Louisville has leader in Bridgewater
Published: Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 12:06 a.m.
NEW ORLEANS — It still gets to him, still chokes him up. You'd think that this far removed from the last regular-season game it would be just a fond memory, but it's more than that.
And to understand the emotions that are still raw for Shawn Watson is to understand what Teddy Bridgewater means to Louisville.
The Cardinals offensive coordinator was asked Saturday about his embrace with Bridgewater outside the Louisville locker room after the program-changing win over Rutgers. And there on the podium, Watson's eyes turned moist and his voice cracked.
“He's just done so much,” Watson said.
It's about more than stats with the kid from Miami with a mouth full of braces and a brain full of football. He IS Louisville football no matter how much he wants to deflect the praise to his teammates. That's just the kind of guy he is, humble yet confident, individually a phenom and yet the ultimate team guy.
“When you get to know him, you won't believe how good a guy he is,” Louisville coach Charlie Strong told me right after the Sugar Bowl matchup was announced. “His character is through the roof.”
Bridgewater certainly had been a human highlight film as a freshman and a Heisman Trophy darkhorse as a sophomore. But all of that was before Rutgers.
Rutgers is why Shawn Watson had trouble getting the words out Saturday.
“He makes our world go,” Watson said.
Here is where Louisville was. The Cardinals had won their first nine games, but they had one of those hiccups that happen in college football when they were blasted by Syracuse. Then they lost in triple overtime to Connecticut, and they lost their leader.
Bridgewater suffered a broken left wrist and a sprained right ankle in the game. He played through both, but had to wear a cast on the wrist after the loss. He still is wearing a brace to keep him from extending his hand too far.
And all that was on the line the next week was a berth in a BCS bowl game.
“People don't know this but he ran his first 7-on-7 drill that week right before we got on the plane to go to Rutgers,” Watson said. “I didn't know if he could play.”
The flight to New Jersey was excruciating for Bridgewater because everything was hurting.
“It was the worst pain ever,” Bridgewater said.
But he dressed. And after the third fruitless series with former walk-on Will Stein at quarterback, Bridgewater got on the headset.
“I just told (Watson), ‘Coach, I'm ready when you need me. I'm ready,'” Bridgewater said.
So they gave it a try. And Bridgewater pushed aside the pain and rallied his team to a victory and what turned out to be the Sugar Bowl against Florida.
“That was his moment,” said wide receiver Damian Copeland. “It was so inspiring to see a guy who was that hurt come into the game because we needed him.”
Rose Murphy will be at the Superdome on Wednesday night.
“She never misses a game,” Strong said.
Never misses a Louisville game. Never missed a Miami Northwestern High game when her son was playing quarterback.
Not even when she was losing her hair and her weight. Teddy was her baby and cancer wasn't going to keep her away.
“She is one remarkable lady,” Strong said.
Murphy found out when Teddy was 14 years old that she had breast cancer. She went through chemotherapy and radiation and is now cancer-free.
That's why it was so hard for her son to choose Louisville when it came time to pick a college.
“I was ready to get out of Miami,” he said. “But it was hard to leave my family behind. It was also part of me growing up. If I had stayed in Miami, I would have been leaving school to take care of her and I'd be always worrying about her.”
Which is what Rose Murphy told Strong when he was recruiting Bridgewater.
“She wanted him to get out of Miami because there wasn't anything he could do, but he'd be trying to do everything for her,” Strong said.
Bridgewater grew up a big fan of two teams — his hometown Hurricanes and the Florida Gators. Florida recruited him, but saw him as a wide receiver. He saw himself as a quarterback. So he committed to Miami.
Then things got a little crazy.
Randy Shannon was fired at Miami. Bridgewater decommitted. Urban Meyer resigned at Florida. All the coaches who had been recruiting Bridgewater were leaving Gainesville as well.
“There were a lot of coaching changes when I was trying to decide,” he said.
He had studied each situation. He wanted a place where he'd have a chance to play early. LSU was losing Jordan Jefferson in a year and suddenly it made a lot of sense to try Baton Rouge.
But as he was trying to set up his visit, LSU assistant Billy Gonzales (a former UF coach) told him he'd have to reschedule.
“All of the coaches were flying out to see a junior college quarterback,” Bridgewater said. “That told me they favored him.”
He was Zach Mettenberger, who was LSU's starting quarterback this year. We can speculate what LSU might have been with Bridgewater instead of Mettenberger. I know the Big East is a different level of competition than the SEC.
But, man, it's interesting to think what might have been.
“I could definitely play in the SEC,” Bridgewater said.
Instead, he was offered by Louisville and signed with the Cardinals. It was a recruiting coup for Strong, an indication that the new Louisville coach could go into Florida and bring out the best players.
“It was so big for our program,” he said.
When Bridgewater arrived at Louisville, the memory of the school's only other BCS bowl appearance was distant. Bobby Petrino had taken the Cardinals to the Orange Bowl in 2006, but the last two years under Steve Kragthorpe had seen only nine wins and an embarrassment in the stands where you could physically count the fans near the end of the 2009 season.
Strong went 7-6 in his first year at Louisville and his second recruiting class included Bridgewater. The Cardinals started the 2011 season at 2-4 when the coaches decided to start playing the younger players, including their true freshman quarterback.
“The thing about Teddy is that when he first showed up on campus, he didn't look like a freshman,” Copeland said. “He looked like an upperclassmen. I could tell he was going to be something special.”
With Bridgewater at quarterback, Louisville won five of its next six games and earned a bowl trip. During the off-season, Watson challenged his young quarterback.
“If you want to be a great quarterback, here's what you have to do,” Watson said. “When you have a kid who wants to chase excellence, you get a great player.
“I've been coaching for 20 years and this position for 20, and I never had a guy who could do so much so soon. He understands football. The game goes slow for him.”
Bridgewater improved his completion percentage and cut his interceptions in half this season.
“I don't try to force anything,” he said. “It just comes easy to me.”
There's no telling what the future holds for Bridgewater. He'll get a test from an elite defense Wednesday night against Florida. He watched the UF defensive effort against LSU over and over again as a fan more than as a quarterback so he knows what's coming.
But he said he has seen some things in the Gator defense he can exploit.
And Louisville has to have a big game from Bridgewater to have a shot against the Gators.
“He's the best football player I've ever coached,” Watson said Saturday.
And those words he had no trouble saying.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.
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