The overhead lights were off in Shawn Watson’s office at the Louisville football complex. That served a dual purpose.
It enhanced viewing video of Watson’s star quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. And, it inhibited viewing the tears that well up in Watson’s eyes when he talks about Teddy.
“He is one of the five best people in my life,” Watson says, brown eyes brimming.
The 53-year-old football lifer can get emotional about a lot of things – but with Bridgewater, the affection is always percolating just below the surface. Sometimes it spills over, and spills down his cheeks.
“We’re in each other’s head,” Watson said. “It’s a unique bond that way. We come from two totally different worlds, but we share the same love for the game.”
The middle-aged white man from the Midwest wandered into a promising but foreign situation as Louisville’s offensive coordinator after 14 years coaching in the Big 12 and Big Ten. The 20-year-old African-American quarterback wandered into a promising but foreign situation after an unsettled, largely fatherless childhood in Miami. They have filled voids in each other’s lives with a relationship that centers on football but also transcends it.
“He understands me and I understand him,” Bridgewater said. “I grew up without my father really being there for me throughout sports. Coach Watson arrived on campus around the same time I arrived, and ever since our relationship has just been tight. He took me in, and I trust everything he tells me. In our situation, it goes beyond football.”
The two had their greatest moment together on a raw Friday night in New Jersey last November. That’s when Bridgewater ignored a severely sprained ankle and broken left wrist to lead Louisville past Rutgers – a 20-17 victory that altered the course of the program.
It led to a Big East title and a Sugar Bowl bid – just the second BCS bowl appearance in program history, and the first such opportunity against a kingpin from the Southeastern Conference. In New Orleans, massive underdog Louisville shocked Florida 33-23 in a game that was not as close as the score indicated. That capped an 11-2 season, propelling the Cardinals into most preseason Top 10s for 2013 and Bridgewater onto the short list of prime Heisman Trophy contenders.
But, back to Piscataway, N.J., and the victory that set all that in motion. After Bridgewater hobbled off the bench and led the comeback to win, photographers caught Watson and his quarterback in a long, teary embrace outside the locker room. The picture spoke volumes.
“I admire his performance that day,” Watson said. “I admire his person. He’s unbelievable.” Watson paused, emotional again. “And I just appreciate him,” he said. “I really do.”
Bridgewater was unhappy. Watson knew it.
It was during spring practice, and something was off with the Louisville star. For two straight days, he was uncharacteristically moody.
So Watson pulled him into his office and started asking questions.
“Yes, it is. I know you too well. What’s wrong?”
During conditioning, Bridgewater had false-started on a sprint – something that can draw a flag from the conditioning coach. When Bridgewater was flagged, he heard a teammate make a comment to the effect that it was a shock to see the star quarterback actually get flagged.
“After hearing that I was just like, ‘Wow, is that what the guys think of me?’ ” Bridgewater said. “I just want to be treated equally, just like any other guy. I don’t want anyone to think I’m too good to get a flag or I’m out of the system or anything.
“That day when [Watson] brought me in, he got that out of me.”
As the conversation went along, it became clear that Bridgewater was uncomfortable being the focus of a Heisman campaign. He didn’t want promotional materials featuring only him. He didn’t want a website devoted to only him. He didn’t want to be singled out above his teammates.
When Watson heard that, he told his quarterback to sit tight while he went down the hall and got head coach Charlie Strong. He brought Strong back into his office and said, “Teddy’s got something he needs to tell you.”
And the promotional push was pretty much ended right there.
Make no mistake, Bridgewater would love to win the Heisman. But, if the publicity plan to gain attention at a non-traditional power such as Louisville jeopardized his standing as a teammate, he wasn’t interested.
Yet, there is no denying Bridgewater’s status on campus and around the city of Louisville. Even at a basketball school that won the national title last April, he’s still the biggest athletic celebrity on campus. That’s been a difficult reality for the quarterback to embrace.
“It’s like I’ve become a superstar, basically,” Bridgewater said. “And I hate to say it like that because I really don’t want that title, being a superstar. But, you know, that’s what it’s become.”
The remarkable thing about Bridgewater being able to accurately call himself a superstar is this: just 18 months ago, Watson had him believing he was a lousy quarterback.
Teddy started the last 10 games of his true freshman season and established himself as exactly what he was billed to be when the five-star recruit spurned Miami and LSU to come to Louisville. He was the future of the program, the Big East Freshman of the Year who broke a slew of school freshman records.
But, college football is full of squandered ability and untapped promise. While Bridgewater played very well in his first year, he was nowhere near the player he could be. And, Watson didn’t want him to settle for anything short of his potential.
During a brutally honest meeting during the winter of 2012, Watson outlined all of the shortcomings the program savior had shown during that first season at Louisville.
“I’m telling you, there was a list,” Watson said. “A long list. I told my wife, ‘I met with Teddy today and I might have ruined him.’ “
Actually, the coach wasn’t very concerned about that possibility. He knew Teddy too well. He knew how he was going to respond.
“I was amazed at how terrible I was,” Bridgewater said, laughing. “But it didn’t hurt my feelings really at all, because I knew he was really trying to make me a better player.”
