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Flash back to a sunny afternoon in Eden Prairie, four years ago at the end of August, and pretend it all had gone differently.

Pretend Teddy Bridgewater’s left knee had held firm as he dropped back to pass early in the Vikings’ final preseason practice. Pretend he’d gone into his third season healthy and led the Vikings out of the tunnel for the Sunday night opener against the Packers at the new U.S. Bank Stadium.

Would Bridgewater have stayed healthy to lead a team that started the 2016 season with five consecutive victories? Would he have taken the 2017 Vikings on a ride to the NFC Championship Game? Would he still be here now, firmly entrenched as the starter in the middle of his second contract?

Or would his knee, as some who studied Bridgewater believe, have eventually collapsed at a later date?

It’s all the stuff of conjecture now, as the quarterback with whom coach Mike Zimmer thought he’d spend the rest of his career returns to Minnesota as an opponent for the first time, trying to help the Panthers keep their faint playoff hopes alive while dealing a body blow to the Vikings’ own chances.

Carolina is Bridgewater’s third team since he left Minnesota after the 2017 season, and the first for whom he’s been named the starter since he tore multiple ligaments and dislocated his left knee Aug. 30, 2016, in what still ranks as one of the more gruesome and bizarre injuries in recent pro football history.

But even as Bridgewater has gone from franchise fixture to what-could-have-been story, the impression he made on the Vikings seems to transcend all of it.

“I’m pretty certain in making this statement: In the 10 years I’ve been here, he has to be the most likable player that we’ve had in the locker room,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “I mean, you just talk to people in the front office, coaching staff, players that played with him, workers in the cafeteria: Everyone loved Teddy. You loved his energy and positivity that he brought every day, his work ethic that he brought every day.”

There are about a dozen players left in the organization from Bridgewater’s time in Minnesota; nearly all of them have a Teddy story.

For Dalvin Cook, whose locker was next to Bridgewater’s in a corner of the Vikings’ old Winter Park facility that Bridgewater dubbed “The Neighborhood,” the quarterback was first a friendly face who understood what it was like to make Minnesota home after growing up in a rough part of Miami. Their relationship shifted from the locker room to the training room in Oct. 2017, when Cook began his rehab from knee surgery just as Bridgewater was finishing his.

“I had some tough days in the training room with Teddy,” Cook said. “He would just tell me to push through, you’ve got to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It just used to be little things that he would pitch at me and throw at me to get me through it. I could be going through some pain in the training room trying to get my extension back, trying to get my range of motion back, and he’d make me laugh through it.”

Bridgewater’s last trip between the white lines at U.S. Bank Stadium, for mop-up duty at the end of a Week 15 game in 2017, triggered an ovation louder than anything Cook said he’s heard in the building other than the “Minneapolis Miracle.” Bridgewater’s return as an opponent this weekend will come with the stands empty and the fans who still hold warm memories of him unable to let him know how they feel.

The NFL machine marches on, through career-threatening injuries and life-altering pandemics. The true impact of Bridgewater’s 45 months with the Vikings might be measured in the manner they’ve continued to reverberate.

“When you think about it, in this profession, there’s so much of a business feel to it, where it’s guys’ jobs, as opposed to college, where you’re on top of each other, teammates, around the dorms playing video games,” Bridgewater said. “That’s all you know for 24 hours out of the day. And then you get to the NFL, you have guys who have families and have to provide for their families. So it does get tougher to establish those relationships. But as you go throughout the years, you latch onto guys who are genuine, guys who appreciate you as much as you appreciate them, guys who have the same common goals in life as you. You tend to grow, as a person, as a friend, as a teammate with those guys.”

‘Soft spot for Teddy Bridgewater’

Obadiah Gamble is 11 now, with more than 3,600 Twitter followers, a single on Spotify and recurring appearances on KARE 11. He looks back at the video that made him a social media sensation — the “Hey Teddy” track he used to invite Bridgewater to his sixth birthday party — with the self-awareness of a boy who’s approaching adolescence.

“That’s cringe; that is complete cringe,” he said this week, with mock incredulity in his voice. “Just watching myself, six years old, doing a rap?”

The memory of Bridgewater ambling through the front gate through his yard, though, helped him see he could take a chance.

“Everyone,” Gamble said, “just seems to have a soft spot for Teddy Bridgewater.”

After the Vikings traded into the first round to select Bridgewater 32nd overall in 2014, Matt Cassel made the phone call to the quarterback he knew would likely take his job, paying forward the courtesy shown to him by Tom Brady when Cassel was a rookie with the Patriots. Bridgewater’s amiability took him aback.

