UNC running back Giovani Bernard, an ex-St. Thomas Aquinas standout, has battled to become a budding star

Some football players might use something that happened to them on the field — say a 6-3, 305-pound defensive tackle deliberately stepping on their hand after a play was over — as motivation heading into a big game.

North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard doesn’t need to do that this week. In fact, what former Hurricanes defensive tackle Micanor Regis did to Bernard last season has little to do with why the former Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas standout is excited about facing UM again.

For Bernard, a 5-9, 205-pound jitterbug who ran for a career-high 262 yards in a win over Virginia Tech last week, Saturday’s pivotal ACC Coastal Division showdown at Sun Life Stadium will be the first time his older brother and father get to see him play in a college football game in person. And get-togethers don’t happen quite often enough in his very proud, hardworking Haitian family.

“This game definitely has a little extra meaning for me,” said Bernard, who missed the only two games the Tar Heels (4-2, 1-1 ACC) lost this season with a knee injury and who has run for 475 yards and five touchdowns on 52 carries in his four games. “The last time my dad saw me play was my junior year in high school. Right now, I’m just thinking about Saturday and performing well in front of my family and friends and hopefully getting that win.”

Familiar foe

The Hurricanes, who rank 116th out of 120 FBS schools in run defense, know Bernard well. He ran for 110 yards and a touchdown and caught nine passes for 72 yards in UM’s heart-stopping 30-24 win in Chapel Hill a year ago. Bernard went on to lead all freshmen in the country with 1,222 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, and became the first Heels back to run for more than 1,000 yards since 1996.

UM right guard Brandon Linder and receiver Phillip Dorsett — teammates of Bernard on St. Thomas’ 2009 national championship team — say they’re proud of how the redshirt sophomore has battled back from injury to become the budding star he is today. Before tabbed Bernard as the No. 1 running back in college football in the class of 2015 this fall, he had to battle back from a hamstring injury that cost him his senior season at Aquinas, and then a torn ACL in his right knee his first year at UNC.

“I’m really happy for him,” Linder said Tuesday. “I know he had some family problems, injuries, but he never let it affect him. He’s always been the same guy every day. He’s tough, hard to bring down especially on the field. He’s so low to the ground, sometimes you think his [butt] is actually touching the ground when he makes a cut.”

Hard times

Injuries are only part of what Bernard, the ACC’s 2011 Brian Piccolo Award winner has overcome. His mother, Josette Liberus, died from thyroid cancer when Bernard was 10. Bernard, who turns 21 in November, writes her initials on his shoes and gloves before each game and points to the sky in her honor whenever he scores a touchdown. He also has a tattoo on his chest that says “She lives in me” and another tattoo on his left wrist with her name on it. Bernard refers to his mom as his “lead fullback.”

“That story,” his older brother Yvenson says, “a lot of people know.” But what they don’t know is what else the Bernards have overcome, he said. It’s a tale of rags to riches back to rags, Yvenson describes.

“My parents saved up all their money for three, four years before leaving Haiti and buying a dry cleaner’s in Boca Raton,” said Yvenson, a former standout running back at Oregon State whose career took him through the NFL and into the Canadian Football League. “We were living awesome up there. We were the only black people in our neighborhood. I actually drove a Porsche to high school. Then, mom got sick and everything changed. When she passed, my dad struggled, lost his business, everything. When I was in college, playing football and being the big man on campus, Gio had to deal with it all. They were living in real bad housing in the hood. I remember my old Xbox got chewed through by a rat. Gio definitely went through a lot more than I had to — and he’s come out on top.”

Yvenson said his father is just starting to get back on his feet economically now and recently took ownership of another dry cleaner’s in Fort Lauderdale. Gio’s career, meanwhile, has started to take off.

Back together

“It’s hard to believe, but Saturday’s game is going to be the first time we’re all together again since my senior night at Oregon State in 2007,” said Yvenson, who pointed out that the last time the family had planned to get together was two years ago in Haiti, a day after the country was ravaged by an earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010. The family obviously didn’t make the trip.

“Having my brother come back to Miami is a huge boost for my dad because we’ll all be there together,” Yvenson went on to say. “It’s tough to pull him away from work. He wakes up and goes to work at 5 a.m. every day and leaves at 10 at night.”

But Saturday, the Bernards will finally reunite at Sun Life. Yvenson, who works on Oregon State’s football pre-game show for Comcast and does work for Nike, flew to South Florida from his home in Portland on Tuesday night. His father has promised to take a rare day off Saturday to be with his two sons.

“Gio came out a little fatty — I thought for sure he was going to be a linebacker,” Yvenson said. “Now I look at his running skills and say, ‘Dang, I wish I was as good as that.’ Watching him definitely brings a sense of pride. We’re all going to be proud no matter what on Saturday.”

Related stories from Miami Herald