Giovani Bernard's flashy game belies his grounded nature. With a life shaped by tragedy, resilience and a community's altruism, the Bengals running back is inspired to help his ancestral country of Haiti.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The houses on the hillside explode in color. The buildings everywhere are brightly crayoned, as are the trucks passing by the endless rows of men and women hawking their wares, from handmade garden decorations to tubes of Colgate.
A teenager loads on his head a bushel of water-filled plastic bags, right by the row of motorcycles that double as taxis. Cows line up behind the bikes. Giovani Bernard watches an elderly man pushing a cart through a ravine of trash and says, "It's hard to separate yourself from it."
"If it wasn't for the struggle of this country and the struggle that my parents went through," Bernard says, "I wouldn't be the person that I am."
Long before Giovani Bernard was one of the NFL's most dynamic young playmakers, before his brother was a star at Oregon State, before his mother died and his family lost everything, his father boarded a boat in Haiti. After three days spent staring at nothing but the sky, Yvens Bernard landed on the shores of South Florida, and in his first week there, he met Josette Liberius.
Yvens Bernard sits with son Giovani outside of the family's Boca Raton, Fla., home. (Courtesy of the Bernard family)
Josette, also from Haiti, worked at a dry cleaners all day, cleaned buildings at night and, somewhere in between, captured Yvens' heart. He was playful and fast, a former soccer player who started working those same two jobs alongside her. They had two sons, they became the owners of that dry cleaning shop and they eventually bought a home in Boca Raton, Fla., with a pool out back.
Yvenson, who is seven years older than Giovani, would barnstorm through baseball camps in the summer. Yvens and Josette, meanwhile, logged back-breaking hours at the dry cleaning shop, and so when Giovani was small, he would spend his school breaks with Josette's mother and sisters in Haiti, outside Port-au-Prince, attending a Haitian school where he ran around and learned Creole.
In those days, the Bernard clan was flush. Yvens bought a Porsche and a BMW. Yvenson said he wore Versace. And yet, both men say Giovani always had a remove from the flash, maybe because of all those summers in Haiti.
Gio (left) and Yvenson Bernard at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. (Courtesy of the Bernard family)
Even today, with millions in the bank, Giovani won't spend ostentatiously. His girlfriend's parents live 10 minutes from the Cincinnati Bengals' facility, and the running back spent his rookie training camp last summer living in their basement. He freely says he would've stayed there longer if he wasn't worried about inconveniencing anyone.
His wardrobe comes entirely from his Nike allotment, except for what results from the occasional trip to H&M. ("H&M usually has some really good deals," he says. "Probably like $15, $20 for a nice button-down shirt.") And he shrugs at the people who wonder about his frugality.
"I know who I am. I know what things I cherish in life. I know what things are necessary in life and what I need in life," the 22-year-old says. "A big ol', you know, Rolls-Royce? I don't need that. It's just not -- it's not the type of person that I am."
Yvenson is charismatic and bubbly. Giovani is quiet. So quiet that when he first went to school in Boca Raton and listed "Haitian" as his ethnicity, he ended up in the English as a Second Language
class. For two whole months.
"I was kind of reserved," he laughs now.
A composition written by a young Giovani Bernard reveals an early aptitude for football. (Mitchell Zachs/NFL)
Still, the Bernard boys were meant for greatness. Their mother decided it, and it was that simple. They were good students, with pin-perfect penmanship, and they were excellent athletes, too.
"Every football game, every activity we were part of, she was always telling people that we were stars," Yvenson said. "It's crazy, because she believed it. She always believed that."
It wasn't just about the football field; it was about shining bright as people. And when your mother believes you will be extraordinary, and she's no longer there to make sure of it, you make sure of it yourself, Yvenson said.
Yvenson and Giovani have tattoos in honor of their mother. Both have stars inked around her name.
