EAGAN, Minn. -- It’s no secret how coach Mike Zimmer feels about former franchise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

He’s never been shy about heaping praise on him for everything he did for the Minnesota Vikings before a catastrophic knee injury three years ago derailed the upward trajectory of his career. He has remained his biggest fan even after he left the Twin Cities, initially for the New York Jets, before landing on his feet as the backup with the New Orleans Saints.

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Bridgewater came up in casual conversation last year when Zimmer was talking to good friend Sean Payton before a game, and again this week, with the Vikings and Saints prepping for Friday’s preseason opener at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Bridgewater is expected to play — maybe even start — in the game.

“He told me how much he likes Teddy,” Zimmer said. “He said he thinks he’s got the future quarterback in the building.”

That’s exactly what the Vikings thought three years ago before a team practice on August 30, 2016 changed everything. It was on that fateful day that Bridgewater dropped back to pass and his left knee buckled as he crumbled to the turf. He suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament as well as a dislocated knee cap, and had doctors not acted quickly as they did, there’s a chance he could have lost his left leg.

“It was a bad day,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “It was just terrible.”

“It wasn’t even about football at that point,” linebacker Anthony Barr added. “It was just about him as a person.”

That started a grueling road to recovery for Bridgewater during a time when so many people told him his NFL career was over.

Perhaps the only person that didn’t believe that prognosis was Bridgewater. He was hellbent on playing again, and gradually, whether it was in the hospital or in the training room, he started to make believers out of everyone around him.

“I’ll always remember more about his comeback than his injury,” Kendricks. “It was really special to be a part of. It was always about his battle with himself. Nothing else mattered. He knew what he could do. He believed he could do it, so there was never a doubt for me that he was going to make it back.”

After nearly 10 months off the field, Bridgewater began throwing and doing individual work, and despite starting the year on the Vikings’ physically unable to perform (PUP) list, he was officially cleared to practice October 16, 2017. He was activated three weeks later, and finally, during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on December 17, 2017, with the game well in hand, he made his return.

As Bridgewater stepped onto the field, the home crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium erupted in cheers. He stepped into the huddle and went on to throw a couple of the most meaningful, meaningless pass attempts in NFL history. He never played another snap in a Vikings uniform.

“They told him he was never going to play again,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “He had the faith and believed in himself and went out there and showed the people that he could come back. It’s an incredible story. It should inspire a lot of people to never give up and know their worth. He had that perspective and he never lost hope.”

That was Bridgewater in a nutshell. He got everyone to believe in him, and in turn, believe in themselves

“He just had those leadership qualities without even really trying,” Kendricks said. “He’s just a good kid. He always has a smile on his face. He’s always cracking jokes. He’s one of those guys that was just really likable.”

His overall demeanor was also infectious in the sense that it never wavered.

“He was just a positive, upbeat spirit regardless of the circumstances,” Barr said. “It didn’t matter if he was playing or wasn’t playing, if he was playing well or not playing well, if the team was up or if the team was down. He was always the same guy. We appreciated that. It’s a rare quality to have. Not a lot of people can stay even-keeled no matter the situation.”

You can walk around the Vikings’ locker room and anyone that played with Bridgewater would say pretty much the same thing. After everything he’s been through, everyone wants him to succeed.

Just not in Friday’s game.

“Anyone in the opposite color jersey we’re going to hit,” Kendrick said with a laugh. “That’s the name of the game at the end of the day.”

That said, Bridgewater working is way back from that catastrophic knee injury has always been bigger than the game, and everyone who played with him is excited to get to see him in action for the first time.

“I am proud of him for being able to come back from the type of injury that he had and still be playing in the NFL,” Zimmer said. “You know, our statistics, when the injury happened, it was a pretty bleak outlook for him. That’s just the kind of kid he is.”

“We know Teddy is a competitor,” Zimmer added. “He’s going to try to stick it to us just like we’re going to try to stick it to him.”