Special Player, Special Play

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- There are a lot of ways to win football games, but Gio Bernard's 74-yard game-winning punt return to break a five-year drought versus N.C. State will become the stuff of legend.

A lot of players and coaches commented after the game about that play, the improbable dagger through the heart of a Wolfpack team that assumed that overtime would decide the game – but Bernard's own words will suffice to tell the story.

"We were down and we wanted to make something happen," Bernard said. "Each and every game we face some type of adversity, and Coach Fedora stresses how we face adversity."

Roy Smith was on deck to go out and return the punt, but Bernard wanted the ball.

"I told my back-up punt returner, let me try and see what I can do on this one," Bernard said.

"At the last second, once I saw what (call) we were returning, I was like, ‘Let me get this one.' That's my favorite punt return, that's the same return – call – we did against Elon. That's my favorite punt return and once I saw that, I had to get in there."

Good call, Gio.

One might think that the N.C. State punter would decide not to kick to Bernard, try and angle it away from him, or maybe even out of bounds. Was Bernard surprised that State elected to punt it to him?

"Well, he did," Bernard said laughing. "He did what he had to do, and I did what I had to do."

The play itself, how did it unfold? First, the catch itself.

"I was looking at my defenders to see how close they were to see if I should fair catch it or not. They were too close, so I was able to kind of take a risk. High risk, high reward I guess you could say."

Again, good call, Gio.

"To my right," Bernard said. "That's the way the play is supposed to be going, I saw all blue jerseys, all dark blue, so I knew I had a wall coming back at me. I saw one of my guys, I just started yelling, ‘Go!, Go!, Go!' I can't remember who it was in front of me that was able to block that punter, but I was able to out-run the last guy."

The emotions were overwhelming once Bernard realized that he was about to score the game-winner.

"I still can't believe it, I am still shaking right now," Bernard said. "After that I started crying, I couldn't hold my emotions back. I started crying on the way to the end zone."

There was a lot behind those emotions. Game tied and on the line, the five-year streak, having lost in frustrating fashion to in-state opponents Duke and Wake Forest -- the whole situation was begging for a special player to make a special play.

"Just the situation, I think that is what it was," Bernard said. "I don't think it was so much the punt return itself, it was the situation and the way that it happened. We were down on ourselves; we able to keep ourselves in the game; the defense, they were down, and they were able to get out."

In a game that meant this much, not just to Bernard, but to the entire team, it was a moment to relish.

"This game will definitely go down in the record books for me," Bernard said. "Not just because of the yards or because of the punt return; just because of the emotions, the highs and lows of the game, and even during the lows we were still able to have high emotions."

And the significance of that return is difficult to exaggerate; for Bernard, and for this team.

"Walking into the locker room after I saw guys crying," he said. "It was different from last year and the years before where guys were crying tears of sadness; this year you could tell, they were just happy, they were tears of joy."

There will be time later to talk about all the contributions from the punt return team -- Larry Fedora mentioned those ten guys in his remarks -- and time to analyze the ebb and flow of the game, the contributions of everyone on the team, and to drill down into the numbers, the records, and the minutiae of the game.

For now, Bernard's words are enough.

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