AS THE COMPLETIONS AND VICTORIES PILE UP, LOW-KEY STAR TEDDY BRIDGEWATER BRINGS LOUISVILLE CLOSER TO NEW YEAR'S DAY AND HIMSELF CLOSER TO NEW YORK CITY, FULFILLING HIS VAST PROMISE
ROSE MURPHY spent the first part of her nearly 25-year career with the Miami-Dade Public Schools Department of Transportation driving a bus, often rising before dawn to begin her route. She raised four kids in some of Miami's worst neighborhoods, moving more than 15 times through areas like Opa-Locka, Miami Gardens and Liberty City. One day when her youngest child was in third grade, he turned to his mom from the passenger seat of their beat-up Kia and made a promise. "When I make it to the pros," Teddy Bridgewater said, "I'm going to buy you a pink Escalade with pink rims."
A quiet kid with a pronounced overbite, Teddy didn't say much else. "I was the child who didn't complain or ask for anything," Bridgewater says. "All I wanted to do was play sports."
He made his noise in Miami's vaunted Optimist youth leagues at Bunche Park, where he hit a buzzer beater at 11, threw a no-hitter at 12 and starred on the football field. From as young as eight, Bridgewater was tabbed as a can't-miss quarterback. His coach, Lee Jones, marveled at Bridgewater's calm when the pocket collapsed around him. The kid who kept moving from house to house found a place where he could stay still.
Bridgewater took the skills he'd honed in the park to Northwestern High in 2007. The school had won a state championship the year before behind quarterback Jacory Harris, and they repeated Bridgewater's freshman year. Then Harris set off for the Miami Hurricanes, leaving a void at quarterback that Bridgewater was expected to fill. But he was dealing with another challenge: Rose had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Teddy watched as his mom lost her hair and struggled with the other side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. To help pay for her care he mowed lawns and washed cars. As her condition worsened, he switched bedrooms, moving closer so he could soothe her in the night. He considered quitting football to do even more to help.
Rose wouldn't hear of it. Teddy played on and showed his stuff during a spring scrimmage against North Miami Beach. By his sophomore year he'd won the starting job. Even during the worst of her treatment, Rose remained a fixture at her son's games. Northwestern coach Billy Rolle called Rose "Coach" because of all the play-calling advice she would offer.
When Teddy emerged as a star, he wore a pink glove on his throwing hand, a nod to breast cancer awareness. Now a junior at Louisville, he's the nation's third most efficient passer on the No. 8 team, a Heisman Trophy candidate and the potential No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft. "His mother's situation made him a grown man," says Rolle, "and I think that helped him out more than any coach could."
FROM TED HENDRICKS to Derrick Thomas to Frank Gore, Miami has produced more than its fair share of elite football talent. Opening day NFL rosters included 24 players from Miami, eight more than any other city. But before Bridgewater, the best Miami public school QB was Rohan Davey, a pocket-passing sequoia who went to LSU but never made an impact in the NFL during stints with the Patriots and the Cardinals. (Geno Smith went to Miramar High, in Broward County.) "The stigma in South Florida is that we can produce any athlete but quarterback," says Chris Perkins, Bridgewater's quarterbacks coach at Northwestern. "I take that to heart because to me it's like [saying], You guys can't think."
In two years as a starter Harris threw for 6,365 yards and 87 touchdowns while running Northwestern's spread attack, but at Miami his career ranged from solid to unremarkable, and he's now with Edmonton in the CFL. "We had a kid who broke all the Dade County records that's not even in the league now," Rolle says of Harris. "He didn't get much time under center, and it became a problem later on."
Bridgewater ran plenty of spread, but his coaches made sure he learned the fundamentals while taking direct snaps. Perkins taught him presnap adjustments and gave him three-page tests before each game. In his three years as a starter, Bridgewater threw for 6,712 yards and 70 touchdowns. (He missed several games his senior year with a knee injury.)
"He wanted to be a quarterback," says Louisville coach Charlie Strong, "not an athlete who's a quarterback."
After committing to and then decommitting from Miami, Bridgewater picked the Cardinals. To Louisville fans he was not simply a highly touted recruit, he was proof that Strong could deliver the program back to prominence after the Steve Kragthorpe era (15--21 in three seasons). But like many freshmen, Bridgewater was nervous. He confided to the team's chaplain, Chris Morgan, that he was homesick, missed his mom and was considering leaving. He then asked to switch to receiver when he didn't win the starting quarterback job in camp. It wasn't an outrageous idea; Florida had recruited him as a wideout. Strong wouldn't hear of it.
Instead the coach sent Bridgewater out early in the second quarter of the 2011 opener against Murray State. The Cardinals led 21--0, and as Teddy walked onto the field, the crowd rose in anticipation: Ted-DEE! Ted-DEE! Ted-DEE! Bridgewater bobbed his head confidently, soaking up the support.
