Just Jared: Even After Reaching NFL, Bernhardt Not Ready to Celebrate

PHOTO COURTESY OF FALCONS.COM

Jared Bernhardt was named to the Atlanta Falcons' 53-man roster last week.


Maryland football coach Mike Locksley spotted Terrapin men’s lacrosse assistants Jake and Jesse Bernhardt at an all-staff meeting last week. They had a common interest to discuss.

Jared Bernhardt, the former Maryland lacrosse star, had just made the Atlanta Falcons’ 53-man roster as a wide receiver. He’d done so after playing football in just one of the last six autumns and never working as a wideout until he began NFL draft prep.

“I told them he made me look bad, but I did offer him an opportunity to play receiver for us,” Locksley recalled.

Indeed, Locksley warrants some credit for envisioning a possible endgame for the youngest of the Bernhardt brothers, one that has come to pass with the unusual — but not impossible — leap to pro football with little or no college experience in the sport.

Antonio Gates didn’t play college football, but he wound up having a career as a tight end likely to land him a spot in the Hall of Fame. Jimmy Graham, like Gates a basketball player-turned-tight-end, logged one season of football at Miami before becoming a five-time Pro Bowler.

And, of course, there’s the recent lacrosse-to-football example of Chris Hogan, who played lacrosse at Penn State, took a graduate season as a football player at Monmouth and went on to spend a decade as an NFL wide receiver.

Now there’s Bernhardt, who played quarterback at Division II Ferris State last fall before winding up on Atlanta’s roster for its season opener Sunday against New Orleans as a wideout.

“The one thing I’ve said all along is I never bet against a Bernhardt,” Maryland lacrosse coach John Tillman said. “I just don’t bet against those guys, because when they put their minds to something, they’re pretty determined and they’re going to do everything they can to reach the goals they set for themselves.”

Jared Bernhardt was determined to have a college football experience after he wrapped up his college lacrosse career. He’d grown up in a football family, and his late father Jim was a coach at the high school and college levels and later had a stint with the Houston Texans.

“For us as a family, football was always kind of the first love — the obvious based off of what our dad did for a living,” Jesse Bernhardt said. “We didn’t really know much different, and growing up, that was something that was introduced to us before the game of lacrosse. I guess you could — [even if it’s] cliché — say it was in our blood.”

Jared Bernhardt’s plans to spend the 2020 season playing football were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, he decamped to his family’s home in Florida before opting to use a bonus year of eligibility playing lacrosse.

It was a memorable year: He helped Maryland reach the national title game, a perfect season spoiled by a one-goal loss to Virginia on Memorial Day. Within a week, he was named the winner of the Tewaaraton Award.

And then it was on to football at Division II Ferris State, which offered him the chance to play quarterback. (Locksley noted this week that Maryland already had someone to play the position in Taulia Tagovailoa, who last year set a school record for passing yards and tied the program single-season record for touchdown passes.)

“Part of his decision with going to Ferris State and how he even came across Ferris State was, as simple as it sounds, Googling D-II and D-III football teams playing in the final four,” Jesse Bernhardt said. “What it was about wasn’t necessarily making the NFL. It was, ‘If I’m going to do this, I want to do it, and I want to play at the highest level and compete for a championship. I don’t just want to go to a place that’s 0-10.’”







There was never much of a threat of that happening at Ferris State, which has won at least 10 games in every season since 2014. Bernhardt made the Bulldogs even more imposing, deftly segueing from lacrosse to football to rush for 1,421 yards and 26 touchdowns while leading Ferris State to an undefeated season and its first Division II title.

From there, pursuing another step of football seemed logical. It meant the usual training involved for prospective pro rookies, but also the need to learn a new position.

Locksley permitted Bernhardt to participate in Maryland’s Pro Day, a boost since there would already be a large contingent of scouts in attendance. And based on what he had seen — when Bernhardt was playing lacrosse, when he evaluated him for the Terrapins’ football program and then on Pro Day — Locksley knew there was potential.

“I’m not surprised because everything this kid touches turns to gold,” Locksley said. “It’s the DNA of the family. … Jared’s one of those special guys.”

Bernhardt signed with Atlanta in late April after unsurprisingly going undrafted, and he later caught a game-winning touchdown pass in the Falcons’ preseason opener against Detroit.

Tillman sat down to watch that entire game, only to miss Bernhardt’s big moment when NFL Network switched to the start of another game when the Falcons and Lions were in the middle of the fourth quarter. He caught up with his former player the next week when Atlanta had joint practices with the New York Jets.

Bernhardt told Tillman he had maintained a consistent approach, getting up every day and doing the best he could to learn and study and take in as much feedback as possible, then repeating the process the next day.

“That’s very much like a SEAL mentality or somebody who runs a marathon,” Tillman said. “You just pick something and try to get to that marker, and then you pick another marker and try to get there. All the while, you’re just trying not to get caught up in, ‘God, I have 13 miles to go in the marathon.’ It’s, ‘I just have to get here.’”

For football purposes, it meant not fretting about the depth chart or pondering a roster crunch. Bernhardt simply kept at it, catching three passes against the Jets in Atlanta’s second preseason game. A week and a half later came the final preseason cuts and learning that no news is good news.

Jesse Bernhardt said he was on the phone with his brother when some of the other Falcons rookies who made the roster started contacting Jared. (“Jared is definitely not a huge social media guy, so he wasn’t really buying the fact that just because it was out on the internet it was true,” Jesse said). In time, though, there was an understanding he’d taken another step in his career.

But it wasn’t cause for a huge celebration for a man whose steady, even-keeled nature was well-known in lacrosse circles long before his run at an NFL roster spot.

“As exciting as it was and as much as everyone was patting him on the back and giving him all the congrats, being in the moment and understanding that this is still a business and things could change in a second, I think he was happy but he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, but you can stop congratulating me because this is kind of just the beginning,’” Jesse Bernhardt said. “Even in that moment, he continued to be Jared in his mindset.”

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