Editor’s note: There are several family ties throughout Major League Lacrosse’s rich history. Starting with the Gaits and Powells and all the way through to the Leveilles, Spallinas and Untersteins, brothers have continued to compete with or against each other throughout adulthood. Starting today with Jake and Jesse Bernhardt and for the next few weeks we take a look at some of their stories
For the Bernhardt brothers, the journey to success with the MLL all started in their backyard in Longwood, Florida. Growing up in a football town, Jake and Jesse Bernhardt thrived as athletes, but their opportunities with the sport of lacrosse were limited. Lucky for them, one was more defensive minded, and the other more offensive minded, which provided the perfect set up for them to practice against each other in the backyard.
“My dad told us that Jesse was the best defensive player in the state in high school and that I was the best offensive player in the state in high school so we might as well just go against each other. So we did a lot of 1v1’s together,” Jake recalls.
This healthy competitive environment fostered a relationship between the boys that helped them grow as lacrosse players. “We didn’t like to be satisfied or just be ok, especially if they said someone was better than us, we just weren’t okay with that. We always had to make sure that we were at the top or that we were up there with everyone, so we always strived to be the best.”
Thanks to the strong football culture in their hometown and their father being a football coach, the Bernhardts were immediately immersed in a hardworking and athletic environment. Football essentially molded them into the athletes they are today.
“We’re football players playing lacrosse,” Jake explains. “We grew up with our first love being football, being a football family and our dad being a football coach. It all really translated into the lacrosse world pretty well,” Jesse agrees with Jake. “I think that football guys are known for their hard work and work ethic. I think I consider myself a football guy playing lacrosse, not in the aspect of being a hack or trying to hit people, but regarding the whole work ethic and mentality.”
The Bernhardt brothers are the first Florida-born players to play in the MLL. Seeing as Florida isn’t necessarily the hot-bed for the sport, recruiting poses an issue compared to say those in Maryland who have easy access to exposure. Since the boys didn’t have a club team or league to play with growing up, they attended a three day camp, once a summer, run by Bayhawks Head Coach Dave Cottle who was at Loyola at the time.
Both brothers agree that Coach Cottle is one of their most important mentors. “I love Coach Cottle. He’s a great guy, he basically is the one who put a stick in our hands when we were young. He was the one who molded us as players. Having the opportunity to play for him for two years is something I’ll never forget, and I’m forever indebted to him,” Jake expressed.
Jesse agreed whole-heartedly when he said, “Coach Cottle has meant a lot to me lacrosse wise. He has given me some of my biggest opportunities that I’ve ever been given so I’ll always be thankful for that. He gave me the opportunity to play college lacrosse at the highest level, and he gave me another opportunity to play professionally, so he’s given me some pretty great opportunities so far in my life.”
The Bernhardts both started making names for themselves after high school at the University of Maryland where Jake, the older of the two brothers, started in 2009 followed by Jesse in 2010.
After finishing their outstanding college careers, they both joined the MLL. Jake was picked up by the Ohio Machine through a trade with the Hamilton Nationals, who drafted him 12th Overall in the 2012 Collegiate Draft, and Jesse was drafted by the Chesapeake Bayhawks 4th Overall in the 2013 Collegiate Draft giving him the opportunity to continue to play for his college coach, Cottle.
Since high school, the Bernhardts virtually spent every moment together, on and off the field. The only time they really spent apart was the first year Jake was at Maryland while Jesse was still at home. But they even got to end their collegiate careers together due to a shoulder injury of Jake’s that allowed him to take a red-shirt year and play one more year with Jesse.
Moving on to the MLL to play for two different teams, needless to say, was a different experience that neither brother had encountered yet.
“It was definitely different,” Jake explained. “We weren’t used to that, for obvious reasons. There was only one year before that that we hadn’t played together. It was something where I was just used to looking to my left or my right and him being right there, but now he’s on the opposing team. As the season goes on, you kind of get used to it, and it’s out of your control because it’s a business now. Who knows if some day we can play on the same team again.”
Jesse agreed that it was definitely different at first, but he shares he wasn’t “too focused on it or worried about it. I don’t think Jake was either, but I think some other people maybe were, hyping it up a little more than they had to. That first game against him was fun though because it was pretty close and definitely a new and different experience.”
For the two brothers, playing in the MLL was always a dream of theirs. Jake shared, “I never thought I’d have an opportunity to play, coming in from Florida, to be the first guy ever from Florida to be drafted. I never would have imagined that. When we were younger, the only lacrosse that we could watch or get on TV was the MLL so that was the only thing I knew. They were guys that I looked up to and they were the people that I knew, so it’s all just been amazing.”
Jesse explained his desire to keep playing at the next level. “I want to keep playing at the highest level I can and compete, and I was able to do that this year with the Bayhawks. So it’s kind of just the next progression in the whole lacrosse world. I didn’t have any intention of stopping (after college) nor do I any time soon.”
As the Bernhardt brothers enter their second season with the MLL, it will be exciting to see them develop and thrive on their respective teams. But as Jake had mentioned, who knows if someday they will get the chance to play on the same team again and rekindle the connection that they had developed for so long. Until then, there is no doubt the Bernhardts will continue to push each other to be the best players they can be, even despite the separation.