The Eagle senior rarely left the field — if ever — during a Friday night, leading the charge out of the MZ backfield, shoring up the secondary at strong safety and serving as a dangerous return weapon on special teams.
And for first-year Eagle coach Keith Holloway, when a big play was needed on either side of the ball, more often than not, it was the young man donning that No. 2 red and grey jersey delivering it.
Bernhardt, the 2012 Times-Georgian All-Area Most Valuable and Defensive Player of the Year, spearheaded the Eagles' incredible run this fall — keying the role of catalyst for a group that endured back-to-back 0-10 seasons the previous two years to a 6-4 showing that included the Region 6A-A regular-season championship.
“I think he’s very deserving of this award. He’s one of the few kids that I’ve ever coached that I felt like he played every game like it might be his last. The big plays that he made for us this year — offensively, defensively, special teams — he kept us in a lot of games and developed into one of the biggest leaders on the team,” Holloway said.
The multi-dimensional standout rushed for 594 yards and 11 touchdowns on 61 carries, while hauling in nine receptions for 164 yards and three touchdowns and also returning two kickoffs for scores of more than 90 yards.
Wearing so many different hats on the field while also serving as a leader off it proved to be trying at times, but it's something Bernhardt grew to embrace.
“It was tough, but I enjoyed it. I like the challenge and it gives me something to work toward,” Bernhardt said. “It was just tough, but I rose to the challenge and did it. I just did what was asked of me.”
And while making the big offensive play was nice, Bernhardt hung his hat on being the hard-hitting free safety on the other side of the ball, recording 43 tackles with 24 assists, four interceptions and six pass break-ups.
“I love defense. I was the umbrella. When the linebackers didn’t make the play, I had to come up and help. Stay back on passes, help the corners with the deep route and just keep the defense in check,” Bernhardt said.
Bernhardt may have played as an Eagle during his prep days, but Holloway said his aggressive star would be best described as a ball hawk.
“He’s got a nose for the ball. And there’s an old saying that you measure a football player by how close he is to the ball when the whistle blows. And he was always around the football,” Holloway said.
The decision to switch Bernhardt to free safety was something the Eagle coaching staff tinkered with during spring practice, and it's a move that ultimately proved to be a no-brainer upon seeing him in action.
“Coach [Joey] Marinelli and coach [Brad] Gordon did a good job of coaching him up. But he just had that knack for being around the ball. He made a lot of big hits for us this year. He was very aggressive, which is what you want out of a free safety. Then he also had four interceptions — two of them in the end zone to stop drives for us. So, defensively, he really led our team,” Holloway said.
Bernhardt credited Holloway for changing the culture of the program this season, but he said it really started last winter during the offseason lifting and conditioning workouts.
“The first day he was there, he made an impression. It was just a different atmosphere. He was about winning, and that’s what we wanted to do,” Bernhardt said.
“Then from there, for me, it was spring. Right at the start of spring practice. I was ready. I felt like everybody else was, too. And we came together and we won.”
Though the Eagles proved to be the feel-good story on the local football scene — as well as making waves across the state for their efforts — it didn't have the storybook ending everyone wanted and were beginning to envision.
Bernhardt, who is being recruited by a handful of schools — including Shorter University — missed the final two games of the season due to a freak injury in a late-season practice following the 20-17 win over three-time defending region champion Darlington on Oct. 26.
MZ then lost its season finale to Mt. Paran, which put a damper on its postseason hopes due to some confusion over the criteria regarding the Class A power rankings that were instituted by the Georgia High School Association prior to the 2012 season.
In the end, the Eagles were on the outside looking in when the Class A state playoffs began — a crying shame in the eyes of a lot of folks.
Still, it doesn't diminish what Bernhardt and this Mt. Zion group accomplished this fall — a sub-region championship, the first winning season since 1996 and christening Mt. Zion Stadium with a resurgence of Eagle football.
But there was just one thing missing, in Bernhardt's humble opinion, to make it all come full circle.
“It sure would have been nice to go to state. I would have loved to take this team to state. They certainly deserved it,” Bernhardt said.