CHAPEL HILL, N.C.--- Giovani Bernard simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to take his abilities on to the National Football League, so on Friday afternoon he declared his attention to move on to the pros.
"This was definitely a hard process and a hard decision to make. It was a huge opportunity for me to go on to the next level and fulfill my dreams to play in the NFL," Bernard said in a press conference in Kenan Stadium.
"When I saw the caliber of player I was in other people's eyes, that helped me out in my decision a little bit."
"It's been a blessing to be able to play for this organization (UNC), and I've been happy ever since I've came here."
"This is a very exciting day. It's exciting and sad at the same time for me. I'm very excited for Gio and the opportunity to pursue a dream he's had since he was a small child," added head coach Larry Fedora.
"At the same time, I'm sad to see him go. We'll miss him. We'll miss his ability as a football player. We'll miss him as a person and what he brings to this football team."
Bernard said he had a meeting with Coach Fedora the day after UNC's season-ending victory over Maryland in late November, and made his decision earlier this week after a conversation with his older brother.
"It's still an ongoing process," he said. "I'm just really getting used to it. I'm blessed to be in this position. That's all I can really say."
Bernard and Fedora indicated that this decision wasn't based on projections as much as Bernard getting a chance to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a pro football player.
"I haven't gotten much feedback that, but it's not based on that. Mostly I want to move on to the next step in my life. The projections are one thing, but fulfilling a dream is another thing," Bernard said.
"It's something we knew could possibly happen, so we were planning in that direction," added Fedora. "We talked about as a staff it was a possibility, but Gio and I didn't talk about it until after the season."
"I've gotten a lot of projections, and as I started feeding those to Gio, I found out that's not what it was about that for him. It was about fulfilling a dream. It wasn't so much about where I was projected. It's about the opportunity to become a professional football player. That's why I'm excited for him."
"For him it's more about the dream about playing professional football---something you've watched as a kid."
"It's exciting also we have the opportunity for somebody else to step up to become the guy and the face of this program," Fedora continued.
"He (Fedora) has helped me so much through this process. My friends and family have been there for me throughout the process, but in the end the decision was mine. I was able to come up with this decision," Bernard added.
With Bernard's departure, Romar Morris and A.J. Blue now step into the role of primary ball carriers for the Tar Heels, and it increases the likelihood that incoming true freshmen such as T.J. Logan, Khris Francis, and Ryan Switzer can make an early impact.
"Those guys are just as good as me. The thing that we had in that room, that I don't feel many other RB cores in the nation, Romar and A.J., they've helped me out so much since I've been here," Bernard said of his now former backfield teammates.
"Just being a brother---us three guys, we're all brothers in there. We never got greedy about who got more carries. It was never anything about that. It was about seeing a person succeed. That was the biggest thing in that room. We were never greedy about each other. We wanted to see each other succeed."
"The great thing about it is there were two and a half games at the beginning of the season where Gio couldn't go and you got to see Romar and A.J. in an extended period of time. They've gotten meaningful experience in games," Fedora added.
"You've got a little thunder and lightning there with Romar and the speed and A.J. with the bruising style. Both of them were involved in every special team. I think they're ready and anxious to step in the role and help out the team."
But as for Bernard, he's just looking to find a place on a pro team, and he isn't worried about the number of carries or the specific role he has.
Just as he did during his run in Chapel Hill, he just wants to get on the field somewhere.
"I just want to be able to be on the field and help in any situation," he said. "Never take a down for granted. Never take an opportunity for granted."
While many will point to Bernard's knee injury as a true freshman, and also the recent injury to Marcus Lattimore, as motivating factors in his decision to leave at this time, he says he keeps his focus away from injuries because he can't control it.
"Playing the game is a risk in itself. Those are kind of uncontrollable events. Those are things you can't really think about. You've got to go into it with an open mind and just play," he said.
Bernard will be heading to Los Angeles (RPI Institute in Santa Rosa to be specific) to train in preparation for the NFL Draft, but he says he is on track to graduate and says he'll come back to Chapel Hill until he completes his undergraduate degree.
"I'm definitely on track to graduate, and that's one of my biggest priorities is to get my degree. That's something that I want to do. That's another dream that I want to fulfill," he said.
While most fans will long remember Bernard's game-winning punt return against N.C. State this fall as his most memorable play as a Tar Heel, he himself goes in a completely different direction.
For him, the most memorable plays were the first---the ones that came after he recovered from the ACL tear of 2010.
"I would have to say my first two carries here at the University of North Carolina against JMU (were my most memorable)," he said. "The first carry was 10 yards and the next carry was a touchdown."
He'll also long remember the conversations with Fedora, and some of the playful banter.
"It's going to be sad with him not being around here, seeing his smile and giving him a hard time," Fedora said.
"(Fedora jokes with me about) my height. That's the biggest thing. He says I'm 5-5, but I think I'm about 5-9, 5-10. It's something to joke around about," Bernard said to laughs from the media in the room.
But on a more serious note, Bernard said that to this point he hasn't had any stronger relationship with any coach he's had than the one he has with Fedora.
"Personally I don't feel I've ever had a bond with my head coach, but Coach Fedora, he's almost been a father figure for me, and I thank him for that, and it's a blessing that he came here," Bernard said.