Meet Giovani Bernard, the Cincinnati Bengals running back who in 17 weeks has become one of the most dynamic young runners in the NFL.
He’s short—0n the short list of the NFL’s shortest players, he measures just above Trindon Holliday and Darren Sproles at 5-8 1/2.
He’s frugal (read: cheap)—Bernard’s favorite Christmas presents included Red Robin gift certificates from his mother-in-law.
He’s boring—his girlfriend says all he ever does is watch tape and sleep.
He’s sober—during the rare in-season dinner out, he chugs Shirley Temples … strictly Shirley Temples.
And he’s a fan—Bernard finally got to meet his NFL “man crush” in Week 16: Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
But the reason you’ll hear Bernard’s name when the Bengals host the Chargers in the Wild-Card round on Sunday is a boring one. Strangers stop him on the street just to thank him for the fantasy points (his 1,209 yards from scrimmage were second on the Bengals only to A.J. Green), knowing nothing of the most important accomplishment of his young career: pass blocking. Such was the mandate from Bengals coaches, including running backs coach Hue Jackson, when Bernard was drafted in the second round, 37th overall, out of North Carolina.
“The running of the football and catching it is why we drafted him,” says Jackson, “but we said from day one, you have to be able to pass protect. If you wont, you can’t play for us. ”
The former Raiders coach learned Bernard had the essential “want-to” factor, and teammates learned to trust the 200-pounder soon after. Hence, Hue’s favorite Gio moment of 2013: In the first quarter of a 42-14 trouncing of Minnesota, Bernard sniffed out linebacker Erin Henderson storming through the A gap and stopped the rusher dead in his tracks. Quarterback Andy Dalton didn’t flinch and tossed up a 29-yard touchdown pass to Green down the right sideline. It was one of many validating moments for Jackson, who said he was ready to stand on the table for Bernard in the draft room in April but didn’t need to because the front office and coaches were in agreement.
“That told me there was total trust in Gio,” Jackson says of the play. “Here’s this five-seven running back looking to make a stop on a 250-pound linebacker, and not only does he get the stop, he clears him out of the way.” According to Pro Football Focus, Bernard did not allow a sack of Dalton all season.
Bernard didn’t always like pass-blocking while growing up in South Florida, and he sometimes took the easy way out at North Carolina—diving at ankles—but the reason he’s elevated his game is not exactly what you’d assume.
“Once I realized how big an investment we have in a quarterback, I’m thinking if I go low on this guy he’s going to jump over me and land on Andy’s knees,” Bernard says. “Stuffing a blitz, it’s not the kind of play you read about in the newspaper, but those are the ones I appreciate the most.”
Jackson applauds the loudest. He calls Bernard a “dynamic player and a dynamic man.” Bernard calls his coach “boss” out of respect. UNC running backs coach Randy Jordan spent a year with him and was blown away by his maturity and dedication.
“With everything he went through as a child, and everyone around him, somebody touched him to make him the man he is,” Jordan says.
Bernard’s childhood was shaped by the death of his mother, a Haitian immigrant who lost her fight with thyroid cancer when Bernard was 10. His father, also from Haiti, took it hard. He lost the family dry cleaning business, and Gio wound up spending some of his adolescence living with the family of friends. So Bernard learned to be careful with his money, and he refuses to harp on his successes, even now. When he scored twice in the Week 2 home opener on a Monday night versus Pittsburgh, his older brother, Yvenson, a former Oregon State, NFL and CFL running back, was there to congratulate him.
“All he said about football was, ‘I’ve got to work on my pass blocking,’” Yvenson says. “The success, making it in the NFL, he says nothing about it. It’s work.”
During the Bengals’ bye in November Bernard returned home to South Florida to spend time with his family. Yet when Yvenson, a high school coach in Boca Raton, roused him for a weekend night out in nearby Miami, Bernard refused.
“I tried to get him in trouble a little bit,” Yvenson says, “and he was like ‘Na, I’m gonna stay in and watch some film.’ He doesn’t get caught up in that whole status of being an NFL rookie.”
The film study has been essential. The Bengals use their top two running backs almost interchangeably, and Bernard finished second on the team in catches with 56 and second in rushing yards, besting BenJarvus Green-Ellis in yards per carry (4.1 to 3.4) and approaching a Bengals rookie record for yards from scrimmage.
Says Bernard: “I’m too tired to enjoy it.”
The brothers’ recent football history influenced Gio’s sedate outlook: Yvenson’s CFL career ended in 2012 due to injury and Gio tore an ACL early in his career at North Carolina. He left for the NFL a year early, in part, due to the risk of injury and the brevity of the typical career at his position. Ever conscious of his football mortality, he looks up to players like Peterson, who came back from a season-ending ACL injury in 2011 to win the NFL MVP award in 2012. After that Week 16 meeting, Bernard sought out Peterson to tell him he was an inspiration to a lot of young running backs. Peterson’s response: Keep working hard.
Says Bernard: “He’s one of the few guys that can play banged up and still be productive.”
Apparently, the rookie is another one of the few. He’s pushing through a rib injury that hasn’t fully healed since he went down in Week 9 in Miami. Plus, his body is adjusting from a 12-game season to what has become a 21-game odyssey, with the Bengals facing the Chargers on Sunday. Once the playoffs are done, Yvenson plans on weaning his brother off fast food and training him for the pounding of an NFL season rather than for a springtime 40-yard-dash.
“You really start feeling the fatigue after training camp and preseason,” Bernard says. “But from the last game to now, it’s not so much a wall. You see the playoffs and you just have to get there because you have the opportunity to make something special.”