Zach Bernhard knows what it is like to win a conference title, make it to a playoff game and have his name listed among the likes of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.
Not bad for a young man who plays for Division II Ashland University, a school in Ohio with an enrollment of less than 4,000.
Like Watson, Bernhard is in unique company when it comes to off-the-field accolades. Last week they were among 24 players — plus one honorary coach — named to the 25th anniversary of the Allstate Good Works Team. The honor recognizes those who perform in exemplary fashion away from the gridiron in areas such as community service, leadership and academic excellence.
“It is a testament to the whole university,” said Bernhard, who feels that he would not be part of such a prestigious group of student-athletes if not for the effort of individuals in the athletic department as well as coach Lee Owens. “It is a team effort and it means the world to me because it is four or five years of hard work all put together. It is great that it has paid off with such an honor. It is pretty crazy to see my name with the likes of Deshaun Watson when you are from little D2 Ashland.”
The fifth-year special teamer and backup linebacker is a three-time member of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference All-Academic Excellence Team. The Ashland native received his undergraduate degree in biochemistry and is currently in the school’s MBA program studying healthcare administration and management.
Bernhard has applied for medical school and ultimately would like to become a doctor, like his father. Matt Bernhard, who lettered three years as a quarterback at Ohio Northern and was a two-time Ohio Athletic Conference academic honoree, has a practice in Ashland and serves as the athletic program’s orthopedic surgeon.
The younger Bernhard has not forgotten a day when as a kindergartener students could bring their parents to school. His father brought in a skeleton and other items associated with his profession.
“I remember my classmates thinking it was the coolest thing in the world,” he recalled. “That day really stuck with me. I don’t want to say that’s the day I knew what I was going to do with my life, but I have had my sights pretty much set since then. By the time I was in high school, when people asked me what I was going to college for, I told them I was going to study biology and biochemistry with the intention of going to medical school.”
Bernhard has always been sure to squeeze various community service endeavors into his calendar. When he was younger he volunteered at local medical facilities cleaning beds and leading patients to their room. Otherwise he is a familiar face and positive influence in the town of Ashland, which is about 40 miles due east of Canton, by helping kids individually and in a team environment with their athletic development across multiple sports.
Bernhard is also charitable of his time on campus. As president of the university’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) he wants to unite athletes and the student body in general. Even at the Division II level there can be a division between the groups.
“We have kids coming from all different walks of life to be part of the athletic program and we may not have that dynamic in the student body (as a whole),” said Bernhard, who through SAAC is helping raise money and awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “So there is obviously a divide and what we want to do this year is take a real big initiative in uniting the student body and learning more about them and having them learn more about us.”
Fans tuning to ASN can learn about a couple of top-shelf Division II programs Saturday on ASN when the fifth-ranked Eagles travel to Michigan to take on No. 7 Ferris State. This will be the first meeting between the conference foes in three years and there is much on the line for the 3-0 teams.
“At the DII level this is about as big as it gets,” said Bernhard. “There are a lot of things riding on this game. A win would get us one step closer to the playoffs and winning it all, which is our ultimate goal.”