Giovani was in elementary school, Yvenson almost in high school when Josette became sick. She never put a name to it, and it wasn't until her sons were grown that they learned the menace was thyroid cancer. Slowly and painfully she deteriorated, but never showily. She still went to the dry cleaners every day, and she still drove her two boys to football practices every day. She ignored their questions about her puffy face and fingers.
And then, one day, she came home from the shop early. She reached in the fridge for her boys' snacks, and she collapsed. Yvenson cradled her and yelled at Giovani to call 911.
"That was really the last time I really saw my mom, was on the ground," Giovani says, very quietly.
He remembers throwing up at the hospital later that day, when the doctors said his mother was dead. And the memory he'll never forget is of his father, on the floor of a bathroom in their home, crying.
"I just remember hearing him crying in the bathroom and me and my brother going in there," he says. Giovani collects himself, then adds, "It's tough. I mean, anybody that has lost somebody close to them, a mother or a father, a brother or sister, anyone, understands the feeling that they get when you hear -- when you see people in that kind of pain."
"I never," Yvens says, "think she's going to die."
Things didn't change immediately, but they did change. At home, Yvens did his damnedest to be a more present parent to his sons. Yvenson remembers his father making both boys breakfast in bed, every day. Giovani said the bond among the three became even tauter overnight: "It was just us, you know?"
But at the dry cleaning shop, Yvens says, something happened to his focus. He'd built everything with Josette at his side. He lost his partner and his bookkeeper and the person who made sure his wallet was in order. "It's like losing your right hand," he says.
First, he sold off the luxury cars, at a great loss. Then the business went into the red and ultimately folded. Eventually, he lost the house.
Yvenson was a hotshot running back who took a scholarship out to Oregon State, and he didn't see the extent of the decline until he came home to Florida for his winter break. Yvens and Giovani had moved to an unsavory Fort Lauderdale neighborhood, where they lived in a tiny apartment with rats as roommates.
"I remember taking a shower and looking right above me and seeing the roof caving in because of water from the bathtub above. And that right there was like, Wow, how's my brother doing this? How's my father doing this?
" Yvenson says.
After losing their house in Boca Raton, Fla., Yvens and Giovani were forced to move into a small apartment in Fort Lauderdale. (Mitchell Zachs/NFL)
Giovani had never called him to say things were dire. And when Yvens is asked if Giovani, who had only known privilege, ever complained, he adamantly says, "Never. Never complain."
Not when dinner was the dollar menu at McDonald's. Not when his father, unable to pay any rent, slept in his car and left Giovani with a classmate's parents.
And so there are two parts to this story. The first is about the community that rose to help Giovani. Yvens waxes enthusiastic about Tom and Colleen Wilson, whose son was Giovani's elementary school classmate and who, right after Josette died, stepped in to handle all the driving to and from school and practices. He talks about the parents of St. Thomas Aquinas High School teammate (and current NFL hopeful
) James White, who took Giovani in, and about Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter, who was Giovani's youth football coach and made sure St. Thomas Aquinas found a scholarship for him.
It's "Mr. and Mrs. Wilson" and "Coach Carter" and only honorifics when Yvens talks about the time. "We're blessed. All the struggle you hear, we go through it without no big deal because it's just like someone take our hand and said, 'Let's go. Don't worry.' "
The second part is Giovani's absolute and utter faith in his father. He refuses to place blame for anything that happened, cutting off that train of thought with: "It was not his fault. He just didn't have his sidekick."
Even today, there's no anger, only wonder. Consider this seemingly joking text-message exchange. When told his father said Giovani's quickness comes from him, the youngest Bernard says: "Lol. I always thought he was superman." And then, after a pause: "Still kinda do till this day."
Giovani Bernard helped continue St. Thomas Aquinas High School's storied football tradition, winning state titles in 2007 and 2008. (Mitchell Zachs/NFL)
Out on the football field, Giovani started carving out his own Superman persona. Relatively small, super sweet and soft-spoken, he was Clark Kent-ish until the cleats came on. He won two state titles at St. Thomas Aquinas and the Orlando Sentinel named him the state's second-best prep running back. He committed to Notre Dame, switched to North Carolina when the Irish switched coaches and then tore his ACL on his third day of practice in Chapel Hill.
