UNC’s Bernard overcomes adversity to reach NFL combine

jperson@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 23, 2013 

— Josette Bernard had big dreams for her two boys.

The Haitian-born mother of two would tell her sons each would be stars someday.

But in the months and years after Josette succumbed to cancer in the summer of 1999, stardom was the last thing on the minds of the boys and their widowed father.

They were just trying to hang on.

Yven Bernard lost his business, his home in Boca Raton, Fla. A Porsche, a Lexus. But after a difficult stretch that drained their finances and emotions, the Bernards are back in a good place.

Yven (pronounced Evan) has remarried and is running his own dry cleaning business again. Gio Bernard, the younger son and former North Carolina standout, is ranked among the top running backs in the draft after leaving Chapel Hill following his redshirt sophomore season.

Yvenson (Evan-son) Bernard, an all-conference running back at Oregon State who played three seasons in the CFL, serves as an adviser to his brother and accompanied him to the scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Gio will run the 40-yard dash and other drills Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. If all goes well, the stardom Josette envisioned for her sons might come to fruition.

Gio is just glad his father is back in a good place.

“That’s my dad’s biggest thing right now is to see us happy,” Gio said. “I’m striving each and every single way to get into the NFL. Whether it’s special teams or whatever, hopefully I’ll get in there and make a splash.”

Everything, then gone

Giovani Govan Bernard was born in 1991, 11 years after his parents arrived in the U.S. from Haiti. The couple built a nice life in Boca Raton. They owned and operated the dry cleaning business, had a nice home and two luxury cars.

Then Josette got thyroid cancer.

Gio was 7 when she died. His memories of that time are not of his mother’s final days or her funeral, but of the downward spiral that threatened to sink his father in the wake of Josette’s death.

After losing his home in tony Boca Raton, Yven moved into a crumbling apartment on the seedy side of Fort Lauderdale. Yvenson, then at Oregon State, recalls coming home and being shocked at the neighborhood and living conditions.

The bathroom ceiling above the shower was caving in. A rat had chewed through the cord of the Xbox console, according to Yvenson.

“People can’t imagine,” Yvenson said. “Seeing that when I’d come back home, it was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’“

Yven, whose wife handled the family’s finances, had fallen behind on bills and wasn’t sticking to a budget.

“His other half passed away. He wasn’t paying bills on time,” Yvenson said. “I think he tried to cover his sadness by buying a bunch of random crap.”

Yven said the Bernards “had everything a family could have” before his wife’s death.

Then they didn’t.

What they did have were caring and helpful friends and neighbors. A couple that lived nearby allowed Gio to move in and took him to school and baseball and football practices since Yven didn’t have a vehicle.

One of Gio’s youth football coaches also took an interest in him – a man Yven calls “coach Carter.” He was Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter, whose son, Duron, was on Gio’s team.

Besides giving Yven $2,000 to help pay bills and getting Gio to practices on time, Carter also got Gio to make the required weight for the league. According to Yven and Yvenson, Carter would have Gio sit in his car in the Florida sun with the windows up and the heat cranked for half-hour stretches.

It worked.

The boy Yvenson called a “little fatty growing up” dropped 20 pounds and was eligible to play.

“He’s always been a role model to me. Just the way he carries himself and the fact he got into the Hall of Fame,” Gio said of Carter. “He’s definitely helped me out throughout my entire life.”

Carter also helped get Gio into St. Thomas Aquinas, a private school in Fort Lauderdale with one of the richest NFL pipelines in the country. With the school’s campus 30 miles from where Yven and Gio were living in Boynton Beach, Gio spent parts of two years with the family of teammate James White, a running back at Wisconsin.

Yven is thankful for the support he received during the tough times. And he’s proud of how his younger son endured.

“Gio is the one who suffered a lot with me,” said Yven, whose English remains somewhat halting. “Everything I went through, he was right there for me. He saw everything. ... This kid went through so much. I don’t know how he made it. It was very tough.”

Always a gamer

Gio’s struggles extended to football.

A hamstring injury sidelined him his senior year at Aquinas. After arriving at UNC in 2010, he tore his ACL in his third practice and was out for the season.

He returned in 2011 to set a UNC freshman record with 1,253 yards rushing. Bernard surpassed the 1,200-yard mark again last season and was the ACC rushing leader despite missing games with a knee injury.

He also led the conference in all-purpose yards (1,981), punt-return average (16.4) and touchdowns (19).

Bernard said versatility is his best asset.

“You want to get the ball in your hands, whatever way that is,” he said. “Whether as a kick returner, punt returner, whatever it is, you want to have the ball in your hands.”

The two biggest knocks on Bernard are his injury history and size. He measured 5-foot-8 and 202 pounds at the combine.

His response to the injury criticism: “I’m still there. I’m still on the field, I’m still producing. Things like that are going to happen. People are going to have nicks and bumps. It’s just a matter of playing through it and getting back on the field.”

NFLDraftScout.com ranks Bernard as the No. 2 back behind Alabama’s Eddie Lacy, who is not running in Indianapolis because of a small hamstring tear. Pro Football Weekly lists Bernard as the top utility back and projects him as a second- or third-round pick.

Ex-UNC guard Jonathan Cooper appreciates Bernard’s elusiveness and humility.

“He’s so humble, and he’s always giving his line the credit,” Cooper said. “There are only 11 on the field. He’ll make 12 miss, and he’ll give the offensive line the credit for it.”

Bernard’s signature UNC moment came in October when he returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown in the final seconds of a 43-35 win against N.C. State, breaking a five-game losing streak to the Wolfpack.

“He’s a gamer, man,” Yvenson said. “I can go back to that one play.”

Reaching for the stars

Gio and Yvenson have been living in Los Angeles, where Gio has been training for the draft. They recently called their father, who cut the conversation short to get back to work.

The brothers weren’t upset, but pleased their dad is working again.

Yven, who is 52 and married to a woman who lives in Haiti, is running the Regal Cleaners, which he took over from the former owner with no down payment. With his work schedule, Yven didn’t see Gio play for UNC until the Tar Heels traveled to Miami in October.

And while he’s thrilled about his son’s accomplishments, Yven might not watch the draft.

“I might cry a lot,” he said. “I don’t watch him play football sometimes because I cry a lot. Emotionally, I cannot see how good he is and how much he can (mean) in my life.”

“He’s on cloud nine right now,” Gio said. “Has a steady job. I’m at the NFL combine. It’s tough to get any better than this right now.”

On his left wrist, Gio has a tattoo of his mother’s name, Josette, in cursive, flanked by a pair of stars. His brother has the same tattoo.

“She always said we’ll be stars,” Gio said. “So I’m hopefully trying to get there.”

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