Before he was a standout prep lacrosse attackman who set Florida’s all-time assists record, before he earned All-American honors in each of his first three years at Maryland, and before he was one of five finalists for lacrosse’s version of the Heisman Trophy, Jared Bernhardt was passionate about football.
His bedroom closet in his parents’ home in Longwood, Florida, contained more than 20 football jerseys – of which his favorite was Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick’s. One of the posters on his wall featured Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders. And it was football, not lacrosse or baseball, that was the first sport he played at the age of 6.
So perhaps Thursday’s announcement that Bernhardt would seek to use his fifth year of eligibility to play football after his lacrosse career with the Terps ends next spring should not be considered terribly shocking.
The senior said football has lingered in his thoughts.
“I think early on in my career here at Maryland, I’ve just kind of always thought about football,” he said Friday morning. “I didn’t really know if I was going to be able to play again. And getting into my later years here with deciding what I want to do after school, that was one of the things that was brought up, and I kind of just wanted to go with that. I loved playing football, and I’ve missed it. I haven’t played it for four years, but it’s definitely exciting to get that out.”
Bernhardt, who put his name into the NCAA transfer portal, is in the infancy stages of his football recruiting process. But Terps lacrosse coach John Tillman said he would not put it past Bernhardt to find a spot for a college football program.
“The one thing I’ve learned in my time here is: I would never bet against the Bernhardts in anything they put their minds to,” he said Thursday. “They’ve kind of proven that whatever they focus on, they do very well at. So if he gets the opportunity, I know that Jared will make the most of the opportunity, and he will put himself in the best possible position to succeed. I’ll bet on him. I’ll take him any day of the week.”
Bernhardt was a two-sport star at Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, running the triple option as a quarterback and surpassing 400 career points as a lacrosse midfielder. His eldest brother Jake said Jared Bernhardt would have played football at Georgia Tech if the team had offered a spot, but the youngest Bernhardt committed to play lacrosse at Maryland in February 2014, the middle of his sophomore year.
“It was pretty difficult,” he recalled of being forced to choose between football and lacrosse. “I wasn’t really sought out to play football. I ran the triple option, so it was really the military schools, and there were some other things that come with it. Obviously, there were some pros and cons, and just the pros for coming to Maryland to play lacrosse outweighed some of the things for playing football.”
But the itch to try his hand at football never faded. Before family patriarch Jim, a former Houston Texans assistant coach, died June 21 at 63 after a bout with cancer, he and Jared Bernhardt outlined a plan for him to use a fifth year of eligibility in football.
“It was just that urge to play again,” said Berhardt, who is listed at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds on Maryland’s lacrosse roster. “You’re kind of coming to the end at Maryland with one year left, and you’re kind of figuring out what you want to do after school, and I just didn’t want to wait until the last minute and kind of lose the opportunity.”
Besides Bernhardt’s physical gifts such as speed and athleticism, Tillman said Bernhardt would strengthen any team’s locker room.
“Whatever he puts his mind to, he is all-in,” Tillman said. “He’s given his heart and soul to everything he does. He’s arguably our hardest worker in practices. So I think whoever decides, ‘Hey, we’re going to give this guy a shot,’ he’s a little unproven in terms of what he’s done in football, but his track record as an athlete, a teammate, a leader, a person, you’re not going to find a better person to bring into your locker room.”
Bernhardt has not played organized football since 2015, but his brother said the family is not too concerned with him absorbing tackles.
“He obviously knows the risks involved with it, and we all did when we were growing up,” Jake Bernhardt said. “You can get hurt walking down a street. You can’t go about life worrying. You’ve got to live your life, and you’ve got to make the most of it, and this is a window that could close. So I’m not worried. We all understand the risks with the sport, but it’s a sport at the end of the day. Anything can happen.”
Acknowledging that triple option offenses are rare among NCAA Division I programs, Jared Bernhardt said he is open to switching from quarterback to another position. While pointing out that predecessors such as wide receiver Chris Hogan, running back Alex Collins and tight end Will Yeatman made the transition from lacrosse to football, he anticipates a demanding transition.
“I think there’s going to be some difficulties with it, but not everything is going to come to you easy,” he said. “I love the challenge. It’s definitely just the opportunity to play again and get out there and have another year. So I might as well use it and give it a go.”