The sun was shining on a beautiful 72-degree Saturday for the return of DII football at Top Taggert Field in Big Rapids, Mich. on Sept. 4, 2021. It was the first time the Ferris State Bulldogs took the field since 2019 — a span of more than 600 days without football for one of DII's premier programs. They would do so with a new quarterback under center. Jared Bernhardt was about to take his first snap as field general since high school.
Two weeks later, he is currently one of the best players in the land. Bernhardt leads the GLIAC in rushing to start the season and after two weeks is third in rushing yards in all DII football with a pair of conference player of the week awards to add to his already impressive resume.
Here's the beauty of it all. High school was five years ago. And the 2021 men's lacrosse Tewaaraton Award winner's journey to this moment hadn’t been on the gridiron.
The road begins at the 2017 DI lacrosse national championship
Bernhardt played both football and lacrosse at Lake Brantley High School in his home state of Florida. While he was earning All-American honors on the lacrosse field, he was also turning heads as a quarterback. He seemingly became an expert at the triple-option, putting up more than 4,000 total yards and 30 touchdowns in his final two seasons.
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“I didn’t think I’d have much opportunity to play football,” Bernhardt said of the possibility of being a two-sport star in college. “Some opportunities came up and I had to have some discussions with my family. But ultimately I chose lacrosse.”
Maryland couldn’t have been any happier. After losing the championship game in consecutive seasons in 2015 and 2016, the Terrapins got over the hump. In Bernhardt's 2017 freshman debut, the Terps captured their first national championship since 1975. Bernhardt finished sixth on the team in points and recorded an assist in the championship victory.
But he was just getting started.
The 2021 Tewaaraton Award caps record-setting lacrosse career
Bernhardt just kept getting better in his time at Maryland. He doubled his point total in his 2018 sophomore campaign, finishing second on the team with 56 and earning All-American honors. The following season was one for Maryland's all-time lore, as Bernhardt put up one of the best seasons in program history with 51 goals and 78 points in earning All-American honors from just about every outlet.
With the 2020 winter and spring seasons cut short by the pandemic, many NCAA student-athletes were offered an extra year of eligibility. Bernhardt, after playing just six games on the lacrosse field that spring, now had his eyes set on a new goal.
The end zone.
“I always loved the game,” Bernhardt said of football. “My dad was a long-time football coach. We kept talking about it as my career was ending at Maryland, about what I wanted to do afterwards, and football was always in the discussion.
“It was still pretty early when [COVID-19] hit. I actually came up to Ferris for a few weeks for summer workouts, so I was planning to play football that fall (2020). But [COVID-19] foiled those plans, so I took off that fall, trained, and decided to go back to Maryland.”
No football? No problem. Bernhardt returned to the lacrosse field and compiled the single greatest season in program history.
“Honestly, that wasn’t in the back of mind,” Bernhardt said of the accolades he earned and records he set. “I was trying to win a championship. I was lucky to do that as a freshman. This was my last go around, so that was all that was on my mind.”
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Bernhardt led the nation with 4.44 goals and 6.19 points per game. He was named the 2021 Tewaaraton Award Winner — lacrosse’s highest honor — as well as earning the Most Outstanding Player Award, multiple First-Team All-American honors and the Big Ten offensive player of the year award. The career numbers he compiled are tops in Maryland’s record book with total points (290), goals (202) and single-season points (99), among the many with his name next to them.
Unfortunately, Maryland fell just short, losing the national championship game 17-16 to Virginia.
On to the next challenge.
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Finally, Bernhardt was ready to play some football once again, and on Sept. 2, 2021, he returned to the field. By the end of the first quarter, the Bulldogs had a 20-7 lead.
Bernhardt had scored all three touchdowns.
“I’m really trying to stay focused and locked in,” Bernhardt said. “It’s all new to me so I’m really trying to be engaged. With lacrosse, I knew the routine and how things worked.
“The decision making — both are pretty fast, so you try to make quick decisions,” Bernhardt said of how lacrosse is helping him adjust. “I’m not up to par, there’s different coverages, whereas lacrosse I had time to build my IQ. I’m trying to grow and learn along the way.”
He has help. Head coach Tony Annese has made the Bulldogs a perennial contender reaching the national semifinals quite regularly the past five years. Most impressively, he’s done it with different quarterbacks over different seasons. Names like Reggie Bell in 2017, 2018 Harlon Hill Trophy winner Jayru Campbell and Travis Russell in 2019 all found success under center.
Now, Bernhardt is part of a new quartet of solid football players that have the experience at quarterback to help him grow.
“A lot of the things they do, they do with any quarterback,” Bernhardt said of Annese's game planning. “Mylik [Mitchell], Jesse [Rivera] and Evan [Cummins] — they’re still running the same exact plays. All those guys are capable. Coach does a great job playing to your strengths and that helps make it a lot more comfortable.
“It’s been awesome [to have the other quarterbacks]. Those guys are really supportive, especially in helping me, being new. They have experience — even the past year in the fall and spring.”
Bernhardt finished his first game with 218 passing yards, another 120 yards rushing and seven total touchdowns. Those other three quarterbacks all played — and combined to go 11-for-16 for 129 yards while rushing for a combined 53 yards.
He proved that his Week 1 performance was no fluke. In his second game at quarterback, Bernhardt was highly efficient, completing eight of his ten pass attempts. But it was his legs that won him his second-straight GLIAC player of the week honor in as many tries. He reeled off 210 yards and two touchdowns, one of which was an impressive 81-yard dash to the end zone.
So, is the Harlon Hill Trophy — DII football’s player of the year award — Bernhardt’s ultimate goal?
As it has always been for Bernhardt, it’s all about winning that final game.
“To be in this position, especially on a team of this caliber, is more than I can ask for,” Bernhardt said. “Getting the opportunity to be on this team, I’m already thankful for that. Not many people get an opportunity to do that.
“We got a veteran group. We got a lot of good people and we’re excited for the journey.”