Jesse Bernhardt’s football career at Lake Brantley High in Florida was supposed to have ended midway through his senior year in 2008. As a starting linebacker, Bernhardt cracked three vertebrae in his back while making a tackle. Yet he missed only four games and was back for the playoffs.
Bernhardt’s football career really did end when he joined the Maryland men’s lacrosse team as a longstick midfielder. Yet he will bring that football mentality, among other things, with him when the unseeded Terrapins face No. 2 seed Johns Hopkins (12-3) in an NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament quarterfinal in Annapolis on Saturday.
Entering the game against the Blue Jays, Bernhardt, who is 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds, leads Maryland (9-5) with 29 caused turnovers and 55 groundballs.
There will be many former high school rivals on the field Saturday. The most unlikely may be Bernhardt and Johns Hopkins junior Lee Coppersmith, a starting midfielder who has 15 goals this year. Their rivalry dates from Coppersmith’s days at St. Andrews School near Miami.
They met in the Florida state playoffs twice. St. Andrews won both.
“He definitely got the better of me,” said Bernhardt, a junior.
Trying to be a major college lacrosse prospect in Florida had its ups and downs for Bernhardt and older brother Jake, a two-year starting midfielder for Maryland who is redshirting this year because of a shoulder injury.
Their father helped where he could. Jim Bernhardt played lacrosse and football at C.W. Post and has spent 35 years as a high school and college football coach. He currently is a special assistant to first-year Penn State football Coach Bill O’Brien.
“I felt that if he were going to play college lacrosse, if he had a football mentality and football work ethic in the lacrosse world, it would give him an edge,” Jim Bernhardt said. “I’m not talking about being a gorilla or being a hack. But I knew a little about lacrosse having played in college. And I thought a football mind-set might help set him apart.”
Jesse Bernhardt has not entirely given up his football background. Last year, he registered a knockdown block on a Duke special teams player in an NFL stadium. In Maryland’s 9-4 victory over Duke in the NCAA tournament semifinals at M&T Bank Stadium, Bernhardt knocked Blue Devils faceoff specialist Greg DeLuca — a member of the football team and special teams contributor — to the ground with a crunching, legal hit in a scrum for a loose ball.
The play occurred in front of the Maryland bench; the players on the sideline and the pro-Maryland crowd of 45,039 erupted.
“Jesse is an explosive player,” Jake Bernhardt said. “When he makes those kinds of plays, it gives the team a lot of energy and really gets guys going.”
The football mentality includes the brothers’ eating habits and workout schedule. Jim Bernhardt recalled visiting Jake two years ago in College Park and noticing that Jake had built a pyramid out of empty cans of a nutritional supplement.
“When I was in college, people made pyramids with empty cans of a different kind of beverage,” Jim Bernhardt said. “I don’t think my kids would have hung out with me if we’d been in college together.”
Their self-styled workout schedule during the summer in their native Orlando calls for three days a week of running and lifting in the morning, though their father says the pair usually run and lift five days a week.
Then comes the afternoon. Summertime temperatures in central Florida regularly reach the 90s. Yet every afternoon, the brothers head outside for interval runs and sprints followed by lacrosse shooting drills.
Maryland Coach John Tillman recalled talking with a few players soon after he was hired in the summer of 2010.
“I said, ‘I hope everybody comes back in shape,’ ” Tillman said. “And a couple of the guys said: ‘If they’re not, send them down to work out with Jake and Jesse. They will come back in shape.’ ”