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Bridgewater: 'I definitely believe I'll play this year'

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — After nearly 14 months of arduous rehabilitation for his left knee, Teddy Bridgewater has arrived at the final stage. For all the progress he's made, appearing in a game for the Minnesota Vikings again will be no small step to take.

"I definitely believe I'll play this year, but I can't just sit here and say it," Bridgewater said. "I have to continue to put the work in on the practice field and show the training staff or the higher authority that eventually I can get back to the player that I was."

Bridgewater spoke to reporters Thursday for the first time since the beginning of training camp and only the second time since he crumpled to the grass during a non-contact drill at practice Aug. 30, 2016 .

He was cleared to rejoin the team Wednesday, another significant milestone in his recovery from the knee dislocation and multiple ligament tears that would end the career of many players. "If that doesn't inspire you, I don't know what will," wide receiver Stefon Diggs said.

The 24-year-old quarterback said his knee was feeling fine after completion of his first practice, though he hasn't taken any hits. "It's baby steps," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "A little bit at a time. We try to amp it up a little bit each day as we go."

Bridgewater will be brought along slowly, realizing his return to the field this week did not signify an automatic assumption of the starting job. "We have to be smart with everything," Bridgewater said. "The plan is to get to the race to be able to run the race. So if we're not being smart, and I'm not doing whatever it takes to get to the race, I'll never be able to run the race."

Bridgewater acknowledged he'll need to prove to himself and to the team that he can complete some basic skills without problem in live action. Simulating the movements off to the side is another story.

"I'm going to have to see how I feel going forward. It could be just completing a pass down the field or making a sudden movement in the pocket," he said. "So I'm just going to look for little things each day to do whatever I can to get back to where I was before, and even better."

The one-day-at-a-time attitude was a must for making it this far, given the daunting comeback that waited for him when he left the field by ambulance that fateful afternoon and medical staff needed to act quickly to save his leg from amputation.

"Each day I wake up I put my feet on the ground and I'm thankful I'm able to walk, I'm able to stand up on my own," Bridgewater said. "There was a time where I needed help." Bridgewater was coming off a solid second season , after which he made the Pro Bowl team as an injury replacement, and had just produced a stellar performance in the team's third exhibition game when he went down.

There's no telling what kind of a player he'll be when he does take the snaps again, but he said he has been "working out like crazy" and thus added some upper-body strength because of it. "He's tough. I'm not worried about contact for him," Diggs said. "He probably wants a little bit of contact being out that long."

With Sam Bradford struggling through trouble with his left knee, Case Keenum has taken over as the starter. Rookie Kyle Sloter is on the active roster as another backup. In three weeks, the Vikings will have to decide whether to give Bridgewater one of the 53 spots or simply place him on injured reserve and give him more time.

For now, as long as Keenum can stay productive and healthy, there's no rush. "He's worked extremely hard to get to this point where he can get back out on the practice field," coach Mike Zimmer said. "We still don't know where it's going to go or where that's going to lead to, but I think everybody feels good for him because they know what kind of kid he is and how hard he has worked. He's probably not going to play this week. We need to put the brakes on things a little bit."

There's no need to dampen the inspiration though. "I know I haven't played in a football game yet, but just being back on the practice field when I thought all hope was gone," Bridgewater said, "I hope that my story can motivate someone."

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