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COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME
FIRST PLACE: FEATURE
An American Tale
On the most famous play in modern Carolina football history, it looked like Gio Bernard was finally going to be caught by his history.
He'd spent twenty years outrunning it. He'd lived in Haiti with no running water. He'd sat in a tiny bathroom with his brother and father, all three men in tears over the loss of Gio's mother. He'd shared an apartment in Ft. Lauderdale with rats.
Any one of those events could change a life. They all changed Gio Bernard's, but they didn't stop him. Finally, though, here came his past across the Kenan Stadium field, and it had bad intentions.
He was running back a punt against NC State – that's not quite right, he was running back the punt against NC State. He was on the right sideline, and he couldn't hear anything even though 62,000 people were slowly coming to the same realization shouted by Jones Angell on the Tar Heel Sports Network:
"No he's not ..."
"YES HE IS!"
He couldn't hear them, couldn't hear the roar that began to build as they all realized, together, that this was happening. But he could see the end zone. And he could see something else, too.
"It gave me chills," he says.
Yven Bernard arrived in America with nothing.
I know you hear that and it sounds like the start to every immigrant story you've ever heard, but I want you to take a minute and think about it: On that night in 1980, Yven Bernard arrived in America with nothing. He had a shirt, and he had some pants. "I think I had shoes, but I can't remember for sure," he says. "I might not have had shoes."
Here is what he definitely did not have: he didn't have any money. He didn't have a firm grasp of the language, because in his native country of Haiti, they spoke mostly Creole with a dash of French. He didn't have a place to live. He didn't have a car, or an idea of where his next meal might come from, or a job.
He had nothing.
Today, according to an American Community Survey, there are more than half a million Haitian-born immigrants living in America. In 1980, the United States Census counted less than 100,000. When Yven Bernard made his journey from Haiti, there were two ways to get to America – by plane or by boat. Plane was the relatively easy way. Boat was the hard way.
He came by boat, and spent three nights crammed into the small vessel with 15 other Haitians. He remembers that the wind and the water were vicious, and they crashed into the boat, throwing the 16 hopeful souls from side to side. They landed near Delray Beach, Florida, and once they'd endured the wind and the ocean and the cold, they suddenly realized they had another problem: now what?
Yven Bernard lived in an apartment with several other Haitians. He got a job working as a janitor. He found a way to get enough food to survive.
Now, when he looks back through the lens of 30 years, he's incredulous that two life-changing events happened within days of each other:
He came to America. And he met Jossette. She lived next door to Yven's building, and it happened instantly.
"It was like she was waiting for me," he says now, and you can hear the joy in his voice. "Somehow she knew what was supposed to happen."
What happened was, well, a life. First they worked, day and night. Soon they were married, and Yven had moved from working as a janitor to working in a dry cleaners.
Wouldn't this be good enough? He'd started with nothing and now he was most definitely something. But he wasn't done. In 1985, the couple had a son, Yvenson (EVAN-son). Soon, Yven wasn't just working at the dry cleaner. He owned the dry cleaner. Seven years after Yvenson, Gio was born.
Their father had been a soccer player in Haiti, but they were Americans now, and with their father's influence and the influence of their uncle, Paul, the boys became football players. There was too much of an age distance for them to be competitive. The strange thing was, they didn't seem to want to be competitive. Not with each other. How could you compete with your very best friend?
If you saw Yvenson, you probably saw Gio. Their parents worked – Jossette ran the front of the dry cleaner, and Yven was usually busy in the back. "She was the backbone of the entire operation," says Paul Bernard, Yven's brother, who came to America in 1982. "The way they worked together, she really was his right hand," says Gio.
They had done it. They had the American dream, or maybe even more than that.
"When you decide to come to America from Haiti, you're doing it because of an opportunity," says Paul. "You don't know exactly what is going to happen, but in America you know that there is a chance. You can try to get a better education, and you can try to get a better education for your kids. And if you get that education, then you can set goals. In America, you can achieve those goals."
Really, though, this was more than even the goals Yven had imagined when he was spending three nights in a boat. Who could imagine this? He had a loving wife, and they were running a business that was becoming a success, and their two sons were sports stars.
Yvenson was the first to show talent on the football field. He was a running back, and his teammates told him he was like Tony Dorsett, because he liked to run people over. Gio played football because Yvenson played football. If Yvenson had been a chess grand master, Gio would have been a chess grand master. If Yvenson had been a professional ballet dancer, Gio would have been a professional ballet dancer. Why would he want to do anything other than what his brother was doing?
