East Lansing — Weston Bridges always has loved to play football.
Practice, games, whatever it is, Bridges loves being out on the field.
But a year ago, he questioned whether that love was enough. Was it enough to keep him pushing through a second ACL tear in less than a year? Could he fight through the grueling rehab he knew was ahead of him?
It’s easy to understand why Bridges doubted his desire to keep playing. It was August 2017 and he’d just injured his left knee in his first preseason camp at Michigan State, less than a year after first hurting the knee in a playoff game during his final game at Copley (Ohio) High.
“I was contemplating it for sure,” Bridges said. “I was telling my dad, ‘I don’t know if I really love this game anymore.’ ”
Who can blame him? His first season as a Spartan was over in an instant. There were no guarantees his knee would get back to normal, the normal that allowed him to rush for more than 3,500 yards and 60 touchdowns in 29 high school games.
But, as Bridges let that question float around in his head, it became apparent rather quickly that those around him — his coaches, trainers and teammates in East Lansing — didn’t have the same doubt.
“I just stuck with it,” Bridges said. “I had the right people around me, people still believing in me, and I had to believe in myself at the end of the day. So, I just kept telling myself ‘Just keep rehabbing, it's all going to pay off.’”
The ultimate payoff could still come with Bridges taking on a significant role in the Michigan State running game. For now, two weeks into preseason camp, there’s been plenty of positive signs.
After taking the full year off to rehab, Bridges is turning heads. As senior LJ Scott is the clear No. 1 in the backfield, there’s an open battle for whatever carries might not go to Scott. Sophomore Connor Heyward is the first option, but with his flexibility, another runner could be needed. Freshmen Elijah Collins and La’Darius Jefferson will get a look, but now it appears Bridges has no intention of being passed over.
“Weston is back, he’s not worried about his injury anymore,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. “He’s had some flashes. He looks like Jeremy Langford a little bit at times — he’s got that breakaway speed, he’s elusive, and he continues to learn because he’s really like a freshman, with pass protection and things of that nature he’s working on.”
There’s no doubt it will take some time for Bridges to get used to being on the field again. He’ll certainly have to get comfortable making cuts — like the ones that led to the injuries — and taking big hits.
But he says he’s already passed any potential mental hurdles.
“I'm definitely confident,” Bridges said. “When I get out there I don't think about it at all. You just got to go.”
With the second scrimmage of camp set for Friday, Bridges is going.
“Weston is looking good,” quarterback Rocky Lombardi said. “It was tough to see him go through those injuries. He’s in my class, obviously, so it’s good to see him develop and pick up that speed and get everything back going, so I’m proud of him.”
Added junior linebacker Joe Bachie, “He’s quick. This is the first time I’ve really seen him play. He’s quick in and out of his cuts, makes people miss. He’s got a chance to be an explosive back for us.”
Bridges understands getting back on the practice field is simply the first step. Now, he has to prove he belongs in the games.
That will take a bit more time considering he’s missed an entire season of football. To that end, Bridges is taking every tip he can from Scott and Heyward while doing his best to make up for the lost year.
“Everything,” Bridges said when asked what he needs to better at. “I never become satisfied where I’m at. But honestly, I think my weakness is my pass protection, but I gotta get better at everything. I’m still learning the plays each and every day. So it’s day by day. It’s step by step.”
That’s the only way Bridges knows to do it. That’s been forced upon him by the back-to-back injuries. The endless hours of rehab. Watching his teammates play on Saturdays.
He admits, now, there are plenty of low moments.
“It was hard for me being out,” Bridges said. “I was only 18 and it was very tough. It was a long journey. I felt like, ‘Why me?’ That was the hardest thing. But I’m back and I’m blessed. God has been good to me.”
As much as Bridges has relied on his faith over the past couple of years and the never-ending support from the Michigan State staff, there’s one other person who was vital to his return.
“Every day you look in the mirror and the only thing looking back at you is yourself,” Bridges said. “So, it’s all on you at the end of the day. I was pushing myself, rehabbing hard every single day, not stopping, having that attitude of not stopping, not giving up.”