LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It may be the biggest game in town this weekend. When Lamar Jackson's Baltimore Ravens visit Teddy Bridgewater's Denver Broncos, it'll be more than just a couple of former Louisville quarterbacks squaring off against each other as starters in an NFL game.
If that's all it was, that would be enough to generate interest in this city.
But both players are much more than that.
They both came to U of L from South Florida. Both were 4-star recruits. Both had great college careers. Bridgewater's record his final two seasons here was 23-3. He led a Sugar Bowl victory over Florida. Jackson, of course, won the Heisman Trophy in 2016.
Still, both slipped to the No. 32 overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Now, the two quarterbacks, who are among the most important players ever to play at Louisville, meet on the field in the NFL for the first time. In fact, their paths have rarely crossed, except in the U of L record book.
Bridgewater told reporters on Wednesday that their connection is important.
"It means a lot," he said. "It's a unique bond. We're both from South Florida — 32nd pick in the draft. Both have strong mothers, have so much in common, and I'm happy for all the success that he's had in his career. I've been following him since he got to Louisville."
Jackson was, simply put, the best college football player Louisville has ever seen. He did things here that nobody had seen before. He was the first FBS player ever to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in consecutive seasons. His school records are too numerous to list.
After many doubted his ability to translate his run-pass talent to the NFL, he proved them wrong. In his second season, he became the first player in NFL history to pass for more than 250 yards and rush for more than 100 in a single game. At the end of the season, he became just the second player, after Tom Brady, to be voted league MVP unanimously. And he became the league's second-youngest MVP, behind Jim Brown.
Louisville expects to put up a statue of him on a lobby outside Cardinal Stadium.
While the program's overall achievement during his biggest seasons wasn't what it might have been, the profile and visibility he brought to the university was on another level from anything it had experienced previously.
And Jackson was an outstanding leader. He was a good teammate. And he was active in the community.
"Lamar — he's a spectacular player, and you can't do anything but speak highly of him," Bridgewater said Wednesday. "It's great that he and I will get to face off for the first time. It'll be big for South Florida. The next Teddy Bridgewater and Lamar Jackson — they'll get to tune in this Sunday and just see two guys from similar backgrounds and the same upbringing just compete. At the same time, I don't want to make this about Teddy Bridgewater or Lamar Jackson. It's a team sport, and I'm sure Lamar would say the same thing. It's a team sport. There are 10 other guys out there when we're competing, so we don't want to get carried away and all of that. We both have a job to do. That's what it is."
That Bridgewater would say just the right thing in the build-up to this matchup isn't surprising. Bridgewater always seemed to say and do the right things in Louisville. He showed up here with a maturity that most players don't have. He worked hard to support his mother after she was diagnosed with cancer while he was in high school. But more than that, he was a support to his friend and high school teammate Eli Rogers, when Rogers' mother was diagnosed with HIV. He made sure Rogers was at school, and in class, and often let him stay at his home if he needed.
Fans and teammates at every NFL stop have learned about Bridgewater as a person, and have come away with nothing but affection and respect. He had a Pro Bowl season at Minnesota, then suffered a catastrophic knee injury and had to start over. He had a good run as Drew Brees' backup in New Orleans, then spent a season at Carolina before landing in Denver, which seems to be the best fit he's experienced as a professional.
He brings the Broncos into this game with a 3-0 record and has completed nearly 77% of his passes. Bridgewater ranks fifth in the NFL in QB rating.
Jackson has largely had to carry the Ravens' offense through a spate of early-season injuries at running back and on the offensive line.
"It's great that he's made all the strides that he's made throughout the course of his career," Bridgewater said. "I'm looking forward to just watching him compete against our defense. I'll be rooting for him, but at the same time, rooting for us to come away with the victory."
Denver comes into the game as a slight one-point favorite in what is expected to be a defensive struggle, given the strengths of the two teams' defenses. Whatever the case, this much is a sure bet: With these two players starting at quarterback in a 4:30 p.m. national spotlight, Louisville wins.
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