The football floated in the blue Florida sky, leaving the hand of Bryn Renner as he threw off his back foot in the face of a frenetic pass rush from Miami linebacker Eddie Johnson. Giovani Bernard was in space inside the 30 yard-line, looked over his right shoulder, saw the ball descending toward the 20 and turned on the jets. He lunged, extended to catch the ball with two hands, secured it just a foot above the grass, moved the ball to his left and used the right to brace himself, rolled forward onto his shoulder and completed the somersault, the ball safely tucked to his chest and a fourth-down wager successfully cashed in for a 16-yard gain.
Up in Section 117 in the far corner of Sun-Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Yvenson Bernard applauded, hugged his dad, smiled and thought back to the old days when he and his younger brother enjoyed playing a different sport.
"Gio used his old baseball skills," said Yvenson (pronounced EVAN-son), seven years Gio's senior. "We used to love to play baseball, we were both outfielders, we played centerfield. We loved to race in for short fly balls and have to dive to catch them, pick them off the ground. That's what I thought of when he made that catch-playing baseball as kids."
The Tar Heels and Hurricanes were locked at seven apiece late in the first half on a muggy afternoon in South Florida, Carolina's first score coming early in the game when Bernard accounted for 45 yards rushing and receiving on a seven-play, 61-yard drive. Bernard scored from the 10, quickly gazed to the heavens to acknowledge the memory of his late mother and then looked to the stands and found his father, Yvens Bernard, who sat with Yvenson and a dozen more friends from Gio's days at St. Thomas Aquinas High, located just a dozen miles up I-95. They were easy to spot given that Yvenson, a former running back at Oregon State and today a resident of Portland, had a dozen T-shirts produced last summer with the words RUN GIO in big letters and a small 26 underneath.
"People in the stands were asking, 'Where can we get one of those T-shirts?'" said Yvenson, who flew across country for a week's visit to coincide with the Tar Heels' trip to Miami. "I wear mine back in Portland on game days. Maybe Gio can start a little T-shirt business. I know where he can find some customers."
Yvenson breathed a little easier when his brother scored with just under 10 minutes left in the first quarter. The specter of Gio's first college game in the state of Florida, Yvenson knew, would be a heavy toll for his brother to bear.
"I relaxed a little when Gio got off to a good start," Yvenson said. "That erased the jitters. I knew he would be tight. I knew he would play with some pressure--trying to please his dad and his friends. Gio always tries to please everyone around him. That's just the way he is. He doesn't think about himself. He thinks about everyone else."
Now with just under four minutes to play in the first half, Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora gave offensive coordinator Blake Anderson the green light on fourth-and-six at the Miami 33. Anderson suspected the Miami defense to be in man-coverage and likely to blitz, so he sent slot-back Sean Tapley in motion to check Miami's reaction. Getting the confirmation he needed, Anderson quickly relayed in through tight ends coach Walt Bell a pass to Bernard on a wheel route to the left. Renner got everyone set and called for the snap with a second to spare on the play clock.
"We botched the protection and left Bryn in a bad spot," Anderson said. "If he'd had time to set his feet and throw, I think Gio scores. But Bryn was off-balance, got a little air under the ball and Gio had to chase it. What an unbelievable catch. But that's Gio. It seems like he does something like that every week."
"Gio's got to make that play and he goes and makes it," Fedora said. "There's not a person I'd rather have in that situation than Gio. We believe he's going to make those plays. And he believes he's going to make them. That's what makes him a great player."
Anderson noted a tendency during film study of Miami's defense--ranked last in the ACC in points and yards allowed per game and starting eight first- or second-year players--to struggle to get lined up properly and on time. So he went with a quick tempo on the next play and Renner handed off to Bernard on a read-draw before the Hurricanes were sufficiently set. With Tapley and fellow receiver Quinshad Davis blocking on the left edge, Bernard flicked untouched 17 yards for the touchdown. The Tar Heels added a two-point conversion when Miami didn't properly adjust to Carolina's unconventional point-after formation, with Tommy Hibbard throwing to Eric Ebron for a 15-7 lead Carolina would never relinquish.