He then directed a drive punctuated by two false starts, a delay of game and an interception on third-and-17. The chants quickly turned to boos. "That was the most humbling experience I've ever had," he says. "That whole possession was a disaster."
It took him all of two weeks to redeem himself. In a 24--17 victory over Kentucky, Bridgewater came off the bench to throw two touchdown passes. He started the next game and the rest of the season, leading the Cardinals to a 7--6 record while throwing for 2,129 yards and 14 touchdowns and earning freshman All-America honors.
After the season, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson sat Bridgewater down and warned the quarterback that he was about to be offended. "You left a ton of offense on the field," Watson said. "You need to become a weapon."
THUS COMMENCED Watson's quarterback school, which included a grisly autopsy of every miscue. Instead of a textbook, Watson gave Bridgewater a 200-page binder that included a section titled Interception Study. In it Watson broke down Bridgewater's picks by down-and-distance and defensive alignment, and offered detailed tips, such as "close on the back foot." There was also a Sack Study section, which charted the takedowns by spacing issues, mental miscues and poor decisions. (It then went on to break down the mental mistakes by position and the decision errors by presnap, check down, hot and scramble.) "I thought I had a great season," Bridgewater says. "But we went through everything, and I realized how detailed he is, and I told myself I had to be the same way."
The work transformed Bridgewater. In the spring game he completed 19 of 21 passes (including a drop). As a sophomore, Bridgewater connected on 287 of 419 throws (68.5%) for 3,718 yards and 27 touchdowns, led the Cardinals to a 11--2 season and was named Big East Offensive Player of the Year. Along the way, Bridgewater showed that his improved skill and knowledge were complemented by an unteachable toughness.
When Louisville visited Rutgers for a Thursday-night game in late November with a BCS bid on the line, Bridgewater started on the bench because of a broken (left) nonthrowing wrist and a severely sprained right ankle. But by the second quarter, he asked into the game. Although hobbling and forced to work from the shotgun because his wrist couldn't handle direct snaps, he begged Strong to try a fourth-quarter bootleg because the defense wasn't respecting the run. Strong wouldn't hear of it.
Bridgewater's signature accuracy was all the Cardinals needed: He finished 20 of 28 for 263 yards and two touchdowns, leading Louisville from an 11-point deficit to a 20--17 win. "It was one of the most impressive performances I've seen in college football," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood says.
At the Sugar Bowl, Florida got another sample of Bridgewater's resolve. On Louisville's first passing play, linebacker Jon Bostic popped the 6'3", 196-pound Bridgewater so hard that his helmet somersaulted five yards down the field. Bridgewater shook off the hit to shred the Gators, connecting on 20 of 32 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns in a convincing 33--23 victory.
That virtuoso performance ushered in another off-season of change for Bridgewater. His confidence increased after jaw surgery to fix the overbite. He also got his braces taken off. He became a more willing leader, group-texting his receivers and tailbacks on random Saturdays with a summons: "Routes in 30 minutes." No one skipped. Watson has noticed other signs of maturation, such as Bridgewater's walking off the field with a wide receiver who had dropped a few balls in a practice "to remind him how good he is."
"This is his football team," Strong says. "He knows this, his team will only go as far as he takes them."
ON THE first night of the 2013 draft, Rose Murphy was on the way to Bible study when her phone rang. Agent Drew Rosenhaus told her, Next year at this time, we'll be sitting in New York.
Bridgewater has a season of eligibility remaining, but he'll graduate this year with a degree in sports management, and his decision to enter the draft seems foregone. "The reality is that we're hoping and believing that he has a great season," Rose says, "and after that he'll do what he needs to do to prepare to go to the draft."
The bull rush of agents, runners and financial planners began soon after the Sugar Bowl. They called Rose at work, Facebook-messaged Teddy's brother and even contacted Lee Jones, his youth football coach. "Everybody's smelling blood," says Jones.
Murphy estimates that 25 people reached out to Teddy's family and friends. "They tried telling my oldest daughter, I'll give you x amount of dollars if we get him," she says. "It was horrible, it was just crazy."
Rose, 51, who had her final chemotherapy treatment in March 2008 and has been cancer-free since, says the barrage of sales pitches stopped after Strong declared publicly that anyone contacting his players or their families wouldn't be allowed to recruit from his program. Bridgewater has continued to justify the interest, though, completing 71.7% of his passes for 1,562 yards, with 16 touchdowns and one interception. The unbeaten Cardinals will be heavily favored in every game until bowl season. "He's leading with conviction right now," Watson says. "A lot of that is the confidence he has in his work and what he's been able to accomplish."
Bridgewater has one of the country's top receiving corps, led by field-stretcher DeVante Parker, and a deep stable of tailbacks that includes former Auburn bruiser Michael Dyer. Louisville's defense is first nationally in scoring, at 6.8 points a game, up from No. 36 last year.