The next fall, in 2011, he started. He put up more rushing yards (1,253) than any other freshman in the country, than anyone had at Carolina in his lifetime. He led the team in scoring and earned the ACC's Brian Piccolo Award, for succeeding in spite of adversity. He led the Tar Heels in scoring again the next year, averaged 198.1 all-purpose yards per game and finished second in ACC Player of the Year voting.
In April 2013, Giovani was the first running back selected in the NFL draft, going to the Bengals with the 37th overall pick.
Yvenson left Oregon State ranked second on the Beavers' all-time rushing list. He was All-Pac-10, he was a captain and then he swung in and out of stints with the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks. He played for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL for two years. With neither regret nor envy, he says he never had Giovani's breakaway speed.
It's no secret Giovani played baseball because Yvenson played baseball, that he is a running back because Yvenson was a running back. Giovani laughs when asked if he'd be a defensive end if Yvenson was a defensive end, saying, "Probably."
In 2011, Yvenson brought a handful of CFL teammates to Haiti, to see the destruction wrought by the devastating earthquake from one year earlier, and how the people on the island -- a mere two-hour plane ride from Fort Lauderdale -- could use help. Giovani didn't make that trip, but he heard all about the group assisting in the construction of latrines for a hospital. Of course he'd want to do the same one day.
Yvenson doesn't want to take credit for this one, though. He says his brother would be driven to give, regardless.
"It's the way he grew up," the older brother says. "After my mom passed away, a lot of people were helping us. And he understood the importance of a helping hand. And so for him, it's nothing and he loves doing it. It's kind of one of our values. Our family values."
The 2010 earthquake crumbled much of Haiti, from the National Palace to the home of Josette's brother, Simpson. Instead of rebuilding a personal dwelling on the plot near Port-au-Prince, he and the Liberius sisters decided they'd build a school and name it after the Liberius sister who was no more: the mother of Yvenson and Giovani.
Over the past year and a half, the entire Liberius clan, from Josette's siblings on down to Yvenson and Giovani, have made this their communal project. Sending dollars, overseeing the delivery of concrete blocks, painting, getting training as teacher's aides -- they've all done something. In September, the classroom was a lean-to covered with a blue UNICEF tarp, and it served five 3-year-olds. In March, when Yvenson and Gio visited the site, the classroom was a cheerful yellow and green cinderblock rectangle, with cutout windows, a flagpole and 18 adorable students. There is no paved path, but there are magenta flowers snaking up the fence and a hopeful green sign out front that reads, "Le jardin vert de Josette," or, "Josette's green garden."
"This is incredible," Yvenson says, rubbing at his eyes, pride and disbelief mixed in his voice.
Giovani talks to the children in Creole and he goes around their circle, teaching each individually to "give me five." He listens to them sing native songs, all as his aunt quietly explains that two of the Liberius cousins work at the school now and that a third is finishing her schooling to be a teacher.
Giovani Bernard teaches some of the students at the school how to give him five. (Jon Roche/NFL)
Yvenson looks around the otherwise barren plot, with tall grass poking out of the rubble, and says the dream is to have matching classrooms ring a courtyard. This first classroom cost $15,000. Yvenson ponders aloud: What if Giovani could get A.J. Green to help fund the second-grade classroom? How about a "Geno Atkins Third-Grade Classroom"?
Giovani overhears these musings, and he promises that next year, he's bringing some teammates with him.
These kids, in their neatly pressed shorts and matching green-and-white gingham shirts, have no idea Giovani Bernard is one of the NFL's rising talents. They don't know that he gained 1,209 total yards and scored eight touchdowns as a rookie, or that he can cut and change direction better than maybe anyone in the entire AFC North. If he's a superstar to them, it's because he brought them Legos. And because their teacher told them he is helping build this school.
