Giovani Bernard downplayed the significance of his return to South Florida Saturday. Yes, Carolina’s game at Miami had meaning to him, but so too does every game, he said. It’s a good feeling to play in his hometown, he said, but just coming out with the win, that’s the main thing. After the game, he deferred to just about everyone: his offensive line, his quarterback, the Tar Heel defense . . . but it was Bernard who had carried the Tar Heels to victory.
The last time Bernard played in Sun Life Stadium, his St. Thomas Aquinas Raiders scored 35 points in the fourth quarter against Lakeland in the 2006 5A State Championship. In overtime, they were stopped on the goal line and fell 45-42. On that day, the 15 year-old Bernard’s only contribution to the box score was two kick returns for 26 yards. Six years later, he rushed for 177 yards and two scores and gained 36 yards through the air, helping Carolina to an 18-14 win.
“He is a complete player,” head coach Larry Fedora said of Bernard. “It doesn’t matter if it’s pass blocking on protections or if it’s catching the football or if it’s running the football or punt returns, whatever we ask him to do, he’s going to do it to the best of his ability. He’s going to do everything he can to help this football team win.”
Saturday, that included diving for a key fourth-down reception to extend a drive. Carolina lined up on 4th and 6 at the Miami 33, needing a spark. Miami blitzed quarterback Bryn Renner. With Miami’s Eddie Johnson in his face, Renner dumped the ball to his tailback. The pass looked to be just beyond Bernard’s fingertips, but he was able to dive for it, tuck the ball, maintain his balance and move the chains. “Heck of a catch,” Renner said. “He made a great play. I threw a terrible ball, and he really did a great job catching it.”
“There’s not another person I’d rather have in that situation than Gio, because we believe he’s going to make those plays, and the best part is he believes he’s going to make those plays,” Fedora said. “That’s what makes him a great player.” That great player took the ball on the very next play and powered 17 yards into the end zone for his second score.
That catch and run, and Bernard’s willingness to do what it takes to make it happen, was emblematic of his style of play. He’s not largest tailback in Carolina history, but he uses his speed and elusiveness to make defenders miss. Saturday, he leaped through holes, stiff-armed defenders and initiated hits to pick up extra yards. Once, he lost a shoe but gained 16 yards. “Coach Fedora stresses creating big plays and that’s what we want to do when we’re out there,” Bernard said. “That could have been the difference-maker, and we just want to be out there and be able to do what we do best.”
Bernard will remind you that it’s a team game. He’s right, of course, but his individual effort had played a large part in securing the result. He’s got an outstanding offensive line paving the way, and receivers blocking downfield, but it’s Bernard who carries the ball and keeps churning for yards after contact. “He’s so humble,” Renner said. “That’s the one thing we love about him. Even if he rushes for 95 and we still got the win, he would have been the same way, thanking his offensive line. He’s a great teammate and a great person, and that’s just how he is.”
So that family members could attend Saturday’s game, Bernard traded with teammates to secure about 20 tickets. His father Yvens and brother Yvenson saw Giovani play in a Tar Heel uniform for the first time. The three had not been in the same place since Yvenson’s senior season at Oregon State in 2007. Members of the Bernard contingent wore shirts with the words ‘RUN GIO’ emblazoned in the style of 1980s rap group Run DMC’s logo, and Giovani got to speak with his father and brother briefly after the game, between an interview session and boarding the bus to the airport.
The first question directed to Bernard concerned his playing in Miami, in front of his family. He deflected. “I think it meant the world to me, but first and foremost, I think we had a great day out there,” he said.
If Bernard was unwilling to stress the personal importance of his playing in Miami, his quarterback (and roommate) had no such qualms. “We talked about it all week,” Renner said. “I think he (Bernard) hides it very well, but it meant a lot to him.”
“I would say it definitely has meaning to me, but I think every single game has that ‘most meaning’ to me,” Bernard said. “Just being able to play this game, just being out there with my brothers, that’s an amazing feeling.”
Carolina returns home 5-2 with a trip to Duke and a home date with N.C. State over the next two Saturdays. Saturday’s win put them at 2-1 in the conference and near the top of the Coastal Division with the Blue Devils and Virginia Tech (who Carolina beat last weekend). One has to believe that deep down, Giovani Bernard’s virtuoso performance in his hometown meant a lot to him. It meant a lot to the Tar Heels, too.
Turner Walston is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly.
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