Next man up.
It’s a cliche in sports. But, sometimes it really is that simple for a scout teamer: You practice hard, beat your brains in on the scout team, dress out, and wonder if today’s the day you get a little grass on your jersey.
For redshirt Senior punter, Mike Bernier, that day finally came against Alabama’s historical archrival on October 26, 2018. The Tide, mired in freshman Skyler DeLong’s punting funk, had to have a specialist down the stretch: Tennessee, LSU, ‘State, Auburn, possible SECCG and Playoff appearances loomed. Good ole’ percentage and possession football would be making its first appearance of the season. After the worst outing of DeLong’s career in Arkansas, with each kick seemingly more erratic than the next (and a season average of 34 yards-per), the call went to the bullpen.
Time to get your helmet on, Mike; you’re going in. Compared to what he had already lived through, an SEC slate was going to be an easy task.
Bernier saw his first action in a hostile road environment at Tennessee, where he had an outstanding game — dropping four kicks inside the 20, booming a 48-yarder, and being named one of the team’s players of the week — in his first start. That it came in an Alabama jersey against the Volunteers had to be sweet vindication for the stocky kid from Madison — he’s listed at 6’2”, 220. Bernier was the No. 13 ranked punter by ProKicker.com coming out of high school, averaging 43 yards per punt with a hang time of 4.4 seconds and a long of 73 yards. He was All-Tennessee Valley as a senior and All-Region as a junior and senior. But, neither Alabama nor Tennessee made an offer.
Bernier instead went to a very respectable Eastern Illinois program, where he started as a true freshman and was part of an FCS Playoff appearance.
His raw production won’t wow you, necessarily. Mike played the second half of the season, from Third Saturday onwards. But, that also coincided with the significantly tougher schedule, where field position became a necessity against no fewer than five Top 20 teams. So, while Bernier had just 25 kicks for just over 38 yards-per, many were situational. He dropped four of those inside the 20, and forced nine other fair catches. Fully 50% of his attempts were a net win for Alabama’s field position. In college he was a hang-time specialist, and posted about the same numbers in a Panthers jersey as he did in one for his home state Crimson Tide.
But, as you are aware from the heart-breaking Maria Taylor piece two weeks ago, that career was cut short when Bernier’s mother was again facing a battle against cancer. Though Sonja Bernier had beaten cancer a dozen years earlier, it came back, this time it began as Stage 4 breast cancer and had metastasized into her bones.
Sonja Bernier beat breast cancer in 2004. 10 years later, the cancer was back, this time in her bones. Both of her children came home to help her fight. “I came home May of 2016 and then two months later, mom went into the hospital for three months,” Catherine Bernier told me.
The battle would last three and a half years. “I just felt like I would regret it if I didn’t come home as she was going through this,” Mike Bernier told us in an earlier interview. “And me not being able to see her as much as I could have.”
Mike walked away from a scholarship at Eastern Illinois in 2016. Sonja’s cancer was back but she told her son then, “He didn’t have to worry because they were going to treat me.” He still came home and took a leap of faith. Several schools contacted him, including Alabama.
Sonja Bernier passed away on August 15, 2018. She never got to see her son’s contributions to an SEC Championship season. He walked away from a better life to see hers to the end.
.@AlabamaFTBL backup punter and Madison Native Mike Bernier battles each gameday for the Crimson Tide, as his mother fights every day against cancer. He says, his team has had his back, every step of the way. @whnt pic.twitter.com/7iPiFE9Gms— Chris Davis (@ChrisDavisMMJ) January 1, 2018
There is some justice in the universe. You can do well by doing good. And, going forward, he can always draw from the lessons learned being part of something much larger than himself — and that doesn’t mean football.
Mike Bernier is slated to earn his degree from the University of Alabama in May. No matter the final score of the Championship game, it’s hard to think of this guy as anything other than a winner.
Roll Tide, Mike.
[ED. NOTE: Bernier was originally designated as a senior but through an NCAA appeal, he has been given one more season of eligibility.]