With Bridgewater onboard for tearing down and rebuilding his game, the two went to work. They reviewed every single play of the 2011 season, deciding which ones were great and which were bad – and the bad ones outnumbered the great.
Most of it was the small stuff. Bridgewater had the accuracy, mobility, competitiveness, charisma and poise of a star quarterback – he just needed to improve the ancillary facets that can separate the great from the good.
“He took the coaching points,” Watson said. “We went through everything in detail. Then he came out and knocked the lights out in the spring, and I knew he was poised for a great year. The gloves were off. I gave him reality, and he responded with a great spring.”
A great spring became a great fall. The potential was being fulfilled, and a program was rising on the shoulders of its reluctant superstar.
It’s the little things. Listen toWatson as he parses video of Bridgewater, and the joy comes from the tiny details.
When a Florida pass rusher beats a blocker and pours in on Bridgewater, it’s the quarterback’s two-step sideways shuffle to evade and buy time that tickles the coach.
When a throw on a crossing route leads a receiver two feet farther into open space and away from a defender, Watson effuses.
When Bridgewater fools a safety with a glance to the outside third of the field before throwing a post route for a touchdown, Watson is flush with pride.
“He’s a quick study,” Watson says, rewinding video to pinpoint the small stuff. “Very quick.”
The freshman mistakes turned into sophomore successes. Bridgewater threw 96 more passes as a sophomore than as a freshman, but his interceptions went down from 12 to eight. Touchdowns jumped from 14 to 27. Sacks dropped from 33 to 28. Completion percentage and yards per attempt shot up.
All of that is why Bridgewater is considered a prime NFL prospect, perhaps the top college quarterback on the board for 2014. Although just a true junior, Bridgewater seems to be lining up everything for an early entry in the draft. After entering college early and staying in Louisville every spring, he is on schedule to graduate with a degree in Sports Administration in December.
But, Bridgewater doesn’t enjoy talking about what will come after this season. The focus is this fall, and the expectation is merely perfection.
“Pretty much have an undefeated season,” Bridgewater said. “And wherever we end up after that, that’s how we’ll play it. But coming into the season, we’re not settling for any losses.”
That goal is realistic in part due to a weak schedule, but also in part due to the improvements Watson demanded and Bridgewater delivered. Those are the results of the hours of study, as two men from different worlds committed themselves to a common purpose.
But there was the other stuff – the stuff Watson could never teach Teddy that had to come from within – that led to the post-Rutgers embrace.
Hours before Louisville flew to New Jersey, Shawn Watson went to Charlie Strong and requested an emergency seven-on-seven workout.
He had to see whether Teddy Bridgewater could go, on a painfully swollen ankle and with a splinted wrist. He’d suffered both injuries the week before in a triple-overtime loss to Connecticut that threatened to derail Louisville’s Big East title hopes – and if he couldn’t play, there seemed to be little hope in a must-win situation on the road.
Teddy had done almost nothing all week but live in the training room, getting treatment. It appeared that backup Will Stein – a diminutive former walk-on – would have to take the snaps in a must-win game if Louisville wanted to capture the Big East title.
“I kept thinking during the week, ‘Well, it will get better,’ ” Watson said. “But it never did.”
But Teddy didn’t want to rule himself out. So Watson put him through a seven-on-seven practice to see how much he could handle.
The results were OK – not great, but OK. Bridgewater could not take snaps under center with the broken wrist, and could not hand off with his left hand. His mobility would be more a matter of sheer pain tolerance. Louisville’s coaches stuck with the plan of starting Stein – but they were ready to try Bridgewater if they needed him.
The day of the game in the team hotel, Teddy got in touch with team chaplain Chris Morgan. He was trying to face his fears. There were rumors that Rutgers players were targeting his injuries and intent on taking him out, and that led to concern about his professional future.
“I was in so much doubt before the game,” Bridgewater said. “It was the worst pain ever, just the ankle itself. I could barely put any pressure on it, and I could barely sleep at night because of it.”
A member of the choir and an usher at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Miami, Teddy is steeped in faith. He prayed with Morgan for guidance and strength, and Morgan told him the team needed him in whatever capacity he could give it. Bridgewater came out of the meeting with renewed resolve.
“I told myself that as long as I was able to walk and able to throw a football, then I’m able to put my pride aside and put it on the line for my team,” Bridgewater said.
He put it all on the line, if not over the line.
Stein started and was ineffective as the Cardinals fell behind 7-0. After two possessions, Bridgewater got on the headset with Watson and told his coach he could do it. He could play.
“So we put him in the game and the rest is history,” Watson said. “He made some incredible plays in that game. Some incredible plays.”
On his first possession in the second quarter, Bridgewater led Louisville to a field goal – but then the Cardinals gave up another touchdown and were down 14-3 going into halftime.
But in the third quarter, Bridgewater threw two touchdown passes – one of them a Brett Favre-style shovel to running back Jeremy Wright after limping away from the pass rush – and Louisville earned its fifth Teddy-led comeback win of the year.
When the victory was secure, Shawn Watson was waiting for one of the five best people in his life outside the locker room. That’s where the embrace occurred. Words weren’t needed to understand the emotions.
“The two of us had no idea we’d end up here together,” Watson said. “And it’s really been an awesome experience.”