at U of L has become an honor student at football. He reprogrammed his video games to mimic opposing defenses. He put U of L's own offensive plays in. He's become so adept at reading defenses that he has thrown only three interceptions this season. Coaches will tell you that one probably wasn't his fault.
Unitas took a beating at times at U of L, and later in his career. Teddy Bridgewater, with a bad ankle sprain and a broken wrist, came off the bench at Rutgers a year ago and led a comeback victory that will be one of the program's most historic wins.
It's the kind of thing people talk about for decades, the shovel pass for a touchdown, a scrapbook moment made with toughness and training tape. The images of coach Charlie Strong embracing him after the game, of the tearful moment with offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, are memories that will endure.
Then he turned around a month later in the Sugar Bowl and created another one. The first time he dropped back a Florida blitzer nearly took his head off. Bridgewater got up, regained his senses, then led the Cards down the field, and to a victory no one picked them to capture.
If the Cardinals have not reached the lofty expectations they had for this season, it's not on Bridgewater. He ranks fourth in the nation in passing efficiency. His 309 passing attempts rank 34th in the nation, and of the players ahead of him in attempts, only one has thrown fewer interceptions.
Because of a defensive meltdown, the Cardinals lost a 24-point lead and the game to Central Florida, fumbling a chance at a second straight BCS bowl berth. But Bridgewater will tell you he should've been better, should've been able to manage just one more score -- though he did lead a fourth quarter drive that would've been the game-winner had the defense held.
Bridgewater asked before the season that the school not mount a Heisman campaign on his behalf. With his teammates, he wanted to be one of the guys. He didn't want special treatment.
If the legacy of Unitas in Louisville is his uncommon off-the-field character, Bridgewater has followed in those footsteps, too.
Before the season, Bridgewater was asked what motivates him.
"My purpose in life is just to give back, you know, be that picture to change the stereotype of where I'm from," said Bridgewater, who grew up in more than a dozen Miami-area homes as his mother moved his family from place to place. "Where I'm from right now, people would call me a superhero. I'm doing what all the children back in Miami dreamed of doing, being on national TV, impacting lives. You kind of feel that as a responsibility, to not let people down."
When asked about whether he thinks college athletes should be paid, his response was rare in an age where everyone is looking out for what they can get.
"For me, a college education is priceless," Bridgewater said. "We are paid. We have the opportunity to go to school and play football. I don't take that for granted."
The hope is that, on the chance that Saturday is Bridgewater's final game at home in a U of L uniform, fans won't take him for granted. If Charlie Strong changed the culture of Louisville football, Teddy Bridgewater embodied that change. Strong may coach an entire career without encountering another quarterback who so completely personifies what he wants in a player.
It's a shame that Bridgewater's qualities haven't gotten more of a national stage. College football and its unforgiving grind don't stop, usually, to make time for teams that fall by the wayside, or players who have little interest in making daily headlines.
Earlier this season, when Bridgewater read on Twitter that 21-year-old Savannah Price was struggling with surgery from complications of Crohn's Disease, he reached out to her. And not just on Twitter. He showed up in her hospital room. We don't always see what he has done for people, for children, for his teammates. Once in a while, there's a glimpse.
Bridgewater won't win the Heisman. But he has won a prominent place in the history of Louisville's program.
Before the season, a reporter asked him about his biggest fear, and Bridgewater thought for a second.
"My biggest fear is letting people down," he said. "It's what makes me work the way I do."
I don't know if Saturday will be the last time Teddy Bridgewater plays a college game in Louisville. But just in case, it would be a nice time for Cardinal fans to remind Bridgewater he let no one down.
Thursday, April 24 2014 6:47 PM EDT2014-04-24 22:47:09 GMT
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