If you think that over-stoked, orange-towel-waving crowd at Paul Brown Stadium gave a full-throated welcome to Giovani Bernard, the Cincinnati Bengals’ muscled mini-rookie who scored his first two NFL touchdowns in the 20-10 vanquishing of the Pittsburgh Steelers on the Monday Night Football stage, you should have heard the top-of-the-lungs giddy embrace coming out of South Florida.
“I gave our dad a buzz right after the game and for the first minute or so I couldn’t understand a thing he was saying, he was just screaming — in English and in Creole — into the phone,” laughed Giovani’s older brother, Yvenson, as he stood outside the Bengals dressing room just past midnight wearing a t-shirt that said “GIO RUN” in big letters across the front.
“(Dad) was just going nuts. He was like ‘Oh My God! Two touchdowns! Two! … Can you believe it?’
“He was seeing his American Dream right there.”
Yvenson and Giovani’s father, Yven, came to America from Haiti on a small, rickety boat crammed with 16 people in 1980. It was a rough passage. He spent three nights at sea buffeted by high winds and big waves.
The boat washed ashore near Delray Beach, Fla. Yven had only the pants and shirt he was wearing. As he remembers it these days, he thinks he was without shoes. There is no question, though, that he had no money or connections here.
Although he ended up in a crowded apartment with other Haitian refugees, he soon tried to better his lot.
“He had been a soccer player in Haiti, but here he ended up a custodian at IBM,” Yvenson said. “He cleaned floors. Cleaned toilets. Did whatever he could.”
Yven met Jossette Liberious, another Haitian exile, they fell in love and soon wed. They ended up working in a dry-cleaning business together and after some years they were able to buy it. She worked the counter, he worked in back, they had Yvenson in 1985 and Giovanni in 1991 and life was on the upswing.
Then Jossette was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She died in her husband’s arms on the floor of their home and the boys still remember retreating with him to the bathroom, where they hugged each other and sobbed.
Devastated by his wife’s death, Yven lost everything — the business, the family home, the cars. The one saving grace was Yvenson’s football scholarship to Oregon State, where he ended up the Beavers’ second all-time leading rusher and No. 6 on the Pac-10 all-time list.
Back home Giovani and his dad struggled. They moved into a run-down Fort Lauderdale apartment infested with rats. For his evening meal, Giovani remembers his dad often taking him to the drive-through window at McDonald’s and allowing him to order just one thing off the 99-cent menu.
Cris Carter, the NFL Hall of Famer of Middletown High School and Ohio State fame, took a liking to Giovani, who played on the same Florida youth league team as did his boy, Duron. He helped get him into St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale and that football powerhouse helped get him a scholarship to North Carolina. From there, the 5-foot-9, 205-pound running back became a second-round pick of the Bengals this past spring.
Back in Florida, Yven regained his footing and after working at another dry-cleaning business, he ended up buying it.
“He works hard at it, but we got him to close a little early today so he could go home and watch the game,” Yvenson said. “He was there all by himself on the couch, just hanging out eating beef and rice, drinking his Gatorade and cheering his son. I kinda wish I was there to share it with him, but I wanted to be here, too.”
Yvenson sat with his wife and mother-in-law near the tunnel the Bengals take to the field. Before the game, though, he said he spoke with his brother:
“We just talked how awesome this is. He’s living out his dream now and I’m living out mine, too. I always wanted to see my little brother take care of business and play in the NFL.”
As a kid, Giovani said he wanted to do everything his big brother did. That’s why he gravitated to football when so many Haitian kids were partial to soccer.
“Since he was a little guy he was a linebacker but by the end of his Pop Warner career they started playing him at running back and he had a knack for seeing the holes and then turning on that break-away speed,” said Yvenson, who played a few years in the Canadian Football League and now teaches and coaches high school football in Boca Raton.
“At Thomas Aquinas he did the same thing and that’s when we all said, ‘Hold on! This kid might be for real.’ ”
In just his third practice as a North Carolina freshman, Bernard tore up his knee and missed the entire 2010 season. He came back the following year as a redshirt freshman and rushed for 1,253 yards and the Atlantic Coast Conference gave him the Brian Piccolo Award, which goes to the league player showing the most courage and determination.
Yvenson said those were traits his brother learned first-hand growing up. When he was little, Gio used to spend summers in Haiti with his mother living in a place with no running water. After his mother died, he endured more trials as he and his father struggled.
“He truly appreciates things now,” said Yvenson. “I hope he remains humble. People can see that humility now. The media sees it, the fans see it and so do the coaches and that will take him a real long way.”
‘Surreal’ to watch
Andre Smith, the Bengals 6-foot-4, 335-pound right tackle, stood at his locker after Monday night’s game and looked across the room at Bernard:
“I absolutely love blocking for him. He just does so many great things. He literally changes the speed of the game. You wouldn’t think it to look at him now, but when he puts those pads on he becomes a whole different man.”
Monday night Bernard carried eight times for 38 yards and the Bengals’ first score late in the first quarter when he bulled seven yards into the end zone.
Although he shrugged off his first NFL touchdown as “no big deal, I just care that we won,” his brother said it was “surreal” for him as he watched from the stands.
Underneath, though, you know the first score was special for Bernard, especially when you consider the quiet remembrance — going all the way back to his prep days — he tacks onto each TD:
He points to the sky to acknowledge his mom, who he refers to as his “lead fullback.”
In college he wrote her initials on his gloves and shoes and Monday night you saw the homage — “She Lives In Me” — tattooed on his chest.
In the third quarter, Bernard caught an Andy Dalton pass over the middle, turned on the jets and roared away from Steelers linebacker Kion Wilson and safety Ryan Clark for a 27-yard score that he finished off with a high-stepping prance through the end zone.
What’s interesting is that he never even saw Dalton launch the ball.
“A lot of the time I can’t see Andy because all the guys out there are a lot taller than me,” he said. “So it’s almost like blind faith for him to know I’m there and we’ll be able to connect and get to the end zone.
“People say in the NFL there’s not much room to wiggle and dance around so once you see green grass like I did on this one, you gotta take advantage of it. Once you get an opportunity, no matter what it is in life, you have to shine.”
That’s just what he did.
And it’s why his dad was back there in South Florida sitting on the couch screaming at the TV as his American Dream scampered across the Monday Night Football screen.