Ten-month-old Lennox Bernard looks like a linebacker in the making. His thick, 19-pound body comes with a natural scowl that turns into a smile, with some parental prodding, as he poses for a photo in Utah’s Eccles Football Center.
These hoped-for features seemed barely imaginable as of last October, when the child was born slightly bigger than a football — weighing 2 pounds, 2 ounces and needing a ventilator to breathe. And even that precarious status was viewed as a victory. His arrival came not quite four weeks after his mother collapsed in the Herriman High School parking lot at halftime of a football game, due to extremely high blood pressure caused by preeclampsia.
Utah linebacker Francis Bernard and his fiancee, former BYU swimmer Alexis Johnson, have lived through a year they never could have pictured, even after the initial tumult of Bernard’s college career. On Thursday night, the senior will be back in BYU’s LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, where he will appear in his fourth rivalry game in five seasons — two for each team.
His son is growing and developing steadily.
“It’s crazy to see him now; he’s laughing, he’s rolling around, talking to us now,” Bernard said. “Just doing phenomenal — caught up really fast.”
Bernard is succeeding at Utah. He has emerged a team leader and vital player for the No. 14 Utes, after a 2018 season when he dealt with his fiancee’s uncertain pregnancy and his son’s rough start.
Bernard is the only one in this story whose life never was in jeopardy; that distinction should frame the account. Yet his response to the off-field challenges makes his own part rather remarkable, as he became a bigger contributor for the Pac-12 South champions.
Francis Bernard's rivalry game history:
2015 – Seven carries for 58 yards and a touchdown for BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl (Utah 35, BYU 28).
2016 – Eight tackles, an interception and a forced fumble for BYU in Salt Lake City (Utah 20, BYU 19).
2018 – Eight tackles for Utah in Salt Lake City (Utah 35, BYU 27).
Thursday – Starting linebacker for Utah vs. BYU in Provo, 8:15 p.m.
As the season unfolded in public view, it seemingly was a simple tale to tell: Here was Bernard, whose off-field troubles during his two seasons at BYU and year away from football included a conviction for impaired driving, redeeming himself with the Utes. The part not chronicled was how he slept on a tiny couch in University Hospital for most of the 26 nights while his fiancee was being closely monitored, and how he would go from the football center to the Newborn Intensive Care Unit for an hour or two almost daily during the second half of the season.
“We’ve had ups and downs,” Johnson said, “but he definitely showed me who he was, those few months. Every single night, he’d sleep on that couch. … He just stepped up and was there for me.”
As he stood on Utah’s practice field one evening in early August, Bernard said, “All the curveballs that have been thrown at me, all the challenges that have been thrown at me, I think it’s happened for a reason; it’s made me a better person.”
They met in the Student Athlete Building at BYU, where she was a swimmer from northern California known as Lexi Johnson and he was a football player from Herriman, initially cast as a running back when teammate Jamal Williams missed the 2015 season and then moved to linebacker. The short version of Bernard’s Provo tenure is he faced suspension for the 2017 season for Honor Code violations and could have stayed in school, he said, but instead chose to transfer.
He arrived at Utah last August, having hustled to complete an online associate degree from an Arizona junior college to become eligible to play in 2018. He became a good student, going through commencement in May with fall-quarter classwork yet to be completed, and complemented stars Chase Hansen and Cody Barton as Utah’s third linebacker.
Those elements of his life, as now is evident, were the easy parts. And his experience was nothing like the trials of his fiancee and child.
With no prior symptoms, as often is the case with preeclampsia, Johnson attended a Sept. 21 Herriman game with Bernard (during the Utes’ bye week). Her due date was nearly four months away. After being taken to a nearby hospital, she soon was flown to University Hospital, a facility more capable of treating an ultra-premature baby, if necessary.
“It’s basically a miracle that I was able to stay pregnant for four more weeks,” she said, “because [the child] was fine, but basically, my body was shutting down."
Her high blood pressure and other issues continually were checked during those four weeks. By mid-October, less than 27 weeks into her pregnancy, delivery became necessary for her health’s sake.
The baby's life became the next issue. Born Oct. 17, Lennox Malosi Bernard spent 106 days in the hospital, fighting pneumonia and collapsed lungs. His mother once wrote, “We're here, hoping he'll survive.”
He’s thriving now.
“I could not, obviously, ever live without him, but for a little bit, that was a very high chance,” she said Saturday, bouncing her son on her lap as they visited the football center. “We didn’t know. We had never been through any of this.”
The birth came three days before the Utes met USC; Bernard's fiancee insisted that he practice that day and play against the Trojans. That's when Bernard began to play more. He intercepted a pass the next week at UCLA and later starred at Colorado, where a victory helped the Utes clinch the division title after an emotional month when leaders such as Hansen and Barton rallied around him.
“That’s when I really saw the family orientation of this team, and I’m forever grateful for them,” Bernard said.
Lennox has become “the biggest motivation for me,” Bernard said. His teammates also were touched.
“It helps you realize where your heart really lies. ... When somebody goes through something like that, and you feel it,” receiver Britain Covey said.
Thoughts of those difficult days hit Johnson when she hears similar stories of other mothers or during doctor visits at University Hospital. The experience, she said, is “like a bad dream,” only this one ends well.
Now comes a football season that begins in Provo. Bernard, who wore No. 36 for the Utes last season, has switched to the No. 13 he sported for BYU. Last August, his first Utah statistic was an assisted tackle on the last play of the season opener vs. Weber State.
He'll be much more prominent Thursday, while experiencing all kinds of feelings as he faces the Cougars in Provo for the first time. Nothing, though, will approach the family-driven emotions of the past year.
“It was a lot,” Bernard said, “and we’re here now.”
And happily so for the threesome, after so many other possibilities once came into play.