How youth soccer propelled Patrick Bernard from despondence to joy

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 09-19-2023 7:14 PM

Patrick Bernard pulled into the parking lot next to Delta Dental Field for the third time in 45 minutes, his silver Hyundai Tucson full of kids. For the third time in less than an hour, the kids – as if shot out of a cannon – raced out onto the soccer field, a patch of grass that backs up against the southbound side of Interstate 93 in Concord.

Bernard, the head coach of the Revs City soccer program, left work at Manchester Community College, picked up students at Rundlett Middle School and dropped them off at the field near the NHTI campus. Then he raced over to The Heights to pick up the next group. Then back to Rundlett to grab the stragglers that missed his instructions on where to meet him the first time.

“It would be nice to have a van or a bus,” he mused.

Practice kicked off later than hoped, but the players who were part of the earlier drop-off crew likely didn’t even notice. They spent the time running around playing pickup games with each other, some shirtless and drenched in sweat.

Revs City soccer began last year, a partnership between the Alton-based nonprofit Revolution United and Panther Elite Soccer Club, an organization Bernard founded in 2020. Panther Elite’s goal from the outset: Provide an affordable outlet to play soccer for families who might not be able to pay for more expensive options. Many are refugees, from Rwanda to Tanzania to Nepal. Most, Bernard said, don’t have both parents still present. Some parents were left behind, trapped in camps. Some have died. In their home countries, many of his players witnessed horrors that might seem unimaginable to most. To Bernard, they’re horrors he connects with.

It’s now been almost 20 years since the tragedy that changed his life forever. His oldest brother, Chris, amidst addiction and severe mental health issues, stabbed their sister, Tricia, and her kids, Gillian and James, to death in his Manchester home. Tricia was 30, Gillian 4 and James just 2.

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The Monitor first detailed Bernard’s journey in 2021.

It’s been about three years since Bernard had his last drink. It’s been about just as long since he’s found the right medication to treat his mental health.

For someone who never played soccer nor coached it before, it’s become his life. His role now, which he defines as part coach, part chauffeur, part father figure and part teacher, galvanizes him. It gives him a reason to roll out of bed every morning. It fills a massive void in his life.

Even if that means making three back-and-forth trips to the field for kids who don’t have a ride or putting himself $26,000 into debt so they have jerseys, food, drinks and access to playing the sport they love.

Bernard maxed out his credit cards, and his previously high credit score took a big hit. Panther Elite’s partnership with Revolution United, forming the Revs City program, aims to ease some of that burden, helping with registration and securing grants and scholarships for children to play a sport they otherwise couldn’t afford.

But amidst the financial challenges, soccer provides Bernard the direction and passion that, since the murder, had largely gone missing.

“It’s a labor of love,” he said. “It’s become a second family.”

‘Another motivation’

Chris Bernard pleaded guilty to first-degree murder after the October 4, 2004, tragedy. He’ll spend the rest of his life in prison.

He had served in the Marines, but a motorcycle accident led to an addiction to oxycodone. His life spiraled out of control from there. Patrick Bernard was just a 22-year-old college student at the time of the incident. He could never find the right way to cope.

He drank heavily and attempted suicide. He experienced manic highs and extreme and prolonged lows. Life wandered along aimlessly, and eventually he feared falling down a path similar to his brother.

Treatment helped immensely. So did soccer.

“It was kind of a combination of getting to a point in life where I knew alcohol was no longer a way to cope, and also finally figuring out a combination for meds for bipolar,” Bernard said. “And just kind of getting the focus, soccer was a huge way to get that. When I started that, that gave me another motivation.”

As glimmers of hope started to reappear, Bernard worked as a special education teacher at Rundlett Middle School. It was there where he coached during the fall season, and some of his players asked about starting up an indoor league. He’d never coached soccer until he arrived at Rundlett, but he committed to giving his kids this opportunity to play, understanding the hardships they already deal with in their lives.

He felt that visceral connection to them. And since then, they’ve only gravitated closer and closer.

‘A big influence’

The creation of Revs City made perfect sense for Bernard. Former Prospect Mountain boys’ soccer coach Cory Halvorsen started Revolution United back in 2011 with a similar hope of providing affordable soccer to kids and their families.

“People unfortunately see ways to make revenue, and that’s not what we’re about,” Halvorsen said of other travel soccer organizations. “What we’re about is fielding the teams that we have and giving them different opportunities. That’s what Patrick’s been able to do with his team, and that’s what we’re able to do with all of our teams. We expect that, if you’re on a team, you’re going to contribute. You’re not going to sit on the bench. You’re not there to offset costs for somebody else.”

