EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — The worst-case scenario fear surfaced in Sam Bradford's mind at midseason, in the aftermath of the 30-year-old quarterback's latest surgery on his left knee.
This procedure was an arthroscopic cleanup, not another reconstruction, but that didn't quiet the question about whether he'd be able to resume his career.
"That was a battle I fought for a few weeks," Bradford said. "But it seemed like each day where it got better, each week where it felt like I was making true progress and could do a little bit more, those thoughts started to leave my mind. I started to become more confident in how I felt on my knee and what I was able to do."
Bradford returned to practice with the Minnesota Vikings this week, the earliest he was eligible to do so after being placed on injured reserve on Nov. 8.
The Vikings can put him back on the active roster for the playoffs at any time, with a decision required by Jan. 23 if they advance to the Super Bowl.
Bradford would likely only be the second or third option at that point behind Case Keenum and possibly Teddy Bridgewater, but in this unpredictable sport the potential of him being summoned into duty can't be dismissed.
"I've been working extremely hard to be able to get back out there, and so just to be out there and be able to go through these two practices, it's been great," Bradford said on Wednesday, his first mass interview in three months. "I think we're still just taking it one day at a time."
Bradford, who tore his ACL in 2013 and 2014 when he was with the St. Louis Rams, performed brilliantly in the season-opening win over the New Orleans Saints, during which he aggravated the knee.
Keenum started the next three games, until Bradford had made sufficient enough progress to be cleared to start at Chicago on Oct. 9. He hobbled around in the first half against the Bears that night, though. He took four sacks and produced only three points before giving way to Keenum again late in the second quarter, this time for good.
Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman described the injury as natural wear and tear, but Bradford tried a variety of treatments to try to strengthen the joint without success before ultimately opting for the surgery.
Finally, he said, the knee is feeling as good as it has since training camp.
"I don't know what the future holds. I don't know how it's going to hold up. But I didn't know how it was going to hold up after the previous two operations," Bradford said.
"I don't think anyone knows how their body is going to hold up. All you can do is try to get it as strong as possible."
Bradford kept up a behind-the-scenes presence with the Vikings throughout his rehabilitation, assisting Keenum with the game-planning and attempting to remain engaged with the team during its run to a 13-3 regular season record and a first-round bye for the playoffs.
"I know it's been a hard year for him battling that knee, so it's good to see him out there feeling good," tight end Kyle Rudolph said.
The what-could-have-been feelings were inevitable for Bradford, given the team's success without him, but calling it career before all options were exhausted was not entertained even with career earnings well over $100 million.
"You realize how special it is to be on the field with your teammates, being able to compete out there in the National Football League," Bradford said.
"That's one of the greatest honors there is. I think once you have a taste of that feeling, it's really hard to let it go. I think for everyone, it's what drives you to come back."
Rudolph, for his part, pushed through a sprained right ankle over the past three games.
"I can't tell you what Plan B would've been had we had to play a game this week. I just would've been out there and been a terrible football player like I have been for the last three weeks," Rudolph said. "Getting to this week off is big for me."