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September 4, 2011

Bernard's Blessing from Above

North Carolina redshirt freshman running back Giovani Bernard has certainly dealt with his fair share of adversity in his young life, both on and off the football field.

Which had to make Saturday's two touchdown performance in his first college outing for North Carolina in its 42-10 win over James Madison all the more thrilling.

"It was just a blessing just to be able to score. There's a point where I didn't even know what to do. I didn't even know what was going on. It just felt like a dream to me," Bernard said.

"All I could do was just point to the sky, and thank my mom."

Most all die-hard UNC football fans know that Bernard was relegated to a redshirt season last fall after suffering an ACL injury during the first week of training camp.

That injury was coming off a severe hamstring pull he suffered his senior high school season at Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas.

Touted as a top five back nationally in the Class of 2010, Bernard had less than 50 carries his senior season.

But those bouts of adversity pale in comparison to what Giovani and his family have been forced to deal with over the years.

When he was just 10 years old, Bernard's mother, Jossette, died of thyroid cancer.

"She (my mother) unfortunately passed. She was the one that was always behind me," Bernard said. "I just can't thank her enough for everything she did for me when she was around."

The death of his mother brought young Gio even closer to his father, Yvens, and his older brother Yvenson, who would go on to play at Oregon State before moving on to the Canadian Football League's Saskatchewan Roughriders.

"Having my family around all the time has helped me become a good player," Bernard said.

Gio spent quite a bit of time in Haiti, where both his parents were born, as a youth, but in the years following his mother's passing, it became more challenging to visit Haiti.

But the Bernards had planned to return to Haiti to visit family members around New Years in 2010 before canceling at the last minute.

On January 12, 2010, just a couple of weeks after the cancelled trip, Haiti was rocked with a devastating earthquake that brought the nation to its knees.

While not taking the trip to Haiti quite possibly saved the lives of Bernard, his father, and brother, all of their relatives in Haiti are still picking up the pieces more than a year and a half later, and they've been largely helpless to assist them.

Given everything that's happened to him and his family, it might have been easy to excuse Bernard for not reaching the high potential that many recruiting analysts started hyping up for him his junior season of 2008, when he helped lead St. Thomas Aquinas to a Florida state championship and the mythical 'high school national title.'

But he's a Bernard, and Bernards don't quit, no matter what the circumstances may be.

Whether its recovering from a knee injury, overcoming the loss of a parent, or anything else that comes his way, Bernard has a deep-seeded desire to succeed through it all.

"I expect a lot for myself, just because that's just how my family does it. We're supposed to do a lot," he said. "I'm a real energetic guy, and there's times where I can be really patient but other times where I can be really energetic."

To his credit, Bernard looked as sharp as he's ever looked on Saturday, as he juked and jived his way to a team-high 64 net rushing yards on nine carries (7.1 yards per carry) along with his two touchdown runs of 12 and 14 yards, respectively.

"I think it was just the jitters of wanting to be back out on the field, having that feeling of having everybody looking at you, but it's an indescribable feeling that I haven't had in a very long time, almost since my junior year of high school," he said.

"I don't know, just being on that field is just something else. It's indescribable. It was a good game. We came out and got the win, which was the most important thing."

Bernard's teammates---most of which can't possibly be in position to imagine the struggle he and his family have endured over the years---are amazed by what he can do as a football player.

"He's so shifty. He made a move when we were in the two-minute, and I handed off to him. The hole wasn't even there, but it broke open, made one dude miss, and he scored. We're just so lucky to have that," said quarterback Bryn Renner of Bernard.

"I knew Gio was going to break out this year," added fellow tailback Ryan Houston. "I've been seeing it in practice and stuff for the last two years, so I knew what he can do. So I knew that this offense was going to get rolling."

Bernard feels blessed that he's back at full strength and in position to greatly aid North Carolina this fall, but he also feels blessed because he knows he's got an angel in his corner.

Or, the way he looks at it, out in front helping block for him.

"She (my mom) is helping me. She's blocking for me," he said.






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