Miami game a homecoming for UNC's Bernard

acarter@newsobserver.comOctober 13, 2012 

— Giovani Bernard remembers the day he received his first college scholarship offer. It arrived via fax at St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, and Bernard’s high school coach called him in to show it to him.

Bernard couldn’t believe it at first.

“I was like, ‘What? Miami?’” he said earlier this week.

Bernard, the North Carolina sophomore running back, grew up in Davie, Fla., not far from the University of Miami campus in Coral Gables. Bernard’s uncle, Paul, was an avid Hurricanes fan, and though Bernard never attended a Miami game, he and his uncle often watched their spring games at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale.

He knew about Miami’s history, about its national championship tradition. And the Hurricanes knew plenty about Bernard, too.

“For me, it was just too close to home, man,” Bernard said..”[College] is an opportunity to kind of get away from home, to experience life. And that’s what I wanted to do.”

For the first time since leaving home, though, Bernard on Saturday will experience a college football game in South Florida. When the Tar Heels play at Sun Life Stadium on Saturday, Bernard will have at least 20 people in the stands cheering for him.

His brother, Yvenson, a former standout running back at Oregon State, and father will watch him play in college for the first time.

“It motivates me more the fact that they can see me play,” said Bernard, who ran for a career-high 262 yards in the Heels’ 48-34 victory against Virginia Tech last week. “And just the ability for them to come out to the game and just see their son and their brother play. Not that many people have that opportunity.

“Some guys they have families coming every week. This week is going to mean that much more to me.”

There’s a good chance Bernard will give them something to remember. He’s third in the ACC in rushing, despite missing two games due to a knee injury.

His average of 118.8 rushing yards per game would rank 14th nationally if he’d played enough games to qualify. And during the past two games, Bernard is averaging 13.3 yards per carry.

Before he arrived at UNC, coach Larry Fedora knew Bernard was good. He remembered watching film of Bernard at Aquinas. But Fedora might not have understood Bernard's potential until recently.

“There’s a lot of guys you watch on film in high school that look pretty special,” Fedora said. “But they don’t do it at the next level. And Gio has just continued right on. I think a lot of that is the type of person he is.”

Fedora began to learn about Bernard the person back during the spring. Back then, media members and Tar Heels fans alike wondered how Bernard, who set a UNC freshman record last season with 1,253 rushing yards, would fit into Fedora’s spread offense.

Bernard has appeared comfortable, and is likely to be especially comfortable Saturday amid his old surroundings. He played in a high school state championship game in Sun Life Stadium, but the first college game he watches there will be one he plays in on Saturday.

His dad and brother will be there to watch, and Bernard will attempt to remind Miami why years ago it was the first school to offer him a scholarship. Bernard earlier this week spoke of the significance of homecoming games to fans and alumni. He smiled.

“This is my homecoming game,” he said.

Carter: 919-829-8944

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