All Jared Bernhardt needs is a chance. It doesn’t matter how big or small the window of opportunity is, Bernhardt only needs a way in, and he will take care of the rest.
When Maryland men’s lacrosse signed Bernhardt out of Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, Florida, in 2017, he developed into one of the top players in program history, setting school records while being a soft-spoken yet galvanizing leader for one of the nation’s top teams.
After five years with the Terps, Bernhardt decided to forgo playing professional lacrosse and rekindle his passion for football, a sport he played in high school. When Ferris State coach Tony Annese gave Bernhardt the chance to play for the Bulldogs as a quarterback, the Florida native thrived, leading the team to a Division II national championship.
“He was one of the best football players I’ve coached in my 35-year coaching career,” said Annese, who has been at Ferris State since 2011. “He’s a pure winner.”
Now, Bernhardt faces perhaps the opportunity of a lifetime. The Atlanta Falcons signed Bernhardt as an undrafted free agent last month, giving him a chance to continue to play football, an idea he discussed with his late father and former Houston Texans assistant, Jim.
But after years of being the best player on the field in lacrosse and football, Bernhardt is trying to earn a spot in the league as a wide receiver, a position he has never played until now.
“It’s a different level,” Bernhardt said. “All you can do is put your head down and take in as much information as possible.”
During the Falcons’ rookie minicamp, Bernhardt realized the steep learning curve in front of him. While practicing, it was evident that the players around him were a few steps ahead and his football IQ wasn’t where he wanted it to be. Bernhardt has been trying to absorb as much information as possible on the receiver position while creating a play style that’s unique to him.
“Being a precise route runner [and] understanding how to move defenders out of their spot to get open, I think that’s something he’s going to have to learn,” Annese said.
A few days ago, Maryland graduate student and lacrosse midfielder Anthony DeMaio was on FaceTime with Bernhardt, who was studying note cards with different plays. Even though Bernhardt lacks experience compared with other young players in the NFL, he strives to be the best at everything he does.
“It’s nonstop,” said DeMaio. “His whole life revolves around being the best.”
For DeMaio and Bernhardt’s brother, Jesse, it was not surprising to see him transition to football. Jared Bernhardt was a football star at Lake Brantley, totaling more than 4,000 all-purpose yards and 30 touchdowns over his final two seasons. Even though he elected to play lacrosse for the Terps instead of football at the Naval Academy, his love for the gridiron remained.
Bernhardt considered returning to football during his junior year at Maryland but rarely discussed his ambitions with his teammates or coach John Tillman. He wanted to focus on the lacrosse field, where he won the 2021 Tewaaraton Award — college lacrosse’s version of the Heisman Trophy — while setting the school’s record in career points (290), goals (202), single-season points (99), single-season goals (71), goals in a single NCAA Tournament (18) and points in a single NCAA Tournament (24).
Once lacrosse was over, however, Bernhardt transferred to Ferris State to satisfy the urge of playing football again.
“We grew up in a football family, so it was our first love and passion from a sports standpoint,” said Jesse, a former lacrosse player and current assistant coach at Maryland. “I think [Jared] still had that itch down the stretch, so when the opportunity presented itself, it’s one of those where you don’t get too many of them.”
Even though Bernhardt had the athleticism, lateral movement and familiarity with the option offense — which he thrived in during high school — to be successful, there was still uncertainty about how good he would be in his lone season at Ferris State. After all, it had been years since he played the sport.
Bernhardt didn’t care if he played or not. He simply wanted to do whatever it took to help the Bulldogs win a national championship.
Bernhardt said he had to improve as a passer but turned out to be more efficient than expected, throwing for 1,322 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. “It wasn’t a strong suit for me, but that was something that I was determined to show [Annese] and the rest of the team that I was able to do that,” he said.
Bernhardt also rushed for 1,421 yards and 26 touchdowns, impressing the coach with his physical running ability and ability to generate yards after contact. Despite Bernhardt’s dominance on the field, his level of preparation stood out the most.
“[Bernhardt] is a very diligent guy with attention to details,” Annese said. “Before he came in, he studied our system, knew our offense and terminology.”
Just like in lacrosse, Bernhardt excelled when it mattered most. Seven months after Maryland’s loss to Virginia in the NCAA Division I national championship game, Bernhardt ran for 148 yards and three scores to lead Ferris State to a 58-17 victory over Valdosta State in the Division II title game, securing a perfect 14-0 season.
“It was very cool to step back and see him enjoy that and have fun,” Jesse said.
Bernhardt’s arrival to Atlanta mirrors that of Ferris State, as he’s trying to make a name for himself despite not knowing where the next few months will take him.
Still, Bernhardt has proven that he can meet any challenge thrown at him. All he needs is an opportunity.
“No matter where [Bernhardt] is, he’s going to take any chance he gets,” DeMaio said. “That’s how he is day-to-day.”