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‘Things can be taken away from you in an instant’: Ute linebacker Francis Bernard reflects on chance to get back on his feet

Utah linebacker has overcome adversity, turmoil

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Utah Utes starting linebacker Francis Bernard, who used to play football for BYU, poses for a portrait at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019.

Kristin Murphy

SALT LAKE CITY — Francis Bernard is returning to BYU as a changed man. The Utah linebacker, who began his collegiate career with the Cougars (2015-16), noted that adversity and turmoil led to positive changes in his life.

Bernard left BYU following a series of challenges that included an undisclosed violation of team rules that kept him out of the 2016 Poinsettia Bowl and later an arrest for suspicion of DUI.

“Honestly, it’s not who I am. Looking back at it I was going through a rough time,” said Bernard, who withdrew from school and did not play in 2017. “So just being young and not as mature as I should have been, I look back and kind of look at myself and I’m like: ‘Man, you know, I kind of got what I deserve.’ It humbled me a ton.”

“Ever since I’ve been here I’ve been just a completely different person. I’m just blessed to be here.” — Francis Bernard

So much so, in fact, that Bernard said he learned the biggest lesson of his life.

“Things can be taken away from you in an instant,” he said. “I was fortunate enough that coach (Kyle) Whittingham and the Utah staff was able to take me here and kind of help me get back on my feet.”

The opportunity, Bernard continued, allowed him to blossom in numerous ways.

“Ever since I’ve been here I’ve been just a completely different person,” he said. “I’m just blessed to be here.”

 Whittingham praised Bernard’s leadership and placed it in the same category as the team captains. On the field, the senior tops the depth chart at linebacker as the Utes move on following the graduation of leading tacklers Cody Barton and Chase Hansen.

“He’s got great instincts. He’s in the same mold as Cody and Chase as far as his football IQ,” said Whittingham, who also noted Bernard’s film study and passion for the game. “He’s one of our best leaders.”

Bernard joined the Utes in August 2018. He went on to play in 10 games (starting two) last season and finished with 38 tackles.

The second campaign with 14th-ranked Utah begins Thursday night in Provo. Bernard was an accomplished running back (334 yards rushing) in this first season at BYU and then made 80 stops at linebacker as a sophomore.

“I’m excited. I think it’s just funny how things have turned out where now I’m here at the rival school as opposed to when I was down south,” Bernard said. “But now I think it’s cool that I get to end my career playing at LaVell Edwards Stadium one more time. So that will be fun and exciting.”

Bernard took note of the atmosphere and how it is down there and said he’s thrilled to play there one more time.


Utah Utes linebacker Francis Bernard (36) tackles Arizona Wildcats running back J.J. Taylor (21) during the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The game will give the former Herriman High School star a unique perspective on the Rivalry Game. It’ll mark an even split for him — two games for BYU and a pair with Utah.

BYU linebacker Zayne Anderson, who was in the freshman class with Bernard, said it was weird seeing him play on the other side in last year’s Rivalry Game. They were close, but not super-close, during their time together with the Cougars.

“He’s a cool guy. I respect him. He’s a good football player,” Anderson said. “He’s going to be a really good player for the Utes.”

Anderson recalled Bernard’s days as a running back and the switch he made to linebacker. He wishes him the best in his new surroundings. 

“I’ve seen a lot of Francis over the years,” Anderson said. “I’m happy that he’s happy where he’s playing.”

• . • . •

Bernard readily acknowledges being in a good place. However, it has much more to do with things other than football. It’s about family. Specifically, Bernard’s fiancee, Alexis, and their 10-month-old son Lennox.

“Credit to her for being so strong and for being such a great partner in my life,” Bernard said.

The Bernards endured a difficult situation when Lennox was born premature.

“We went through some hard times,” Bernard said. “But those hard times are kind of what kept me who I am today. So I’m happy for that.”

Even so, Bernard admits it was hard.

“I was still able to focus. I’m lucky that my fiancee is such a big supporter of me and everything I do,” Bernard said. “She would just tell me to go and pursue what I’m passionate about and come here and play football.”


Utah linebacker Francis Bernard in action during the 2019 fall camp at the Utah practice facility.

Utah Athletics

Bernard has worked himself into the best shape of his career. The 6-footer is entering the season around 240 pounds. Last season, he joined the team in August after being away from the game for a year.

 “I thought I was in shape,” Bernard said. “But right when I started fall camp I remember the first gassers we did. It was like ‘Oh my goodness, what’s wrong with me?’”

This time around, Bernard has the benefit of being with the team throughout the offseason — experiencing the camaraderie and fitness associated with spring ball and summer conditioning.

“It has been just a huge blessing,” said Bernard, who explained that he isn’t getting tired.

The biggest change, he continued, has been his diet.

“I love my sweets. I love my cookies. I love my brownies,” Bernard said. “So this offseason I told my fiancée no more cookies. I can’t do it.”


Utah Utes linebacker Francis Bernard breaks up a pass to Northwestern Wildcats running back John Moten IV during NCAA football at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Monday, Dec. 31, 2018.

Ravell Call

Alexis, though, didn’t make Francis go cold turkey. She baked him some cookies for their anniversary and on his birthday.

Bernard’s diet wasn’t the only changes requiring an adjustment. Just before fall camp began, Penn State graduate transfer Manny Bowen decided to retire. He was supposed to start alongside Bernard this season.

“I looked at both of us as leaders. I didn’t look at one of us taking one half or the other half,” Bernard said. “I just look at it, you know, as everyone in the linebacker room as a leader.”

Thus, he explained, there was confidence that someone would step up in Bowen’s place and be just as effective — if not more effective.

“I think Devin Lloyd has done a tremendous job of being the other guy,” Bernard said. “So I think it’s worked out in our favor.”

As Bernard can attest, things are good — in more ways than one.

Contributing: Jeff Call