Bengals rookie running back Giovani Bernard remembers it quite vividly. Other than learning of his mother’s death at the age of 7, he refers to this moment as the “lowest point of my life.”
He remembers laying on the turf, wincing in pain, uncertain which direction his career would go. It was his third collegiate practice and his freshman season for the North Carolina was done. It was the dreaded torn ACL to his right knee. He opted for the more painful, but trusted cadaver surgery, using his patellar tendon to reconstruct the ligament.
“It wasn’t fun, I’ll tell you that” Bernard told FOXSports.com in a telephone interview Wednesday. “But it taught me a lot about life and a lot about myself and hard times in life.”
Bernard, an 18-year-old, showed up the first day of class on crutches. Everywhere he went, he was on crutches.
“I wasn’t from North Carolina so I didn’t know people,” Bernard said. “You train with some of the guys on the football team, but [I was] a freshman and hadn’t established relationships, yet. A lot of guys were out there playing, while I was on the bench and on crutches.”
After months upon months of rehab, his knee strengthened.
One year later he would begin to carve out his legacy at Chapel Hill setting a freshman record running for 1,253 yards and earning first-team All-ACC. The buzz began and soon Bernard knew if he could piece together a productive redshirt sophomore season, his NFL hopes could become reality.
Yvenson Bernard, Giovani’s older brother by eight years, starred for Oregon State at running back. He was a workhorse for Mike Riley’s offense, racking up 3,862 career yards on the ground — ranking second in school history.
“Whenever you have an older brother who has achieved some great things in life, it’s very hard not to look up to him,” Giovani said. “He’s done a great job of being an awesome role model and leading me the right way. I am the person I am today because of him.”
Yvenson had big NFL hopes, too. After earning first-team All-Pac 10 honors his junior season in 2006, the eldest brother had a decision to make: Become eligible for the NFL Draft or stay for his senior season.
Yvenson returned and was named team captain. While he was hampered by a shoulder sprain a majority of the season, he continued to accumulate yards and punished opposing defenders. Late in the season, the Beavers traveled to Pullman, Washington, where he would suffer a torn meniscus during the game. It needed to be scoped.
He missed the “Civil War” the following week against the Oregon Ducks. After a month layoff, Yvenson rehabbed quickly despite constant knee swelling. He wanted to put on a show and ripped off 177 yards on 38 carries and a score against Maryland in the Emerald Bowl.
The 5-foot-9, 202-pound running back would go undrafted. He signed with the Rams as a free agent, but was later released. After a practice-squad stint in Seattle, Bernard’s NFL career was done. He took his career to the CFL and finished last season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
“My last year at North Carolina, I was still eligible for two more seasons,” Giovani said. “My brother had the same type of decision and he stayed. Things didn’t work out the way he wanted them to, so that played a role in my decision.
“It’s always good to have experiences like that and it’s always good to learn from others, especially my brother.”
Giovani realized the window for opportunity for running backs in the NFL is razor thin and he declared himself eligible for the NFL Draft, where the Bengals spent a second-round pick (37th overall) on him.
The brothers’ running style is eerily similar, but Giovani has a fifth gear that his older brother lacked. Watch the first two runs from this YouTube clip:
Bernard grew up in Boca Raton. He moved to Fort Lauderdale with his dad to play at perennial contender St. Thomas Aquinas.
The thought of his late mother lingered with his dad and caused the latter to spiral out of control.
The community embraced Giovani and after his sophomore season he moved in with one of his teammates, James White.
White, who is a running back at Wisconsin and was named to the preseason Doak Walker Award watch list, became very close with Bernard. They continue to maintain a strong relationship to this day.
“I watch all of his games even if I have to pull it up on the Internet. I watch all of his games,” Bernard said. “I’m sure he’s doing the same, so we’re like brothers.
“That’s the thing, I don’t consider myself having one brother. I have another in James.”
“The position of running back is all about instincts,” Bernard said. “What you see and what you feel when you’re running out there. If I feel certain things or I feel certain gaps I’m going to run to it. If I feel something I don’t feel comfortable with, I’m not going to do it. I think it’s just playing with instincts.”
Those instincts were on full display Halloween night in Miami. Serveral die-hard NFL fans knew of Bernard’s shiftiness, but he became a household name after a fourth quarter 35-yard catch and run into the end zone.
While Bernard has been tabbed as a do-it-all running back, veteran offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wants to preserve the rookie and be frugal with his carries.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a perfect complement to Bernard’s change of pace ability.
“Coach Gruden has done a really good job this entire season of helping me out by getting me and Benny in and getting us the ball,” Bernard said. “We’ve been able to churn out some yards and I think that we’re doing a good job of it and helping each other out. I think we’re doing a good job. There is still a lot of room to grow.”
The Bengals (6-4) have a firm grasp on the AFC North, but lost their last two games in overtime. Both were equally devastating to the team, but the Bengals have been adamant that they haven’t lost any confidence.
It’s clear that the Bengals have the Lombardi Trophy on their minds and Bernard believes the team is capable making a run to MetLife Stadium in early February.
“The only thing I really want to accomplish is having a Super Bowl ring,” Bernard said. “That’s everybody’s dream. There are guys that have been in the league for x amount of years and have never gotten close.