Yvenson will say later, "I feel so much of my mom's energy there." His younger brother will say it's obvious why. Their mother grabbed an opportunity that took her to America, and that, in turn, brought Yvenson and Gio to life. The school is all about opportunity.
"You never know what these kids can become," Giovani says. "If you can set them off on a good path, they can do really great things for this country."
No matter how many touchdowns he scores, how many Pro Bowl teams he makes, how many endorsement contracts he pulls in, Giovani Bernard promises he will never change this part of his ethos. He didn't wait to land a second, more lucrative contract before starting the Run Gio Foundation
, which is dedicated to helping children from all economic backgrounds learn football fundamentals, and he won't turn his back on the platform this profession gives him. (The logo of the foundation is Gio's touchdown celebration: pointing to the sky, at his mother.)
The logo of Giovani Bernard's charitable foundation includes a depiction of his touchdown celebration -- in which he points to the sky in remembrance of his mother.
"There are kids that are still being born that don't have a home, don't have a place to eat, don't have anything. But yet, they're still being born. You have to help them out some way," he says.
Marvin Lewis was asked about Bernard at the NFL Annual Meeting last month, and of course the Bengals coach talked about his running back's "tremendous" athletic skills. About his ability to cut and run, about his maturity. He even tossed in a tease about how the kids at the Ronald McDonald House
take to the 5-foot-9 Bernard because "he's their size." And then Lewis picked a story to tell, about the Bengals' team visit to a Cincinnati-area rec center. Bernard got to work painting old garbage cans and never looked up.
"Everybody talked about, all the volunteers talked about, 'Who is this guy here at the end of the day still painting the garbage can?' " Lewis remembered.
Yvens Bernard still hasn't seen his son play a game in Cincinnati. The Bengals played the Dolphins in Miami
on a Thursday night last season, and he did go to that; he can gleefully recount the absurd, pin-balling, Dolphin-eluding 35-yard touchdown
Giovani scored. There's such joy in his son's exploits -- and yet, Yvens says, "I have to work. I'm still rebuilding." He was finally able to purchase another dry cleaning shop two years ago, this one in Fort Lauderdale. Still building his customer base, he leaves the house at 4 a.m. every morning and is in there on Sundays, even though the storefront is closed.
Both his sons have begged him to slow down. And both help him. Yvenson, newly married and recently hired by Oregon State to work with running backs as a graduate assistant, footed the bill for new machinery at the dry cleaners. Giovani bought a Fort Lauderdale townhouse with a first-floor master suite to share with his father.
Yvens becomes very emotional when detailing his sons' generosity, finally saying, "I should provide for him, not him provide for me. To provide for my kids, not my kids provide for me." He takes a breath, he swipes at his tears and he says, "It's good my kids helping me out. But I prefer -- not prefer, but I want
-- to help myself. I want to help myself. I want to help myself."
This is from where Giovani Bernard came. And from whom.
Haiti gives him motivation, he says. When he speaks of his parents' mother country, he mentions "speed bumps." And spirit: "It's the fact that they can get over that hump. They can get over that hump and still be able to live, even after an earthquake. Even after the poverty that's here."
Yvenson and Giovani Bernard have several family members still living in Haiti, including their maternal grandmother, Princilia Marie Vernet Pavert (center). (Thomas Stukas/NFL)
Teachers give him hope, he says. He wants to bring good teachers to his grandmother's neighborhood in Haiti, because it was his teacher who brought him breakfast every day after his father fell on hard times. Teachers believed in him.
Playing running back, he says, presents daily reminders to be patient.
"You have to sit back and look at things open up -- and that's even in life. Things aren't going to happen in one day. All the stuff that I've gone through in life, it has shown me that you have to have patience for it."
And his father, and his brother, they give him everything. "I know," Giovani says, "what we've come from."