SAN DIEGO — Jesse Bernhardt tried to forecast the emotions he might feel June 21 at Snapdragon Stadium. It came up during a Zoom meeting when the subject turned to family.
When Bernhardt qualified for his third U.S. team back in December, he explained, it meant he would take the field against Canada on the fourth anniversary of his father’s death.
And that he could miss the birth of his first child.
“I wanted to be in a better place knowing these guys than we were going into Israel,” said Joe Amplo, the head coach at Navy and defensive coordinator for the U.S. team. “We did exercises that forced guys to be vulnerable and not just have surface-level relationships — to be comfortable with conversations that men don’t usually have.”
As a defenseman in the Premier Lacrosse League and the defensive coordinator at Maryland, Bernhardt makes his living keeping people out. On that day, however, he let his teammates in.
“By nature, it’s not really who I am,” Bernhardt said. “I’m definitely more introverted. I like my routines and keep to myself.”
“It’s something I hope I can look back on when he’s old enough and say, ‘I wasn’t there. But this is why.’”
Bernhardt, 32, confided on the Zoom that he had recently discovered that his father, Jim, knew the man who scored the first goal in San Diego State club lacrosse history back in 1977. They were childhood friends from Long Island.
A longtime coach who played football and lacrosse at Hofstra and went on to work with Bill O’Brien at Penn State and with the Houston Texans, Jim Bernhardt died June 21, 2019, after a nine-month bout with lymphoma. He was 63.
The diagnosis came just two months after he and his wife, Catherine, were with Jesse’s then-fiancée, Erin, in Israel celebrating the U.S. team’s gold medal triumph in the 2018 world championship. Their oldest son, Jake, also played for the U.S.
Bernhardt described it as “worlds colliding,” the serendipity of suiting up the U.S. once more in a place and time that reminded him of the man who encouraged his three sons to dream big in sports — whose memory inspired the youngest of them, Tewaaraton Award winner Jared Bernhardt, to chase an NFL roster spot last year.
“There’s a lot of ties between my USA Lacrosse experience here in San Diego and the timing of when he passed and at the same time becoming my own dad here probably shortly — a lot going on for sure,” said Bernhardt, who cried as 14-year-old cancer survivor Julia Davidson sang the national anthem on opening night of the World Lacrosse Men’s Championship. “I’m just trying to be here in the moment and as those things come up kind of deal with them but not let it consume me.”
Fighting for gold for a third time. This is the Jesse Bernhardt story.
Bernhardt was named one of our captains and he’s ready to share his wisdom from 2014 and 2018 as we embark on another world championship journey.
— U.S. Men’s National Team (@USAMLax) June 20, 2023
A quiet, sturdy presence on U.S. teams in 2014 and 2018, Bernhardt had prepared himself to take on a more vocal role in 2023 even before his peers voted him one of three captains earlier this month at the final training camp in Durham, N.C.
Not just on the field — where he leads a defensive unit that allowed just four goals per game during pool play in the World Lacrosse Men’s Championship — but also in more intimate team settings.
“For me, it was taking the next step,” Bernhardt said. “It’s a role I wanted to challenge myself to fill — to share those experiences, provide the insights and allow the guys going through this for the first time to have an experience that I was fortunate to have.”
The U.S. defense was the story of the round robin, never yielding more than seven goals, excelling in just about every efficiency metric and countering crafty, elusive offensive talents like Canada’s Jeff Teat and the Haudenosaunee’s Lyle Thompson with disciplined one-on-one approaches and timely double-teams.
Bernhardt leads the team with seven caused turnovers.
“He’s playing some of his best lacrosse right now,” said long-stick midfielder Michael Ehrhardt, who played with Bernhardt at Maryland and on the 2018 U.S. team. “It’s a credit to his preparation and all the work that he puts in, coaching one of the top teams in the country and preparing with his wife, Erin, having a child. He’s dealt with a lot the last few years. It’s his character and the foundation of how he was raised. Everything that his dad instilled in him. This is where he thrives — under pressure.”
OH CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN
Jesse Bernhardt brings us out today, featuring a walk through the gardens of University of San Diego.
WHO’S READY? pic.twitter.com/2CLpenJKJP
— U.S. Men’s National Team (@USAMLax) June 25, 2023
Ehrhardt called Bernhardt one of the best teammates he’s ever had, and joked that now he’s got dad strength, that inexplicable boost in physical aptitude people attribute to becoming a father. Bernhardt’s wife was due June 22.
“We’re coming down to the wire here. Today could be the day,” Bernhardt said Tuesday. “There’s obviously a chance I won’t be there. I’ve come to grips with that. And not that it’s an excuse, but I think my dad missed the birth of two of the three of us with football recruiting. It’s just a part of the Bernhardt family. I turned out OK.”
“That’s a credit to Erin,” Ehrhardt said. “She knows how important this is to Jesse and what this means to him. Allowing him to be here with us, it speaks to her character and who she is as a person.”