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Jared Bernhardt's unconventional path to the NFL, Falcons 53-man roster

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Jared Bernhardt was in recovery mode, enjoying the off day in his Flowery Branch apartment while watching "Tin Cup" and "Tommy Boy", waiting patiently for a call from the Falcons seeing if he had made the initial 53-man roster.

That call never came.

Instead, he received a message from a family friend who delivered the good news.

"Someone had texted me," Bernhardt said after Wednesday's practice. "I wasn't sure how it all worked. I guess they said, 'no news is good news,' so again, I wasn't really sure how it all worked, and I was kind of just waiting."


Shortly after he received the text from his family friend, the phone calls began to pour in.

Bernhardt first spoke with his mother Catherine, who's resides in his home state of Florida, and his two brothers, Jake, and Jesse, who are currently in Maryland, where he went to school. As texts and calls continued to flow from family and friends, he briefly relished in the moment but knew that the real work started now.

"I had a lot of family and friends reach out which was really nice to hear from them but again, just focused on trying to get better each day and do my job," the rookie said.

If there's one word to describe Bernhardt's journey to the NFL, it's unconventional.

The Longwood, Fla., native grew up playing football and lacrosse, and he would go on to play both sports at Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, Fla. In his senior season, he threw for 751 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for 1,457 yards on 12 touchdowns as a triple-option quarterback.

Despite an unprecedented football campaign, Bernhardt decided to commit to the University of Maryland to play lacrosse where he would go on to etch his name as one of the university's greatest lacrosse players.

In his five seasons playing for Terrapins, he finished as the school's career leader in points (290) and goals (202), earning a national championship his freshman season and winning the Tewaaraton Award as the nation's best lacrosse player during his last year with the team.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Jared Bernhardt #83 during AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Wednesday, August 31, 2022. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

Football and lacrosse were embedded in Bernhardt's DNA. It became second nature for him as his father Jim, who passed away in 2019, coached both college and professional football for more than a decade and his brothers being All-Pro lacrosse players, that later transitioned into coaches after their careers were over. His mother played a pivotal role in his growth as a player, giving him critical feedback to help sharpen his game, which is something he's prided himself on as an athlete growing up.

"They encourage but they will definitely, including my mom say, 'block better here or you could do this better'," Bernhardt said. "Always in anything growing up, it was always that and you know, I looked up to them so they're always trying to critique me and help me out."

After his father had passed away, Bernhardt leveraged his one year of eligibility from the NCAA's "five to play four rule" and decided to play football at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. This proved to be a watershed moment for him. In his lone year at Ferris State, he was named starting quarterback, threw for 1,322 yards, and rushed for more than 1,400 yards. He capped off a successful season by winning the NCAA Division II national championship, earning GLIAC Player of the Year.

After transferring to Ferris State, Bernhardt competed as a wide receiver, a position he's never played before, in Maryland's pro-day which would put him on the radar in front of NFL scouts. Ultimately, he would go undrafted; however, Smith and the Falcons took a risk and signed him as an undrafted free agent.

"You look at the background, you look at the pedigree, you look at all these different things and then you take a chance on him," said wide receivers coach T.J. Yates. "And then you throw him in OTAs and he's doing okay, and as soon as we got to training camp, he just took off."

During preseason, Bernhardt stayed true to form by exceeding coaches' expectations each week. In his first game against the Detroit Lions, Bernhardt made the game-winning catch, followed up by leading all receivers in yards during week 2 against the New York Jets. His tenacity, versality and ability to quickly adapt to the NFL is no surprise to anyone who has followed his journey.

"From where he started in the short amount of time is close to remarkable," said Yates. "He has the ability to take a coaching point and immediately apply it like right away and do exactly what he is asked to do."

Yates added: "He's got very good spatial awareness. You know, in lacrosse he's getting hit with a stick, he's always in the box attacking the crease. He has all those things kind of already innate in him. He's not fazed by contact."

While the road to the NFL has been untraditional in every sense of the word, his work ethic and fearless approach to the game has ultimately landed him a spot on the Falcons 53-man roster as week 1 of regular season approaches next week.

"You saw the constant improvement and the ability to trust him," said head coach Arthur Smith. "I think he deserves a shot right now."

We take a look at the initial 53-man roster for 2022.


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