Gio would sometimes tag along when Paul took Yvenson to the beach to work out. Paul had seized on every nuance of the game of football. He called the bag of tricks needed by every successful running back a "toolbox." He told Yvenson – and Gio absorbed it almost by osmosis – to carry the ball in the outside hand when running along the sideline. "Have your free arm on the wide side with the tacklers," he'd tell them. "You have to have that stiff arm ready. Have your toolbox ready to go."
Jossette and Yven didn't get to see all the boys' football games, because they were trying to run their business. On the occasions Jossette did attend, however, everyone knew it.
"She would sit in the stands, and she'd tell everyone, 'My boys are going to be superstars,'" Yvenson remembers. "We'd have to grab her and tell her, 'You can't say that.'"
But she could say that, because Jossette knew.
The family was thriving. They had fancy cars and for the very first time, they had money. What more could an American success story need?
It changed the way so many American families change: cancer. Jossette had thyroid cancer, and suddenly the cars didn't seem important anymore. The cancer moved quickly and it moved insidiously. She died in the summer of 1999, in Yvenson's arms on the floor of a home that had once seemed to be so important. Gio was seven years old.
It is 13 years later, and Yven Bernard doesn't just sniffle when he talks about his wife. He sobs – big, gasping sobs.
"I still remember the last words she ever said to Yvenson," he says. "She told him, 'Keep the family together.'"
"My main memory is my dad crying in the bathroom and he couldn't stop," Gio says. "First, my brother went in there. Then, I went in there. And the three of us just sat there and cried. That's when I really realized my mother wasn't coming back. I was pretty young, and that's the first time I realized that things don't always work out. When some things are gone, they are gone forever."
You may find this hard to believe: Gio Bernard used to be big. Big for his age, and maybe even a little stocky. For most of his youth football career, he was a linebacker, because he was one of the biggest kids on the team. He was too big – here, "big" is a nice way of saying "heavy" – to play with his own age group, because his weight class put him a year or even two years ahead.
Players have to weigh in to make sure a team isn't trying to sneak through a bigger, stronger player with the little kids. Sometimes, Gio's weigh-in came with some drama, because making weight wasn't exactly a priority in his house. Eventually, one of his coaches decided he was going to keep the talented linebacker close by to make sure he qualified. That coach was Cris Carter, who had a Hall of Fame career for the Minnesota Vikings and whose son, Duron, was a year older than Gio but in the same weight class.
These are not your typical Saturday afternoon Pop Warner games where mom brings orange slices and dad coaches the defensive line. Youth football in Florida, and especially in South Florida, is serious. ESPN recently ran a special on gambling in youth football, where fathers and brothers and uncles of seven- and eight-year old players would wager on plays or games. When this is mentioned to Yvenson, he just nods.
"That's how important youth football is in that area," he says. "It is everything. It is the means of every inner city kid. You can get out of that area by playing football, and if you don't play football, you're a little weird."
"You're dealing with kids who have a lot of ability," says Cris Carter. "In every park, you've got kids playing who are going to be Division I football players, and you can see them at an early age and say, 'He's going to play at the highest level.' There is such a pool of talent. It's not an urban legend. The parents understand the system and what football can do for them and for their children."
When Gio was in seventh grade, he played on a team coached by Bart Bishop. That was the first time that a coach ever tried Bernard at running back instead of linebacker. It was, as you might have heard, quite a successful move. Word even spread all the way across the country, where Yvenson had enrolled at Oregon State and played running back for the Beavers.
One afternoon, he received a package from a friend back in Florida that contained a newspaper clipping about Gio. The story raved about the younger Bernard's ability, and Yvenson taped it to the inside of his locker (it was a mutual admiration society; when Gio played the NCAA football video game, he only played as Oregon State and his game plan consisted of 50 handoffs to the character in the game wearing Yvenson's number).
"Is your brother in high school?" a teammate asked Yvenson.
"No, he's in seventh grade," he replied.
"They write newspaper articles about Pop Warner players?" the stunned teammate asked.
Yvenson smiled. That's just football in south Florida.
Carter planned for his son to attend St. Thomas Aquinas, a private school in Ft. Lauderdale with one of the most successful NFL pipelines of any prep program in the country. He thought Bernard could play at that level, too. But after Jossette's death, the Bernard family was struggling, and Yven was having trouble running his business without her. He would eventually lose the dry cleaner. He did not have the money to send Gio to St. Thomas Aquinas.
But Carter knew what he had seen on those youth football fields of south Florida, and he knew Bernard could play at St. Thomas. He lobbied the ultrasuccessful head coach, George Smith, for an opportunity for the linebacker-turned-running back.
"I knew Gio had played in the league in Boca Raton," Smith says. "I never saw him play in person. He passed the entrance exam, and when we started practice, he reported with the older players. You could see right away what was going on. He was a phenomenal talent and a very smart kid. He was a smart football player, but he was also a smart kid. He understood what we were doing, and even then he had great communicative skills and was very powerful."
