ORLANDO -- Teddy Bridgewater once dreamed of donning the green and orange and playing for his hometown Hurricanes.
Now, garbed in Louisville Cardinal red, he dreams of threading touchdowns through Miami’s defense Saturday in the Russell Athletic Bowl — a game many believe will be the last of his college career.
“My mom always tells me, ‘Blessings are never denied, they’re just delayed,’’’ said Bridgewater, 21, a junior who earned his degree after only three years and is projected by NFL analysts as the nation’s No. 1 quarterback should he enter the upcoming draft. “Everyone has their time, and their time will come.’’
The friendly, upbeat hometown kid said he will decide whether to enter the NFL Draft after the bowl game. But he can’t wait to face his friends on the Hurricanes (9-3), playing in their first bowl game in three years. He competed with several of them in Optimist youth sports as a youngster at Bunche Park, then as a Northwestern High star initially committed to the Canes before coach Randy Shannon was fired in 2010.
“What a way to finish the season,’’ said Bridgewater, whose Cardinals (11-1), now ranked 18th, defeated Florida in the Sugar Bowl to end last season.
At least two dozen Cardinals, many of them key players, are from South Florida.
“It definitely makes it more exciting,’’ said UM cornerback Tracy Howard, who played at Miramar High and has known Bridgewater for several years. “Of course there’s going to be trash-talking. There’s going to be a lot of stuff.’’
Nationally heralded running back Duke Johnson, a Hurricane and good friend of Bridgewater’s who fractured his ankle and will be on the sideline watching, said the familiarity “makes it a lot more fun’’ because of the high school connections. “Now we get a chance to do it at the next level on a big stage.
“That’s where we like to play our best games, on the big stage when the cameras are on. I expect a good game from both teams.”
Be assured that the city — and country — will be watching, and that some South Floridians who are normally Hurricanes fans might be a touch conflicted as they settle on their couches for the 6:45 p.m. kickoff at Citrus Bowl Stadium.
“A lot of people who are Miami fans are also Teddy Bridgewater fans,” Bridgewater said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “When I was just home recently people came up to me and mentioned that, ‘Hey, Miami is my team, but I’m going to root for Louisville because you’re on that team.’ ’’
Miamian Billy Rolle, the new Coral Reef coach who coached Bridgewater at Northwestern, is one of them.
“I’ve got to go with ‘The General’ or ‘The Professor’ or ‘The Surgeon,’ Rolle said of Bridgewater, laughing. “But mostly he’s just plain old ‘Bear,’ as in Teddy Bear.
“All these good things couldn’t happen to a better kid.’’
Bridgewater (9,370 passing yards and 69 touchdowns in three seasons) has led the 18th-ranked Cardinals to an 11-1 record, their only loss by three points to UCF. He is second in the nation in completion percentage, connecting on 70 percent of his passes, and has thrown a mere four interceptions in his 382 attempts this season.
His poise and intelligence and savvy on the football field dazzle NFL types and frustrate opponents, as with his spectacular 14-yard run — the last several yards going backward — on fourth down to sustain a drive toward the end of the Cards’ last game at Cincinnati, an overtime victory. Soon after the run, Bridgewater broke through the grasp of charging defenders to heave an impossibly difficult, almost sidearm-like throw to teammate Damian Copeland for the touchdown.
“Skill wise and temperament wise Bridgewater is ready to play at the NFL level,” said ESPN commentator Rod Gilmore, working Saturday’s broadcast. “Something that stands out about him that people don’t talk about very much is that he can play very well when things aren’t perfect. When the weather is really bad he’s still very effective. When he’s hurt he still plays well. When guys run the wrong route or there’s pressure, he doesn’t panic.’’
Bridgewater has lived through pressure far scarier than a 300-pound lineman charging him head on. When Teddy was 14, his mother, Rose Murphy, broke the news to Teddy and his three older siblings that she had breast cancer.
Bridgewater was devastated and contemplated quitting sports to get a job to help his mother, a former Miami-Dade Schools bus driver and now field operations specialist. She underwent lumpectomy surgery and still attended every game during her chemotherapy treatments.
“He put something on Facebook about his mom losing her hair,’’ Murphy said, “and it hit me like a ton of bricks. All I kept thinking was, ‘I have to find a way to beat this.’ ’’
Now in remission, Murphy each week is saluted Army-style in the stands by her 6-3, 207-pound baby.
“In the cycle of life, people lose loved ones,’’ Bridgewater said. “I just cherish my mom because of everything she’s been through and the way she raised me. Most people should be thankful to still have their mother. I know I am.”
Murphy, 51, finds it ironic that when he was in third grade, Teddy was riding home from a practice and broke the silence by saying, “Mom, you know what? When I go to the pros I’m going to buy you a pink Escalade.’’
She now drives Teddy’s old 2001 white Crown Victoria, but never forgot his words — though not because of the Escalade part.
“Pink represents breast cancer,’’ she said. “I’ve realized what we both went through was bigger than us.’’
Bridgewater’s closest friend from Northwestern High is also Louisville’s third-leading receiver, Eli Rogers. The two committed together to Miami — and then decommited together. Rogers’ mother has had AIDS for several years, and Bridgewater and his mother have been like family.
“I came here to become a better man, and with Teddy’s help, I have,’’ Rogers said. “He’s a positive, humble guy, and he’s taught me to be humble.
“Football is like paradise to us. When we step on the field, we don’t worry about anything.’’
Bridgewater, who said he will stick to his word and whip up a pink Escalade for mom when he turns pro, insists he made the right choice in attending Louisville. If he leaves after Saturday, he’ll walk away with his degree in sports administration and a future worth millions.
What happened with Miami?
“I just didn’t go to Miami because of what was going on at the time, the way the program was going downhill and the firing of Randy Shannon,’’ he said. “That was it.
“I’m very proud of graduating. It’s a huge accomplishment, a huge milestone because I’m the first in my family to do it.”
He said he respects Miami and isn’t upset at the fans who berated him on social media when he changed his commitment. “That’s what fans do,” he said. “They voice their opinion and I love that kind of stuff. It doesn’t get to me.’’
He wants others from his neighborhood in Bunche Park to know they can make it out, too.
“We’ve seen guys grow up and fall victim to the environment we lived in,’’ he said. “I want to be an outlet not only to the generation behind me but to people older. It’s never too late. God has a plan for all of us.’’
What would he like others to say about him after he leaves Louisville?
“He was a guy who was a class act,’’ Bridgewater said. “I want to be known as the best athlete to ever come through this program.’’