Honoring His Father's Legacy, Jared Bernhardt on Cusp of National Title

The Ferris State football team is on the cusp of its first-ever national championship. Helmed by Jared Bernhardt, who won the Tewaaraton Award as the nation’s best men’s lacrosse player six months ago, the Bulldogs have steamrolled through Division II competition.

The top-ranked, unbeaten Bulldogs face Valdosta State on Saturday at 9 p.m. Eastern in McKinney, Texas, in the Division II national championship game on ESPNU. Bernhardt’s brothers — Jake, the eldest and an assistant lacrosse coach at Vermont, and Jesse, the middle of the three boys and an assistant lacrosse coach at Maryland — and their mother, Catherine, will see the game in person. They were also on hand when he made his playoff debut the week of Thanksgiving in a driving snowstorm.

“My mom was able to make a couple games and my brothers as well,” Bernhardt said. “That’s special enough. Not having my dad there, it means a lot if they can make it to the games and support the team.”

Jim Bernhardt, the patriarch of the family and a former college and professional football coach, passed away after a bout with cancer in 2019. His passing came just before Bernhardt started to initialize formal plans to play football with his final year of college eligibility.

“This is what everyone wants to do — play their sport and try to win a championship,” said Bernhardt, a graduate transfer at Ferris State. “I think he’d be proud that I’m even trying this, even if I didn’t get to play.”

Bernhardt credited his decision in 2019 to pursue football as a way to honor his late father’s legacy and realize his own dream of playing college football. Without ever visiting the Western Michigan school, Bernhardt settled on Ferris State, which matched his desire to play for a top program, in a winning culture like he’d known with Maryland lacrosse, with the added bonus of the chance to compete for a starting job at quarterback, something other schools were hesitant to offer a player four years removed from his last football game.

“I really have tried to put everything I have into this season for the other guys so they can hopefully go out on top,” Bernhardt said. “I think he would be most proud about something like that, not really anything with any accolades or whatever, that I’ve given it my all for the team.”

“I’m not exaggerating when I say he could play at the University of Michigan right now.” 

— Tony Annese, Ferris State head coach

As Ferris State’s triple-option quarterback, he has put together an eye-opening debut football. He was named Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year on November 19.

“I don’t think that thought ever crossed my mind,” Bernhardt said. “I was worried if I’d even be able to compete with these guys because they’ve had some experience. Honestly I was just happy to go to practice every day.”

Bernhardt’s humble approach is a product of his upbringing. His mother was a swimmer at St. John’s University, and his father was on the football staffs of Penn State and the Houston Texans. Bernhardt says they emphasized keeping your head down and working hard and trusting the process in anything and everything. Bernhardt’s quiet leadership that aided Maryland has carried over to Ferris State. He has impressed Ferris State head coach Tony Annese with his toughness and has endeared himself to his coach and teammates with his humility.

“The biggest disagreement I probably had with him was when I wanted him to take the reps of the fourth stringer to get him more reps once he was hurt for a little bit, and we were getting ready for him to come back,” Annese said. “That’s the only time him and I had cross words. He challenged me a little bit, but it was only because he didn’t want to steal the fourth-string quarterback’s reps.”

As Bernhardt headed into his final year at Maryland, he entered the transfer portal as a football player, unsure whether he’d play quarterback or somewhere else. The COVID-19 pandemic cut short his 2020 senior season of lacrosse and with football canceled the following fall, he returned to Maryland to win the Tewaaraton Award, become the program’s all-time leading scorer and help Maryland reach the NCAA final before finally pursuing football this fall.

“We’re both very proud of him,” Catherine Bernhardt said. “I’m sure [Jim Bernhardt] would have probably given him some advice as to certain things he could be doing better or what have you, and then Jared taking it with a grain of salt and then working on it. Other than that, their dad laid a great foundation for him and the boys, so he’d be really proud of him. I’m not sure he’d be surprised what he can do and his success and what he can actually bring to Ferris State.”

Bernhardt has missed four games due to injury, including the national quarterfinal, but in nine games, he’s completed 70 percent of his passes for a team-leading 1,322 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also tops the team in rushing with 145 carries for 1,273 yards and 23 touchdowns. In the Bulldogs’ 55-7 national semifinal win over Shepherd last Saturday, Bernhardt returned from injury to rush for 201 yards and five touchdowns — in just the first half.