“A lot of first-round picks come in, and so many people, throughout their football careers, have told them how great they are,” said Cassel, who now works for NBC Sports Boston and Sirius XM while living in Nashville with his wife and five kids. “There’s a different edge to them, so to speak, like, ‘I’m the guy.’ They know it, they believe it … You never know how that relationship is going to work; is it going to be an ultracompetitive thing, where every day is like, you’re grinding against him? He didn’t have that edge to him. You never felt like he was against you, or trying to one-up you in the meetings. It was, ‘Hey, look — we’re in this together. We’re a unit.’ That’s why people just love Teddy and they love everything about him.”

During a dinner with the team’s offensive linemen and their wives that year, the Vikings’ veterans had each rookie stand up and say something. Bridgewater, instead, broke into a dance step that had the room in tears of laughter.

“You don’t always see that come out in Teddy,” Cassel said. “He has a lot of funny qualities to him that you don’t get to see a lot. But he was in that element and let loose, it was fun for all of us to see him get after it.”

Rudolph recalled that night in August 2016, when he traveled to Hennepin County Medical Center with teammates Adrian Peterson and Michael Griffin to see Bridgewater after the quarterback had been transported there by ambulance in an effort to save his left leg. No one in the room, he said, was more optimistic about Bridge­water’s recovery than Bridgewater.

“He was joking around with Adrian that his comeback from this knee injury would be far greater than Adrian’s [in 2012], and Adrian won the MVP the year after he hurt his knee so that was just kind of Teddy’s positivity and outlook on everything,” Rudolph said.

In a way, Bridgewater might have been right.

One-of-a-kind recovery

As athletic trainers worked hurriedly on Bridgewater that day, some teammates tossed their helmets and cursed in frustration while others dropped to a knee in prayer. The Vikings ended their last preseason practice after about 15 minutes, knowing they’d be unable to focus on anything else that day, while the ambulance came to take Bridgewater to Minneapolis.

About an hour later, General Manager Rick Spielman appeared with Zimmer to inform reporters about the severity of the injury; Zimmer referenced the day his wife, Vikki, died unexpectedly in 2009 as a reminder the Vikings would need to keep going in the face of sudden shock.

Privately, the Vikings pored over dire studies that suggested Bridgewater might never play again.

“We went back and looked at the history of people who had had that injury,” Zimmer said Wednesday. “There wasn’t very many of them. I think there was one basketball player, one football player. I think the basketball player came back after 24 months, and he didn’t have a long career. So for [Teddy] to come back after 16 months, or whatever it was, it’s very unique and one-of-a-kind.”

The risks associated with Bridgewater’s future, though, made the Vikings question whether they could plan around him again.

The Vikings shed tears over Bridgewater’s injury on a Tuesday; they traded a first- and fourth-round pick to the Eagles for his replacement four days later. The following year, as Bridgewater worked his way back from surgery while Sam Bradford visited specialists for his own knee issues, Case Keenum led the Vikings within a game of playing a Super Bowl in their own stadium. Two months after that, the Vikings bade goodbye to all three, unsure about Bridgewater and Bradford’s long-term health and Keenum’s consistency, and signed Kirk Cousins.

That the Vikings will face Bridgewater this weekend is a testament to Bridgewater’s quiet resilience that sticks with so many in the organization.

After playing 14 games and starting six over the past two seasons with the Saints, Bridge­water started the Panthers’ first 10 games before sitting out last week because of a right knee injury. He intends to return this week. He’s thrown 13 touchdown passes — one from his career high — against seven interceptions, completing 72.1% of his attempts and posting a 72.2 quarterback rating (the 13th-best mark in the league).

“When you talk about a story and talk about a guy painting the picture and not looking at the downside of everything — because he could’ve looked at the downside of him almost losing his leg and going back on the field and putting himself in that same predicament,” Cook said. “But he didn’t. He put his head down and he worked. He got back on the field and he signed a big deal this offseason.”

‘Two genuine folks’

Bridgewater and Zimmer have stayed in touch since the quarterback left. When the NFL schedule was released this spring, Zimmer said, “I don’t know if he texted me or I texted him, but I told him I was rooting for him in 15 games, just not when we played them. He basically said the same thing. I’m proud of what he’s done.”

Bridgewater said: “Zim, he’s a genuine guy. I think when two genuine folks mesh, those bonds, they stick forever.”

When Bridgewater takes the field on Sunday, Gamble will be watching at home, admittedly a bit conflicted as his favorite quarterback faces his favorite team.

“It’s going to be nice, because I’m going to be able to see him playing our team — which is kind of weird,” he said. “All I know is, I will be partially sad if the Vikings lose, and also partially sad if the Carolina Panthers lose.”

Perhaps, if it had all gone differently four years ago, Bridgewater would still be here. In some ways, he still is.

“I think I was just being Teddy,” he said. “I talked about Zim being genuine; I was just being genuine. Of course, I was a 21-year-old child, still learning. I think the fans accepted me as one of their own. I had a brief time there, and made the most of it.”