Gio and his father were living in Boynton Beach, so their morning routine on school days went this way: first, Yven Bernard would drive Gio to Carter's house. Then, the Carter family would get Gio to school. Total, it took about 80 minutes of travel time – every morning – before he walked through the doors of St. Thomas.
To ease the commute, they eventually secured an apartment in Ft. Lauderdale. It was closer to school, but it was not home. That was when Gio grew up, because he had no choice. Yvenson was all the way across the country, and Gio didn't want to worry him. He kept the problems to himself, but that doesn't mean he was oblivious to them.
"I knew every single thing that was going on," he said. "We didn't have money, and there were times my dad didn't have a job. There were times we didn't have anything to eat at night. We'd go through the drive-through at McDonald's, and Dad would let me pick one thing off the 99 cent menu, and that would be my dinner, and he wouldn't get anything. I knew he wasn't eating, but he would try to make sure I got something.
"You see those little things that a father does for his son, and you mature quickly. I saw things that not many kids my age saw. When you're a kid, you don't think you're going to see your dad struggle, or see him cry. It shaped me into the person that I am. If you can fight through to that next day, you've made it. Get the next day. Get the next yard. Tough things are going to happen in life."
The Bernard men were so hesitant to worry Yvenson that he was completely unaware of their situation. He came home from Oregon State and went to visit Gio.
"They had moved to a really rough area of Ft. Lauderdale,' Yvenson says. "I got there, and I was like, 'Gio, what is going on?' And he told me, 'Ev, this is where we're staying.' There were drug dealers outside, and when you opened the door it smelled dirty. I could smell rat feces. The only thing my brother asked me was if we could go to Best Buy to get a cord for his XBox. A rat had eaten through the other cord. I had no idea all of that was going on."
Gio never mentioned it to Yvenson. Matter of fact, Gio never mentioned it to anyone. This was just life. Why would he complain? He had seen the other side. As a small child, he'd spent some of his summers in Haiti, because his parents were working and Yvenson was busy with travel baseball teams and football practices. Gio can still speak Creole, and even a little bit of rusty French. The images, though, have stuck with him even longer than the languages.
It's a completely different culture,' he says. "Some people don't have running water. Having clothes is not something that is taken for granted. Food is important. It's not something you easily forget. To this day, if I don't finish my food, I don't throw it away. I find a way to save it. That's my roots. That's where I come from.
Now, when Yven sends Gio money, Gio tears up the check. He hasn't taken money from his father since middle school. On November 23, his father tried to give him money for his 21st birthday. Gio sent it back to him. "I know what he has done for us,' Gio says. "He has been there for me every time I have needed him. It's not right for me to take money from him after everything he has done.
Even during the deepest struggles, the football field was the refuge. Within the confines of those 120 yards, there was no concern about where the next meal would be found. There were no money problems. There was no father bouncing from job to job, eventually losing even his home and spending a few nights sleeping in his car under a bridge.
There was just Gio, and the field, and his sanctuary. St. Thomas was the very highest level of high school football, but he found that it wasn't all that much different from those beach workouts with Paul and Yvenson.
Watching him, you're seeing his family's influence. The way he waits just an extra half-second at the line of scrimmage, seemingly caught in traffic but then bursting through a hole that wasn't there before, that's part of the toolbox.
"My uncle always told me to try and slow the game down," Gio says. "And if you do that, you can make the defenders in front of you do what you want them to do. Each time I moved from one level to the next, he would tell me that the game was going to be faster, and I had to find a way to slow down the game. I've always tried to set up my blocks. If I can make the defender go a little further than he wants to go, I can cut off my lineman a little sharper and try to make a play."
Those plays earned him national recruiting attention, even in a backfield that included future Wisconsin Badgers standout James White. The combination could've been toxic, but instead, they found a way to play together. Bernard even lived with White's family for part of his high school career. The White family was so smitten with Gio that they celebrated his birthday just like they celebrated those of the family members.
With the Carters and Whites providing a more stable home environment, Bernard was a national recruit. He initially committed to Notre Dame, but a coaching change in South Bend changed his plans. Looking for advice on his next move, he turned to Carter.
It just so happened that Carter was a longtime friend of Michael Jordan (you have to think that by this point, the number of players across every sport that Jordan has played some role in recruiting to North Carolina is in the upper triple digits), and he also knew then-head coach Butch Davis. Carter's son, Duron, had pledged to attend his father's alma mater, Ohio State. But Carter thought Carolina was the right fit for Bernard, and he placed a call to Davis to gauge the possibilities.