The Tar Heels hung on for an 18-14 win, their second in a row in the ACC Coastal Division and fourth straight overall. The victory was significant on many fronts. But two of the most noteworthy were that, one, the Tar Heels overcame 15 penalties for 140 yards (including six holding calls), one interception and two missed field goals and still won and, two, their defense did not yield a single home-run ball deep against a Miami offense that starts Usain Bolt wannabes at wide receiver.
"We were determined not to let anyone get behind us," said safety Tre Boston, who had one interception as a handful of family and friends drove from across the state in Fort Myers to find their seats in Section 117. "We knew they were the fastest team we'd faced. We couldn't give up the big play. We took well to coaching this week and understood the goal and the challenge."
"I felt like we left 21 points out there," Anderson said. "We had momentum a bunch of times. But we'd get a holding call, we'd force a pass and throw an interception, we'd miss a field goal. You name it, we did it. It was ugly. But it was a win--an ugly win."
Meanwhile up in Section 117, wearing a Carolina blue shirt and white cap with an NC logo on the front was David Heffernan, a former Hurricane offensive lineman from the early 1980s whose son Tommy walked-on to the Tar Heel roster in 2010 and now is a scholarship player and the starting weakside linebacker. He sat with his wife, son, daughter and some two dozen more family and friends scattered throughout the Carolina section and other parts of the stadium.
"It's an odd feeling," Heffernan said of his Carolina attire. "I've sat in this stadium countless times wearing orange and green. People said all week, 'Aren't you going to be torn?' I laughed. No way. DNA is DNA. I'll pull for the 'Canes every other week, but not this one."
Cornerback Jabari Price's family drove from Pompano Beach and his mother held a sign that said "The Price is Right." Renner's parents and a set of grandparents flew into Miami for the game. Tom and Sue Barth from Wilmington made yet another trip in an eight-year odyssey following kickers Connor and Casey on trips with the Tar Heels. Other Floridians like Tapley, Tim Jackson, Roy Smith, Nic Platt and Shakeel Rashad had their connections. As the game ebbed and flowed on the field, the emotions rocked and rolled in Section 117.
"You've got this little cluster of Carolina fans in a sea of orange," said Bill Renner, the head coach at East Chapel Hill High. "Everyone's made an effort to get here, to show it's an important part of their lives. Every player, every parent has his own story, how they got to where they are now. Every team has this, and sometimes we lose track of those stories worrying about wins and losses. The kids from Florida who went to Carolina were rolling the dice--they're going a long way from home, they're putting their lives and careers on the line.
"All of that kind of comes together as we're sitting there watching, rolling with the ups and downs throughout the game."
Those elements all melded together and became one force on two occasions late in the game. Miami called time outs on its last offensive threat, and during both dead periods the entire Carolina team, wearing white-on-white-on-white for the second week in a row, clustered around the defense in a tight circle in front of the Tar Heel bench area.
"That was an awesome sight," Bill Renner said. "I've never seen a bench empty like that in 28 years in coaching. As a dad, I'm saying, 'That's neat.' As a coach, I'm saying, 'Wow.' That speaks volumes for the player-to-player, coach-to-player and coach-to-coach relationships on this team. They were all together as one. That's the kind of atmosphere Coach Fedora is fostering in this program."
After the final time out, the Tar Heel defense stopped Miami on fourth-and-16 at the Carolina 24 yard-line. Bryn Renner kneeled in the "Victory Formation" to run the last seconds off the clock, and the Tar Heels shook hands with the Hurricanes and regrouped in the northeast corner of the field to salute their tiny but giddy band of fans. Yvens Bernard had gone to work at 3 a.m. at the Fort Lauderdale dry cleaners he recently bought so he could take the afternoon off to watch his son play football. But Yvens would soon return to his shop and work late into the night to handle some orders due out to customers on Monday. No wonder where Gio gets his work ethic.
"My Dad's on top of the world--he's back to being his own boss and owning his business and he gets to see Gio play so well and win a game," Yvenson said. "It was like a championship game."
There were lots of winners early Saturday evening as the Bernards and their friends in Carolina blue clustered outside Sun-Life Stadium, waving goodbye to the busses carrying the Tar Heels to the airport.
Lee Pace (email@example.com) has written "Extra Points" since 1990 and has reported from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network since 2004.