Ex-lacrosse star Jared Bernhardt’s improbable NFL dream is nearly here


Because this season of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” focuses on the Lions, when viewers saw Atlanta’s Jared Bernhardt make a game-winning catch against Detroit in a preseason game, they heard his name but learned no further information about him. If the popular program were instead shining a spotlight on the Falcons, Bernhardt almost certainly would have been a central character, given the remarkable nature of his journey to the team.

On Tuesday, that story arc got even better when the 24-year-old wide receiver earned a spot on the Falcons’ initial 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent.

It was the latest unlikely accomplishment for Bernhardt, whose one season of college football came last year as a quarterback for Division II Ferris State, which he helped to a 14-0 record and its first national championship.

Jared Bernhardt was a lacrosse star at Maryland. Now he’s a championship quarterback.

Before that, Bernhardt authored a legendary career as a lacrosse player at Maryland, where in 2017 he helped the Terrapins win their first national title in 42 years. In 2021, after leading the nation in scoring and breaking school records, Bernhardt won the Tewaaraton Award — lacrosse’s version of the Heisman Trophy.

Less than 15 months later, he is on the verge of starting an NFL season with one of the league’s 32 teams, at a position whose nuances he’s only beginning to master.

Bernhardt was not available for comment Tuesday, but his brother said the nascent wide receiver’s reaction to the roster news was in keeping with his even-keeled, businesslike demeanor.

“He’s not one to be too high; he’s never too low,” Jesse Bernhardt, an assistant men’s lacrosse coach at Maryland and a former standout player in his own right, said when reached by phone. Noting with a chuckle that it can sometimes be “hard to tell” how his younger brother is feeling, he asserted: “I think that’s kind of what makes him him, and also is what has made him successful in a lot of his endeavors so far. He just has that calmness, that poise to him, regardless of the situation.”

Of the expectations that Bernhardt could turn his opportunity with the Falcons into an NFL job, Jesse said: “Most people who know him well in our family thought he could do it, but it’s a jump. … To sit here and say that I thought it was a reality, I’d probably be lying.”

Family members knew Bernhardt would give his all to the football dream and, given his past achievements, were not inclined to underestimate his chances of making it happen. Still, Jesse acknowledged, a spot on an NFL team’s practice squad seemed to be a far more plausible goal when his brother followed his season at Ferris State by returning to Maryland this spring to participate in the Terrapins’ pro day in front of scouts and NFL executives.

Not surprisingly, Bernhardt went undrafted, but he caught the attention of several teams and eventually agreed to join the Falcons. Atlanta Coach Arthur Smith, who attended high school at D.C.-area lacrosse power Georgetown Prep, said in June that he had “a bunch of buddies telling me about [Bernhardt].”

Following Bernhardt’s heroics against Detroit, Smith said: “You can see his spatial awareness as he went to box a guy up to get to the top of the route. So, I’m excited to keep working with him.”

“I’ll say it’s been pretty eye-opening,” the coach added, “to see how quickly he’s made the transition.”

While noting that his brother had played plenty of football from kindergarten through high school in Florida, Jesse said it also helped to have played top-tier college lacrosse. He echoed Smith’s assessment of his brother’s “spatial awareness” and said he was also skilled at “getting open and playing off some contact.”

“It’s a very fluid sport,” Jesse, whose other brother Jake is also on the Terrapins’ coaching staff, said of lacrosse, “so decision-making and things of that nature happen extremely fast. I’m sure he was able to fall back on some of those traits.”

Another assist of sorts from his former sport came by way of Chris Hogan, a former Penn State lacrosse star who played one season of college football at Monmouth. Hogan then went from being an undrafted free agent wide receiver to enjoying a nine-season career in the NFL that included two Super Bowl championships with the New England Patriots.

Hogan “has been great” to Bernhardt, who was “able to utilize him as a resource to expedite that process [of transitioning to wide receiver],” Jesse said.

Bernhardt followed his game-winning catch in Detroit with a performance against the New York Jets in which he led all players with 67 receiving yards on three catches. Jesse and several other members of his family, which he said has roots on Long Island, were at the Jets’ MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., to cheer him on.

Tragically unable to join them was the brothers’ father, Jim, a former assistant coach with the Houston Texans who died in 2019. “He would have definitely been proud,” Jesse said of his father, who played football and lacrosse at Hofstra before starting his coaching career there and moving on to stints at Brown, Central Florida and Penn State.

After growing up around football, the Bernhardt brothers understand better than most that “it still is a business and things could change on a dime,” Jesse said. That has played into the relatively tempered reaction to Tuesday’s news by his brother, who is not guaranteed to still be on the 53-man roster when the Falcons’ season kicks off Sept. 11 against rival New Orleans.

If Bernhardt’s NFL trajectory starts to falter, or if he just has a change of heart about his preferred professional sport, Jesse said he would not be surprised to see his brother in the Premier Lacrosse League.

“I’m sure if he wanted to,” Jesse said, “I think like everything else he’s probably proven that he could.”

“It’s probably not a whole lot on his brain right now, though,” the older sibling added with a laugh. “I think he’s just trying to figure out where the heck he’s going to live.”

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