Archdeacon: Bengals' Bernard, and his 'stache, look good on way to victory

CINCINNATI -- “My heart dropped a little bit.”

Giovani Bernard was talking about the one unsettling moment he’d before his Cincinnati Bengals met the Tennessee Titans, Sunday, at Paul Brown Stadium.

But it’s probably not what you might guess.

It wasn’t the fact that he’d be running behind an offensive line that had been cobbled together at the very last moment. Four of the five starters against Tennessee were new from last week’s game and all five were different than the quintet, now all injured, that started the season.

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Four of Sunday’s linemen were making their first start as a Bengal and Quinton Spain had just joined the team on Friday.

But that’s not what threw Bernard for a loop, nor was it the fact that he’d have to handle the bulk of the running back duties with injured starter Joe Mixon missing his second game in a row.

And neither was he worried that his hobbled 1-5-1 team was facing a 5-1 Titans team, who were six point favorites.

No, Bernard’s sudden palpitation had more to do with vanity than victory.

After the Bengals upset Tennessee, 31-20, the eighth-year running back was asked during his Zoom session with reporters what of his was better: his pass blocking or his moustache?

Bernard is sporting a new look this season, a full, dark mustache that is unmatched by anyone of the team.

“Definitely the 'stache,” he laughed. “But actually I kind of messed it up yesterday. I hope it looks even.”

As he focused his image reflected on the computer screen, he explained: “I went to shave it yesterday and I kind of messed it up. And my heart dropped a little bit.” Then he smiled: “But it looks good on camera.”

And his game did as well Sunday.

He led the Bengals with two touchdowns, scoring on a 12-yard run in the second quarter and then on a 6-yard reception in the fourth quarter.

He was the team’s top rusher – gaining 62 yards on 15 carries -- and he caught three passes for 16 yards.

But just as important was what he did before the game said quarterback Joe Burrow, who was superb again, completing 26 of 37 passes for 249 yards and 2 TDs with no interceptions.

“He’s a great leader for us,” Burrow said of Bernard. “He talks to us before every game. He plays one of the most important roles on the team. And he ran hard today. When the game is on the line, Gio is gonna make the play for you.”

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said the same thing this past week:

“Gio is our leader on the team. He leads by example every day he walks into our building.”

As the years have gone by here, Bernard – who joined the Bengals as an undersized (5-9, 205 pounds) second-round draft pick out of North Carolina – has grown into a rock of stability, sanity and selflessness on this team.

A week ago – after a heartbreaking 37-34 loss to Cleveland that included veteran defensive end Carlos Dunlap (since traded) having a sideline meltdown and grousing about the coaching– Bernard gave heartfelt support to Taylor and the team in his postgame remarks.

Being able to stand firm in the toughest of times is something he had engrained in him from his family.

His parents were both Haitian immigrants.

Bernard’s older brother, Yvenson – who was a star running back at Oregon State and then played in the Canadian Football League – once told me how their dad, Yven, had come to America in 1980 on a small, rickety boat crammed with 16 people. He had spent three days at sea, their crumbling craft buffeted by high winds and big waves.

When he washed ashore at Delray Beach, Fla., Yven had just the shirt and pants he wore. He had no shoes, no money and no contacts in America.

He ended up in a crowded apartment with other immigrants and found a job a a custodian. Eventually he met Jossette Liberious, who also was from Haiti.

They fell in love, married and began to work at a dry cleaning business they finally bought one day. But then Jossette was diagnosed with throat cancer and died in her husband’s arms on the floor as the two boys sobbed.

Yven was devastated and lost everything: the business, the family home and the car.

When Yvenson went off to college, Gio and his dad struggled at home and lived a while in a rat-infested apartment in Fort Lauderdale.

Gio has told me how once a day his dad would take him to McDonald’s and allowed him to order on thing off the 99-Cents Menu.

Football was the savior for both boys.

Cris Carter, the NFL Hall of Famer from Middletown High School and Ohio Sate, took a liking to Gio who played on a youth league team with his own son. He helped him get into St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale and that opened the door to North Carolina and the Bengals .

The lessons he learned growing up serve him well as a pro Bernard has told me..

It’s why he’s willing to take on any role here – starter or back-up – to help his team.

He reiterated that Sunday, saying “whatever the team needs from me…I’ll do.”

And while he did plenty Sunday, afterward praised everyone else, especially that patchwork line that had played so well:

“My hat is off to them. They worked their a---- off…Whoops.”

He caught himself and quickly put a hand over his mouth.

"My bad,' he said with muffled laughter. “They worked their tails off.”

When he took his hand from his face, there, beneath that evenly-trimmed mustache, was a big smile.

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