Still, Bridgewater is the main attraction. One scout calls him "more Luckish than RG3" in style, meaning that he's a good athlete who can make plays with his feet under duress (like Andrew Luck) but is not so elusive that he's a read-option threat (like Robert Griffin III). Louisville runs a throwback West Coast offense that—gasp!—huddles on every play, which should lead to an easier NFL transition.
Almost every expert believes Bridgewater will be the first quarterback taken, and with South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney's stock wavering, there's a chance Bridgewater could go in the top spot. One NFL GM has scheduled two in-person trips to see Bridgewater this season, and another scout says, "I think he's got the whole package on and off the field. I'm not saying he's a priest or a minister, but he's a good kid."
He's certainly poised and selfless. He asked Louisville not to run a Heisman campaign for him because he didn't want special treatment. He still dates his high school sweetheart, Erika Cardona, and his apartment, though filled with typical college trappings—a PS3 (which he uses to get virtual reps playing Madden) and posters of Lil Wayne and Jay Z—also has a Hawaiian Breeze air freshener that squirts every half hour. Like his offensive coordinator, Bridgewater is now fixated on the details; once a vagabond, he has made his life as orderly as a binder full of interception analyses. Yet he's still enough of a kid that he keeps four pieces of Bazooka bubble gum stashed in his socks—two in each—to chew during games. (He gives the comics to equipment manager Mike Kurowski.)
"He's one of those players who wants no credit," says Strong. "He'd rather sit back and let his work speak for him." And while Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel leads the nation in Heisman Trophy hype and Twitter mentions, he and Bridgewater are "not in the same universe" as NFL prospects, says former Eagles scout John Middlekauff, who adds, "You build a franchise around high-level people as much as high-level players."
Bridgewater's success is cranked to high volume back in Miami. Luis Cardona, Erika's dad and a former assistant at Northwestern who coaches at Miami Carol City, says that because of Teddy, the young quarterbacks he works with are now more focused on completion percentage than touchdown passes. And many of them mimic a certain trademark fashion trait—a glove on their throwing hands.
"Teddy Bridgewater is going to be their savior," North Miami Beach Coach Jeff Bertani says of kids in inner-city Miami. Bridgewater likes the sound of that: "That's pretty much been one of my primary goals in life, just being that role model and being that guy who makes it."
When he does, Bridgewater's first professional completion could be of a long-ago promise. You'll know he connected if you see a pink Escalade weaving through Liberty City.
"HE WANTED TO BE A QUARTERBACK," SAYS STRONG, "NOT AN ATHLETE WHO'S A QUARTERBACK."
Assessing Some of the Other Top QBs in FBS
1. MARCUS MARIOTA | SOPH. | OREGON
Pros Top-notch natural ability. Good size (6'4", 211 pounds), extremely athletic, strong arm, accurate, tough. Runs system very well. Productive and a winner.
Cons Questions about ability to read D and play without help from sideline. Can he function under center?
Projection Early first round
2. ZACH METTENBERGER | SR. | LSU
Pros Has great size (6'5", 235) and arm strength and has upside with his athleticism. Sees the field pretty well. Makes good decisions and gets the ball out on time.
Cons When plays get off schedule, has a tendency to force things. Not clear how well he reads defenses.
Projection Early first round
3. BRETT HUNDLEY | SOPH. | UCLA
Pros Good size and arm strength. Makes good decisions. Another bigger guy (6'3", 222) who moves around like a smaller one. Gotten better every year. Sky is the limit.
Cons Accuracy can wane. Can be slow on reads and delivering the ball. Not great pocket awareness—yet.
Projection Early first round
4. JOHNNY MANZIEL | SOPH. | TEXAS A&M
Pros Has the it factor. Great athlete, improving arm strength. Getting better as a passer. Immune to pressure. Produced at high level against elite competition.
Cons Size (6'1", 210). Reckless at times. Doesn't always take care of ball. Some plays he makes are just good luck.
Projection Mid-first round
5. TAJH BOYD | SR. | CLEMSON
Pros Arm strength, not an elite athlete but even at 6'1", 225, good enough athleticism to make things happen when plays are off schedule.
Cons Accuracy not on par with others. Prone to overthrows, even to open receivers when not pressured.
Projection Late first to second round
See where these top quarterbacks fit into an overall ranking of the top 50 draft prospects for 2014 in Andy Staples's Big Board, updated every Tuesday at TheMMQB.com
Photograph by JAMIE RHODES/USA TODAY SPORTS
ACE IN THE CROWD Bridgewater, who has completed more than 70% of his passes for the unbeaten Cardinals, with 16 touchdowns and just one pick, has vaulted to the top of the QB draft class—and could go No. 1.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
HOME RUN Bridgewater hopes to become the first quarterback from the Miami school system to prosper in the NFL.
DROPPED BACK Although he's known for his poise and accuracy, Bridgewater showed off his toughness in a Sugar Bowl win.
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MARIOTA)
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (METTENBERGER)
STEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES (HUNDLEY)
ERICH SCHLEGEL FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MANZIEL)
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BOYD)