"I told Coach Davis, 'This person is like my son,'" Carter says. "'Do you realize what you would be getting? We've had a lot of kids in our home over the last six to eight years. None is more memorable than Gio. It's not because of how he plays football. It's about his heart.'"
Davis, who was already convinced of Bernard's on-field talent, pledged to nurture Carter's protιgι. In the wacky world of college football recruiting, an Ohio State graduate had just helped North Carolina land one of the most exciting players in the program's history.
Because this was the life of Gio Bernard, there had to be turmoil. There had to be an NCAA investigation, and a torn ACL in his very first Tar Heel training camp, and Davis never actually getting to coach Bernard in a game.
"The way I look at it is that everything I have been through has made me a stronger person," Gio says. "My mother dying taught me about life. Being hurt taught me about life. Not playing football for almost two years taught me about life. I know what it's like to struggle, and I know how to treat something like a speed bump and keep pushing."
So he became Carolina's first 1,000-yard rusher since 1997, and then Carolina's first back-to-back 1,000- yard rusher since 1980. He made first-team All-ACC and missed out on the 2012 Player of the Year award by one vote an honor he seems certain to have received if he hadn't been injured for two games this season.
But no matter what trophies or accolades he received, there is one single play that will forever be his legacy in Chapel Hill. The last time Carolina had beaten State, Gio Bernard was still wondering where his next meal might come from. Now, he was on the sidelines late in a 35-35 game, and Roy Smith was ready to return a Wolfpack punt with 30 seconds left.
Bernard heard offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic talking to another Carolina coach. "Should we put Gio back there?" Kapilovic asked. Bernard was on the bench nursing an ankle injury that had occurred earlier in the game.
"When I heard Coach Kap say that," Bernard says, "I just said to myself, 'Let's go do it.'"
So he did. He put on his chrome-plated helmet, walked out to Smith, and said, "Let's see what I can do with this." Smith offered no resistance.
The punt forced Bernard back a couple of steps. He thought about fair catching it only briefly. Once he fielded the ball and sprinted to his right, he had a glorious realization: "All I saw," he says, "was blue."
He made it to the sideline with a convoy of blockers. At the Wolfpack 40-yard-line, he saw the only defender who had a chance to keep him out of the end zone. Everyone else saw only red pants and a white jersey, the last possible man between Bernard and a legendary play.
Not Yvenson Bernard. He knew instantly who it was. It was Brandan Bishop, who a few weeks earlier had become Yvenson Bernard's Facebook friend because of their shared Florida football ties.
Not Gio Bernard. He knew instantly who it was. It was Brandan Bishop, his former seventh grade football teammate. The one player who could stop him? He was the son of Bart Bishop – Bernard's seventh-grade football coach, the first person to move Bernard from defense to offense.
"I was running, and at the same time, I was thinking, 'This is crazy,'" Bernard says. "I grew up with that guy. This is the guy whose dad put me in the position to play running back. I can't believe all of us are here right now."
Bishop didn't have enough speed to catch Bernard, the player whom his dad turned from a linebacker into a running back. Bernard scored, Kenan Stadium thundered and Carolina won the game.
In Ft. Lauderdale, Yven Bernard didn't see the play live. He was working. On August 1, he'd taken over a dry cleaner from an older friend who could no longer run the business. A regular workday now meant being at the office no later than 7 a.m. and leaving no earlier than 7 p.m. There were no days off, not even on Gio's game days.
Soon enough, though, he heard about the play. Customers were telling him about it. Phones were ringing. Highlights were playing.
Yven Bernard is asked what this means, that he does not remember if he arrived in the United States with shoes and now his son is a one-name-only legend in Chapel Hill. He has made a play that will live in Kenan Stadium history forever. Carolina football fans who aren't born yet will hear stories about Giovani Bernard.
"Why not?" Yven says. "It should tell everyone out there, 'Why not?' If I can make it, if we can make it, everyone else can make it. Life is a risk. You take a risk, and you go far. My strength and my risk make me who I am."
Yven Bernard is at work, of course, on this November day as he recounts his son's incredible plays. He asks if you might talk to Gio later in the day, and you tell him that you will.
"Tell him hello for me," he says. "And tell him that I love him, and I am so proud of him."
Comment by the judge, Alan Abrahamson: A great feature should be a journey of discovery. This story is just that. It is full of not just connections but a series of incredible moments of revealing truths, each one taking the reader along through the story of one family's incredible journey to and through the American dream. The cast of characters is rich and diverse. The action pieces are well-told and the back stories riveting. Finally, this piece also serves as compelling evidence that even in a world increasingly turning to bursts of 140 or fewer characters there thankfully remains a place for long-form journalism and the art of the well-told narrative.
Second Place: Second place: Sanjay Kirpalani, Bleacher
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