It was a typical winter afternoon in the college football offseason. Some members of the University of Utah football team went to a church gym in Salt Lake City for a pickup basketball game — an activity players typically participate in for some extra exercise or merely for fun.
Utes running back Micah Bernard had the ball on a fast break. What happened seconds later showed his teammates — if they didn’t already know — who they were working with.
Bernard launched into the air, spun 360 degrees and hammered in a two-handed dunk.
“He just levitated,” cornerback Clark Phillips III said. “Jumped from, it looked like, the free-throw line. I might be exaggerating. … I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Bernard has a reputation of being an athletic freak. In fact, he made Bruce Feldman’s college football Freaks List of 2022 earlier this month.
“Making that list means lot to me because I do consider myself [able] to do things others can’t,” Bernard said. “Everything I do, I try to be the best I can. … It makes me feel good to know that people would nominate me to be that.”
Feldman compiles the Freak List with help from coaches, players, sports information directors and even some NFL scouts. Greg Argust, Utah’s associate director of football sports performance, nominated Bernard for the list.
Bernard has a vertical leap of 38 1/4 inches, Argust said. His 40-yard dash time is on the low end of 4.4 seconds. He broad jumps 10 feet, 8.5 inches.
“His metrics are off the chart,” Argust said.
People in the Utah football program repeatedly point to Bernard’s performance in the Rose Bowl when discussing his superior athleticism. He was called to play defense due to injuries and performed admirably despite hardly playing on that side of the ball at Gahr High School in Cerritos, Calif.
Bernard also made a truly insane touchdown catch at the corner of the end zone that had the internet abuzz.
“It’s hard to not talk about that catch in the Rose Bowl,” quarterback Cam Rising said. “That was unbelievable. … He’s just an unbelievable athlete. I just love getting him the ball and watching him go.”
But Bernard didn’t just start showing his freak athleticism in a Utes uniform. He discovered he was different back in elementary school growing up in Long Beach, Calif, when he started beating his fellow athlete friends badly in long jumps and 100-yard dashes.
To this day, Bernard is still surprised by his jumping ability.
“I just remember being a little kid and just doing a lot of calf raises,” Bernard said. “I guess that paid off because now my jumping ability is crazy.”
Coach Kyle Whittingham mentioned Bernard’s two-way Rose Bowl performance as well when asked about his athleticism before diving in to a skill that doesn’t get showcased as much due to his position.
“One thing he does exceptionally well is catch the ball out of the backfield,” Whittingham said. “He’s a great route runner, exceptional hands. That’s one thing that he really brings to the table is his ability as a receiver from the backfield position.”
Much like other aspects of his athleticism, Bernard has been making receiving highlights since his younger days. A play he thinks about often is as a senior at Gahr HS, he ran a fade route in a game against Millikan High School while being held by the defender the entire time.
Bernard still made the play.
“I felt like Randy Moss because I caught it one-handed.” Bernard said, adding that the defender received a penalty.
Rising compared Bernard to Deebo Samuel of the San Francisco 49ers — a wide receiver who also gets his fair share of running plays and is plenty athletic to boot.
“He’ll go run a route, he’ll go get the ball out of the backfield — it doesn’t matter,” Rising said. “He can make a play.”
Phillips agreed with Rising.
“That’s a great comparison, and he’s proven it time after time,” Phillips said.
Phillips and Bernard used to be roommates, so Phillips has seen up close much of Bernard’s athletic freakiness — including the dunks during pickup basketball games. Phillips joked that seeing the 360 almost caused his teammates to take off their basketball shoes because “he’s thinks he’s Jordan.”
“He’s just a freak of nature,” Phillips said.