Pride, Poise and Commitment: Bernhardts honor father’s legacy in championship-winning seasons
Jake Bernhardt (Whipsnakes) and Jesse Bernhardt (Chesapeake Bayhawks) win professional lacrosse championships three months after losing father Jim Bernhardt.
The Whipsnakes Lacrosse Club won the first PLL Championship on September 21, defeating the Redwoods, 13-12, in overtime. Just 15 days later on October 6, it was the Chesapeake Bayhawks’ turn to sit at the top of the professional lacrosse world after defeating the Denver Outlaws, 10-9, to win the franchise’s sixth MLL title.
Both championship teams boasted rosters filled with former University of Maryland lacrosse players. Two of those former Terps were brothers Jake Bernhardt (Whipsnakes LC) and Jesse Bernhardt (Chesapeake Bayhawks). Both Bernhardts finished the season as champions in their respective leagues.
For many groups of brothers like Jake and Jesse Bernhardt, 2019 was the first year they competed in separate professional lacrosse leagues. Jake, a member of the Ohio Machine for six seasons in the MLL, chose to make the jump to the PLL, a touring league started by Paul Rabil.
“I believed in Paul’s vision for the PLL,” Jake said. “This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Jesse, on the other hand, had chosen to remain in the MLL and compete with the Bayhawks, the team that drafted him in 2013, for a seventh season.
“I was drafted by the Bayhawks and it’s a great organization,” Jesse said. “Coach Dave Cottle and Brendan Kelly treat us first class, so I made that commitment to them. Pair that with coaching at the University of Maryland and where I’m at in life, it just made sense.”
The brothers, who played together at Maryland for four seasons and most recently in the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships, were on different paths in their professional lacrosse careers. Yet, their paths quickly realigned when their father Jim Bernhardt became ill and eventually passed away on June 21.
“It’s really hard to put into words how difficult it was [to lose my father]. I still have moments; I still have days. There’s no timeline to get over it,” Jake said. “In everything he did, he put us first.”
“To have someone you’ve known all your life all of a sudden not be around anymore puts things into perspective,” Jesse added. “It made me realize lacrosse isn’t the most important thing in the world.”
Jim Bernhardt was a two-sport athlete in college, having played football and lacrosse, and went on to have a prestigious coaching career with football teams at Hofstra, Brown, Central Florida, and Penn State universities. Most recently, his career led him to the NFL’s Houston Texans where he reunited with former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien. He served as O’Brien’s director of football research and “right-hand man” and was influential in making the Texans a playoff contender once again.
Whether it was mentoring the players he coached or his sons Jake, Jesse and their youngest brother Jared, a current standout attackman currently at the University of Maryland, Jim’s entire life was devoted to developing athletes with a strong work ethic and dedication to their craft.
In addition to coaching football, Jim also coached as an assistant with the Bayhawks, where he was able to work closely with Jesse.
“To have [my father] be on staff with the Bayhawks and being able to see him every weekend was just a very cool experience,” Jesse said. “That’s something not everyone gets the chance to do.”
For the brothers, many of their fondest memories growing up involve being with their father as he was coaching.
“There were a lot of opportunities to learn just being around my dad because of what he did and being a coach,” Jake said. “My favorite time was being with him when he went to work; just being in the locker room and seeing the right things to do and the wrong things to do. That was the opportunity we had as young athletes.”
“We grew up in a household where our dad had been a football coach longer than he has been our dad,” Jesse added. “If it was up to me, I’d have everyone grow up around a locker room. You learn so many things not just about sports, but other things that looking back pay dividends now.”
The brothers were first introduced to lacrosse when their father took them to a lacrosse camp in Orlando, Florida run by Dave Cottle, head coach of Loyola at the time. Cottle, now head coach of the Chesapeake Bayhawks, and Jim Bernhardt would become close friends over the years.
Following Loyola, Cottle took over as head coach at Maryland and eventually recruited both Jake and Jesse to play for him at College Park. Both Jake and Jesse excelled with the Terps and finished their college careers with five straight NCAA tournament and two championship appearances between them. With them every step of the way was their father.
Flashforward to 2019, following their father’s passing, the brothers returned to the lacrosse field without their greatest supporter.
“He was helping coach [the Bayhawks] the previous year so I had gotten used to having him around,” Jesse said. “Whether it was talking prior to the game or after, it was almost routine to have a conversation and [following his passing] that was no longer there.”
“To get back to playing was something that I knew he wanted us to do,” Jesse added. “He wanted us out there playing. So that’s what we did.”
When both Bernhardts got back on the field, they weren’t alone. They were able to lean on a close support system made up of Maryland head coach John Tillman, Hofstra head coach Seth Tierney, Bayhawks head coach Dave Cottle, Bayhawks owner Brendan Kelly and countless college and professional teammates.
“When we had to have services, we had guys we played with in college like Michael Ehrhardt and John Haus catch flights on a whim and come down and be there with us,” Jesse said. “Other guys like Brian Phipps and Nick Manis were guys we could lean on during the season’s ups and downs. They were people who were important in my life before and became even more important following [my father’s passing]. They were people I knew my dad would want me to be around.”
Once on the field, the Bernhardt brothers continued to live out their father’s motto of “pride, poise and commitment.” Both the Whipsnakes and Bayhawks earned playoff berths and advanced to the championship games where their teams won—each in thrilling fashion—just two weeks apart.
“Having everyone in my family there [at the PLL championship] and just having us all together, especially after the summer when we were together during what wasn’t good circumstances, was obviously really special,” Jake said. “It was also sad at the same time because that was our first big event that we had as a family without my dad. Specifically, when I won, it was three months to the date when he passed away. Sometimes you can’t explain why it happens that way. It was tough, but also a pretty special moment.”
“Before a lot of my games I’d get a little emotional, but in that last one, for whatever reason, I felt the most at peace,” Jesse said when discussing his feelings leading up to the MLL Championship game. “I was just smiling and excited to be there. Brian Phipps came up to me after the anthem and gave me some words of encouragement. I don’t know; that one just felt different.”
Both Jake and Jesse had won professional championships before and together took home gold in the world games. Yet, this time it was different. This time the championships were not for themselves; they were not for their country; they were for their father.
“I hadn’t won a championship since my rookie season and I think you sometimes take for granted that not everyone gets to do this,” Jesse said. “It was a long summer and at times I thought ‘Do I really want to be doing this?’”
“I know as a coach he would have been proud. I know he would have been happy for Coach Cottle and Brendan Kelly because he knew what they put into it. I know he was watching,” Jesse added. “He wasn’t the most emotional guy so he would have just had a smile on his face, but I know he would have been happy and proud in that moment.”
“I think my dad would have been extremely proud [of what we accomplished],” Jake said. “It was obviously tough not having him there and he may not be with us physically, but I don’t know how you explain two brothers winning it in the same summer.”
As Jake and Jesse continue their careers and take the field this upcoming spring as assistant coaches with the University of Vermont and Maryland respectively, they will do so with pride in what they have accomplished as athletes this summer. They will do so with the poise it takes to develop the college athletes that they coach into not just great lacrosse players, but also great men. And they will do so with a commitment to honoring their father and the legacy that he left behind.
To learn more about Jake and Jesse Bernhardt, listen to Pro Lacrosse Talk’s interview with the brothers on the Pro Lacrosse Talk podcast.