That common frustration, about the exorbitant expense for a sport like soccer that doesn’t require much equipment or gear, aligned directly with why Bernard started Panther Elite.

“There are some really, really great, talented kids on Patrick’s team,” Halvorsen added, “and just because maybe somebody couldn’t afford something or wasn’t able to play or couldn’t get a ride, that should never prevent somebody from following their dream and playing the sport that they want to play.”

Players pay a maximum of $275 and get two jerseys, socks and game shorts. Similar programs can cost more than $1,000.

Revs City now fields three teams, featuring kids from middle school through sophomore year of high school. The oldest of the group have been with Bernard since the very beginning.

Chelsea Toenah jumped in early, the first girl to join Panther Elite. Now a sophomore at Concord High School, Toenah approached Bernard about joining his league in middle school. It felt like a second home right away.

She might still be one of just a few girls among an avalanche of boys, but the family-like dynamic at Revs City remains profound.

“I relate to these boys more than anything,” Toenah said. “I’ve seen these boys get better and better over the years, and I just feel like anytime that I’m around them, I just feel so welcomed. We’re really just a big family.”

Around the time she joined Panther Elite, Toenah’s parents split up. Bernard, she said, was immensely helpful, always there to provide a neutral opinion.

“It’s really amazing having him as a coach,” Toenah said. “I’ve had tons of soccer coaches in the past, and I would say that he’s probably the best soccer coach that I’ve had because he shows that he cares about all of us, and he really does want us to go far in life, become what we want to become. He helps us with things that aren’t just soccer. If we needed a ride somewhere, we just have to ask him. If we need help with schoolwork, he would go out of his way to help us. I think that’s just really amazing about him.”

Halvorsen also spends a good deal of time around soccer coaches, between his work with Revolution United and as the former varsity boys’ coach at Prospect Mountain. None, he said, impact their players quite like Bernard.

“Patrick is more than just a soccer coach. He’s a big influence on these kids’ lives,” he said. “I’ve attended a lot of their training sessions and a lot of their games, and depending on who’s driving, one of the first things that I’ve seen when they stop is, they open up the back of the truck or the trunk, and they say, ‘Hey, who needs a water? Who needs a Gatorade? Who needs a snack for today?’ It’s just kind of going beyond being a soccer coach, and that’s really what Patrick has shown.”

‘Show their pride’

Revs City’s season began last Saturday and will continue through the end of October before it shifts back indoors.

With the program continuing to grow and expenses continuing to mount, Bernard’s continued to look for outside help.

One person can only do so much.

“Having someone more business-minded with me would be ideal,” Bernard said, as he tries to find backers for his organization. “I do all the media, I do the website, I do all the recruiting, I do all the promotion. Right now, I don’t have any other coaches with me. I do all the coaching, do all the transportation. It just gets to be a lot.”

In case that’s not enough work, Bernard has also started pursuing another venture. While Revs City has become the competitive outdoor soccer wing of Panther Elite, he’s also hoping to create a group for kids within the organization who might not be super into athletics but could benefit from other types of community involvement. Enter Panther Elite Politicians.

The motivation came through Facebook, both positively and negatively, in response to a few posts from Bernard regarding a fundraiser for his players. One person noted the diversity of last names of the kids involved in Bernard’s program and said they’d make great politicians one day. Others weren’t so kind.

“There were so many people posting anti-immigrant, anti-American slander against them, and it made no sense,” Bernard said. “It was really mind-boggling why people are showing hate for a middle school kids soccer fundraiser. … I’ve experienced it with them, how we were treated differently because we were a majority non-white team. We’ve had fans call our kids thugs because we were beating them.”

Then he came up with a new idea.

“(Panther Elite) Politicians is another way to show their pride,” Bernard said. “Every one of these kids are resourceful, they’re smart, they’re hard workers. It’s about wanting to show a different light with them because these kids are all born leaders. They’re amazing. To see sometimes a general negative opinion of them is something that we’re really trying to get rid of and just show that these are people that were really impactful to the community and will be impactful to the community, and this is a great thing for Concord and New Hampshire in general.”

Over the course of the immense loss, the alcoholism and the deep depression, Bernard saw his own pride stripped down to nothing. Along this journey of putting the pieces back together, seeing himself inside so many of these kids inspired him to give them the shirt off his back and then some. The fact that he’s never been a soccer superfan or nerded out about the Xs and Os of the game never mattered. What mattered then, and still matters now, is providing this opportunity for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have it. Providing that pride. Providing that purpose.

“The relationships I’ve developed with those kids is priceless, to be honest,” Bernard said. “It’s been super rewarding because they really care. They appreciate everything that’s being done for them. It makes it totally worth it.”

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