“He’s one of the top athletes in the nation,” said Annese, whose semifinal win was his 100th victory in nine seasons at Ferris State. “I’m not exaggerating when I say he could play at the University of Michigan right now. He’s that kind of an athlete. Would he play quarterback at the University of Michigan? Probably not, but he’s definitely an elite athlete. He’s got movement skills that in my 38 years of being a coach, I’ve really never seen before.”

Annese said he never detected any rust in Bernhardt, despite him not playing football since 2015, when he starred as a Class 8A All-State quarterback for Lake Brantley (Fla.) High School. Racking up more than 4,000 all-purpose yards and 30 touchdowns in his final two scholastic seasons sparked an offer from Navy to play option quarterback, but he chose to follow in the footsteps of his brothers, who both played lacrosse at Maryland.

“I think for anybody that’s been around that family, when the Bernhardts put their minds to something, I wouldn’t bet against them,” Maryland men’s lacrosse coach John Tillman said. “They’re going to look at every way they could do that well, whether it’s studying film, lifting weights, training, the way they eat, the way they sleep. They’re just a group of guys, and Jared is no different than Jake and Jesse. If they’re going to do it, they really only know one way.”

Catherine Bernhardt noted that both of Jared’s brothers also considered football following Maryland lacrosse careers, but an injury took away Jake’s potential year of eligibility and Jesse went directly into playing professional lacrosse. Seven years younger than Jesse, Jared grew up attending Maryland lacrosse games.

“It’s kind of funny how it’s come full circle,” Jesse Bernhardt said. “Sometimes we look at him in awe. He’s really good. It’s cool to see it kind of come full circle.”

Bernhardt rarely touched a football at Maryland, particularly in his first three years. He played in the lacrosse team’s annual Turkey Bowl games, but he played more receiver in them than quarterback. When he committed to Ferris State for his final year of eligibility, he started cross training for football on Maryland lacrosse off days. Midfielder Anthony DeMaio accompanied him on occasion.

“I would tell him to go to spots, and we’d go out there right in Maryland Stadium and throw it around a little bit,” Bernhardt said. “That was probably the extent of it.”

Bernhardt switched gears completely to football after Maryland fell to Virginia in the national championship game on Memorial Day. He can’t recall touching a stick since then, and he didn’t even pack one for Ferris State. He’s poured his energy into adjusting to the speed of college football and processing the higher level of play, a similar adjustment to jumping from high school to college lacrosse at Maryland.

“I’m trying to get my bearings; I’m trying to pick up things really fast,” Bernhardt said. “There’s a lot going on, especially at the quarterback position, you have to know a lot of things. Being one of the older guys, I would say having some of that experience is a little different than my freshman year at Maryland.”


Once the quarterback of Maryland’s attack, he has shined as the true quarterback for Ferris State. On his first college football drive, Bernhardt went 3-for-3 and rushed four times, including for a touchdown. It’s been like that all season. He opened the national semifinal game with a 61-yard run to set up his own 5-yard score.

“I went to watch him play in high school,” Tillman said. “He was so natural on the football field. His command of the huddle, his body language, having the ball going up to the line, diagnosing the defense, playing the options and having to make a lot of reads quickly. I think it really carried over to how he played lacrosse too.”

“There are definitely similarities,” Bernhardt said. “My dad would always say the quarterback is not a position, it’s a role.”

Bernhardt’s first collegiate athletic experience ended with him helping the Maryland lacrosse team snap a 42-year drought for the national title in 2017. His former Maryland teammates will be pulling hard for him as he tries to share in another milestone national championship for a Ferris State program that has been close. The Bulldogs lost the 2018 title game to Valdosta State.

“Both of his college decisions were to help a place out a bit,” Jesse Bernhardt said. “He’s trying to be a part of something bigger than himself. So far it’s not too bad.”

Bernhardt hasn’t closed the door on any options after this season. Inside Lacrosse reported that with a waiver, Bernhardt could possibly play another season at Ferris State because Division II athletic eligibility goes by semesters, not years, like it does in Division I. He also could play in the Premier Lacrosse League, or Bernhardt may seek an NFL tryout, an option that he has discussed with Chris Hogan, who played one season of college football at Monmouth after three years of lacrosse at Penn State before jumping to the NFL. Bernhardt’s incredible debut season has opened that door while carrying Ferris State to the cusp of history.

“I know his dad would be very proud of him,” Annese said. “I know his brothers and his mom are. It’s been extraordinary for a guy that hadn’t played football since 2015 to just do the things he’s capable of doing.”