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Gio Goes Home To Honor His Name

Giovani Bernard: Man of the Year.
Giovani Bernard: Man of the Year.

Long before the NFL nominated running back Giovani Bernard as this year's Walter Payton Man of the Year candidate from the Bengals, he grew up with a man for the ages. The man not only gave him the shirt off his back but the name on his jersey.

"Having that last name 'Bernard,' means having a lot of courage," Bernard says. "Understanding when things get tough you don't back down, you don't tap out. You just continue to keep working hard."

His first name is the second thing he got from America, next to his parents. Giovani Bernard was named from a long-ago friend of his father's at technical school early in Yvens Bernard's American adventure.

"He was very popular at the school. He had a lot of friends," Yvens Bernard said the day after the Bengals drafted him six years ago. "Everybody liked him and I always said, 'When I have a son, I'm going to name him, 'Giovani.' "

Yvens Bernard, the man with the name, sees just how popular Giovani is on Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when the Bengals play the Dolphins and Bernard emerges on his home turf in South Florida with a Captain's 'C," on his jersey. He's their little big man, a 5-9 juggernaut whose inspiration towers in the locker room. Wouldn't it be nice if he got those five catches to pass James Brooks as the Bengals all-time leading receiver out of the backfield in his backyard?

"He's a good dude," says teammate C.J. Uzomah, one of his close friends who listens when Bernard counsels him on money, or reminding him about that gift he needs for his girlfriend or just life in general. "I've got friends who are like 9 to 5 friends, but G cares about me as a person.

"He's a genuinely nice person. He cares about his people a lot. That means a lot to me."

Uzomah, an only child, has found an "older little brother." They will have been messing around with each other, pranking their cars or their lockers, and then suddenly Bernard is saying, hey, on a serious note.

"Oh man, here's the mature Gio," Uzomah says. "Making sure I'm on my Ps and Qs in certain situations."

He'll be popular in the Hard Rock Stadium stands, too, on Sunday.

Gio figures there are going to be about 20 folks in the crowd with his name, not counting the friends who helped him during the hard times in the wake of his mother's death, and it's going to be only the second time his dad sees him play as a pro. And first time since that rookie year six years ago.

"I'm busy working," Yvens Bernard says of never making it to Cincinnati for a game. "It's hard for me to leave my job."

It was not hard to leave his home. Almost 40 years ago now. When he was 21, he lasted three days in a boat on the ocean sardined in among about 20 people.

"The way a lot of Haitian immigrants, they pack on a boat and they just set sail and whatever part of Florida they hit, they just end up staying there," Giovani Bernard explains.

Yvens hit Boca Raton and went to work at Mini-Ili dry cleaners in 1980, where he ended up that same year marrying a 19-year-old who worked there, too.

Josette. The name now tattooed on her son's skin and soul and, now, on her school he has re-built.

"When something belongs to you, you get it no matter what," Yvens Bernard says. "She came over from Haiti before I did. We didn't know it, but she was waiting for me."

Like soulmates? he is asked.

"Yes," he says, "Soulmates."

Five years later they were able to buy the dry cleaners and they ran it together. Then about ten years later, when Gio was seven, Josette died of cancer. And it all fell apart. He lost the business. They moved from apartment to apartment. During his star studded career at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Gio lived often with other families while Yvens found work at another dry cleaners, going from 7-6 and then picking up odd jobs at an agency from 7-10:30 p.m. The toughest jobs entailed controlling those huge floor buffers.

But by the time the Bengals took Bernard with a Carson Palmer Trade Pick in 2013, Yvens had bounced back to buy and run Regal Cleaners. He almost didn't get back home in time to see the pick. The Truly American Success Story times two.

"He's always busy," Giovani Bernard says. "But he always makes time for his kids. Whenever we had a football or baseball game, he's always there. Either yelling or super quiet. It's never really a clapping. It's either, 'I'm mad he didn't do something right,' or, "He's doing pretty well so I don't have anything else to say.'"

So on Sunday, Yvens may be vocal as always. But not as vocal as his brother. Still, Paul Bernard probably won't do Sunday what he once did at one of Gio's brother games when Yvenson was either playing football or baseball and Uncle Paul leaped over a fence.

When Gio Bernard makes that trip from the Bengals' Fort Lauderdale headquarters Sunday morning for the game, the bus is going to take him over some of the same hard roads.

"My dad's been through some tough times," Gio says. "Losing his right-hand, his partner and having to raise two kids, I don't know what's tougher than that."

So it wasn't hard for Yvens' son to go back to Haiti.

"When I would go back over there for summers I understood how life was," Bernard said. "When I came back to the states I really felt fortunate and I understood what that was. When my mom passed away, things didn't go right, so I kind of understood how things were going to be for a little bit. That's obviously tough, but one of the things I never did, I never sat down and asked, 'How am I going to do this? How am I going to do that?' I just went and did it. It worked out. I stayed on the right path, hung out with the right people and watched my dad work multiple jobs."

The Haitian summers with his grandmother, Mami Grand, Josette's mother, along with his cousins and aunts became a part of him. He fits in, like taking a shower outside without batting an eye or loading up on one of Mami Grand's dishes of goat, chicken, rice and planteens, or kicking a soccer ball through the dust.

"It's still dangerous with the politics and all the things going on," Bernard says. "It's been bad for a long time. I do my small part helping the kids over there because obviously the kids aren't at fault for anything. Where I can help I try to do it."

The obvious spot was the school his mom's family began, a building badly needing modern amenities. Since he's been in the pros these last six years he's brought electricity and water, god-like acts in an impoverished nation. It's been expanded to two buildings and the community doesn't want their children to leave. About 60-70 attend the school that was originally geared for pre-school and Kindergarten.

The $25,000 donation that comes from the Man of the Year nomination is going right to the Jardin Vert de Josette in Tabarre, where they know him as "The Water Guy." Or "Guy a Dlo." The donation can max out at $50,000 and Bernard is going to pull out all the stops because he knows right where it's going.

"You needed electricity before you could have water. Before you can have working bathrooms, you needed water," Bernard says. "So now that those two projects are completed, the bathrooms are next in line. And more class rooms, more toys. A nice jungle gym and playground. Put some turf down, maybe."

There is a shed or shack next door and Bernard wonders if that's what they use for bathrooms. But he doesn't want to really know and asks as few questions as possible about that, only about the new plans.

"The parents asked, 'Can you guys make a first-grade class?' They don't want them to leave," Bernard says.

On Sunday, Yvens leaves the job, where he is a property manager for a rental company, so he can watch Giovani. Bernard also owns rental property and the kid that had to leaves addresses at all times of day and night has found Yvens a place of his own. "Where he can have all his own stuff." But when Yvens asks if he can power-wash this or power-wash that, his son tells him no, he's not working now, kick back and relax.

"It's kind of crazy," Gio says. "I personally want him to stop working here soon."

He'll be the guy watching Sunday. And he just may clap when he sees his name out there.