UNC tailback Bernard close to reaching 1,000-yard benchmark
Giovani Bernard is just 189 yards away from being North Carolina’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 1997 and earning a spot in an elite group of just 14 other Tar Heels who have accomplished that feat.
But the redshirt freshman tailback isn’t really concerned about the individual accolades. For him, football is an escape from a life that’s offered its fair share of challenges.
During the past three seasons, Bernard has spent more time on the sidelines than he has on the football field, as injuries have forced him to stop playing the game he loves.
But despite the obstacles that have been strewn across his path to success, what hasn’t been halted is Bernard’s unwavering faith and appreciation for every opportunity he’s been given.
It’s gratitude, he said, that will always keep him running.
A delayed debut
In UNC’s first eight games, Bernard has carried the ball 141 times. But it’s another touch that stands out in his mind.
It was the third day of the 2010 training camp, and Bernard — a four-star tailback with two high school state championships in his pocket — was excited to prove himself to his new team.
On Aug. 8, 2010 Bernard was paired up with former UNC linebacker Herman Davidson for a one-on-one pass drill at Navy Field.
“As a freshman, you want to come here. You want to do as good as you can. You want to show the coaches you’ve got speed, you’ve got the ability to move and things like that,” Bernard said. “I told myself, ‘You’ve got to shake this guy.’”
But on that very play, it was Bernard’s collegiate career that shook upside-down.
As he tried to cut away from Davidson, Bernard’s right knee gave out and the tailback said he heard a loud thud. And even though he could walk off the field, Bernard knew something just wasn’t right.
Less than two weeks after his season-ending injury, Bernard, who was given a medical redshirt for the 2010 season, underwent surgery to repair his torn ACL.
Three days later, Bernard hobbled to his first day of classes, requiring crutches to help him stand. But keeping his spirits lifted would be a whole new challenge.
When UNC took the field at the Georgia Dome for the Chick-fil-A kickoff game against Louisiana State, it did so without its freshman tailback, who watched from a television in his Davie, Fla. home.
Sitting out of UNC’s 8-5 campaign was a struggle that forced him to strengthen his faith.
Despite the hiccup, Bernard said he’s convinced everything happens for a reason.
“You never know what’s really going to happen in life,” Bernard said. “Just having that mentality and being able to come back and know that everything is going to be okay at a point, I think my approach to the game is a lot different than some other players.”
A sidelined star
After Bernard’s surgery, George Smith, head football coach at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, gave his former player a call.
Unfortunately for Bernard, it wasn’t his first conversation with Smith about injuries.
Bernard’s agility helped guide St. Thomas Aquinas to consecutive 5A Florida State Championships in 2007 and 2008, and during Bernard’s junior season he rushed for 1,528 yards and 18 touchdowns.
But during his senior year, a hamstring injury kept the Saints’ star rusher off the field for all but five quarters.
Smith said watching Bernard spend his final high school season on the sidelines was agonizing.
“All this stuff happens to him, but not once through all that stuff did he ever complain and say, ‘Woe is me’,” he said.
Even though Bernard sat out for most of his senior season, the scholarship offers rolled in and Bernard committed to Notre Dame in October 2009.
But when Fighting Irish head coach Charlie Weis was fired the following month, Bernard reopened his recruitment.
UNC running backs coach Ken Browning saw his chance and jumped on it.
Browning said Bernard’s explosiveness and acute sense for changing direction shined on the game film. And those were just the kind of qualities that Browning and the rest of the coaching staff wanted on their team — injury or not.
“(Giovani and I) talked about kids I had coached before and what they had done to kind of overcome and strengthen that hamstring,” Browning said. “I felt like it may take some time for him to balance that up a little bit, but I felt like that was going to happen.”
Tragedy from afar
Two season-ending injuries could be justification for any athlete to feel down on himself. But Bernard is always quick to put everything into perspective.
Both of his parents were born in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. In January 2010, the impoverished nation where much of Bernard’s extended family still resides was hit by an earthquake that claimed the lives of more then 200,000 people.
Despite sustaining property damage, all of Bernard’s family members survived the disaster. Bernard’s brother Yvenson, a running back in the Canadian Football League, has since started a relief foundation which helps rebuild schools in Haiti, a project Bernard hopes to help out with soon.
For Bernard, staying healthy and putting in time on the football field isn’t always easy.
But keeping in mind his heritage and the people close to him who are less fortunate, Bernard said, helps remind him to keep a smile on his face through it all.
“If I’m tired on the field or something, I always think there’s a kid in Haiti that’s starving or going to bed hungry,” Bernard said.
“Things like that always remind me I can’t take things for granted. I always have to try and get better, keep working hard.”
For Bernard, hard work has certainly paid off. In eight games, Bernard has scored an ACC-high nine rushing touchdowns, and his average of 5.8 yards per carry is tied for second in the conference.
Putting in man hours on the football field is the secret to Bernard’s success. But he refuses to take all the credit.
Someone else, he said, has been helping him along the way.
Bernard said the support of his mother Josette, who died when he was 10 years old, helped him get through the difficult experience of sitting out his first season at UNC.
With her name tattooed on the inside of his wrist and ‘She Lives in Me’ inked across his chest, Bernard has a daily reminder of his biggest supporter.
And in the second quarter of UNC’s 24-22 win against Rutgers on Sept. 10, Bernard said she aided him still.
On first-and-10 from the UNC 40-yard line, quarterback Bryn Renner handed the ball off to Bernard.
And away he went.
Bernard looked behind him twice during his 60-yard rushing touchdown, searching for oncoming defenders. But as he crossed the threshold of the end zone for his third collegiate touchdown, Bernard knew just who to thank.
“All I could really do was just point up to the sky,” Bernard said. “I just knew that everything was going to be okay, that (my mother) was watching out on me, that she was the one that sprung me free.”
“After every touchdown … I know she’s always that last lead blocker for me.”
A silent standout
In Bernard’s short collegiate career, he’s already collected a handful of distinctions — and the redshirt freshman is just 189 yards away from one of the most significant accolades for a tailback.
But Bernard would be the last one to tell you about it.
Bernard said his life experiences have given rise to his humility, and his unassuming persona has not gone unnoticed.
“He’s such a calm and chill guy … At the running back position, you expect somebody that’s just flashy and talkative,” offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper said. “He’s been through so much in his life that I kind of feel like football is his escape.”
At UNC, Bernard has already proved to have mastered the art of reading his blocks and successfully finding holes, and prior to the first game of the season, Renner said Bernard’s agility reminded him of Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
But when Bernard learned he was being compared to an NFL veteran, the overwhelmed Tar Heel just let out a sigh.
“It’s just another blessing that God has given me,” he said. “And I’ll just take it and run with it.”
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