This is a story about a father. A newborn son. A quarterback. A hurried prayer. A Super Bowl. And a loophole.
On Feb.1, 2004, millions of people clustered around televisions to watch the Carolina Panthers play New England in the Super Bowl.
One of them was Brian Bernhardt, who grew up in Charlotte and graduated from West Charlotte High. He left the city in 1990 to go to college – when the Charlotte Hornets were huge and the Panthers didn't exist – and has lived elsewhere ever since. Bernhardt became a tax lawyer and found a job in Richmond, Va.
Like thousands of other displaced fans with a Carolina connection, Bernhardt adopted the Panthers as his team. He watched the Super Bowl at a party in Richmond – just 25 New England fans and Bernhardt.
He tried to hold his own as one of the most exciting Super Bowls in history rocked back and forth. But with the Panthers down 29-22 and 2 minutes, 51 seconds left in the game, Bernhardt decided he needed help. He offered a quick – and rather odd – prayer to God.
“If you let the Panthers score right now,” Bernhardt remembers saying, “I will name our firstborn son after Jake Delhomme.”
You've said something like that before, right? Most of us have. If it happened, did you follow through?
With 1:08 to go, Delhomme threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl. The Super Bowl was tied at 29.
But New England quickly took the ball and drove downfield. The Patriots' Adam Vinatieri hit the winning field goal from 41 yards with four seconds to play. Carolina lost 32-29.
Bernhardt called his girlfriend after the game. He wasn't married, so this arrangement with God was very hypothetical. He and Glenda Wucher had been dating only three months.
“Well,” he began, “I've got good news and bad news.”
Being a sports fan has its rewards. You feel a part of something larger than yourself. You celebrate and agonize with thousands of others.
There's a natural urge to draw closer to the athletes you most admire. To wear their uniform numbers. To shake their hands. And to get their autographs.
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme still regrets the day that Sports Illustrated, in its 2005 NFL preview issue, picked the Panthers to win the Super Bowl that season and placed a photo of him on the cover. And it's not because Delhomme believes in the SI cover jinx.
“I was so disappointed when they put us on the cover of Sports Illustrated and they happened to put my picture out there,” Delhomme said. “I try to keep up with my mail, even though I'm always way behind. But people go crazy over Sports Illustrated covers. The autograph volume just shot through the roof after that.”
Naming your kids after an athlete is not as common as an autograph request, but it has happened many times. For instance, North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams named his only son Scott in honor of former Tar Heels basketball star Charlie Scott. And the Panthers' Julius Peppers is named for basketball star Julius Erving.
In 2007, Brian and Glenda Bernhardt were married. Soon after that, Glenda got pregnant. They found out the baby was a boy about halfway through the pregnancy.
By that time, nearly four years had passed since Brian Bernhardt's Super Bowl prayer.
But once he made the promise, he didn't waver on it. He and Glenda decided to officially name their son Jacob Edward but to have everyone call him Jake. The baby was born Oct.3, 2008.
The Bernhardts sent out a note to family and friends that included the story about the promise. Bernhardt forwarded that note to me a couple of weeks ago, asking if I could possibly get Delhomme to send an autographed picture to his namesake.
It was one of the more unusual autograph requests I've ever received. It also overstepped our ethical boundaries. We can't ask directly for autographs from the athletes we cover because they might then ask for favorable coverage from us.
So each time I get a request like that, I pass it along without comment to a media relations director of the relevant team.
I did that with Charlie Dayton, the Panthers' head PR guy. Dayton and his staff got it done for Bernhardt, telling Delhomme the story about the prayer and then getting him to sign an action picture of himself. The Panthers sent the picture to Bernhardt, who was as thrilled as any sleep-deprived new parent could be.
“Jake Delhomme has his tongue out in the picture,” Bernhardt said. “And my Jake always has his tongue out. So at least they've got that much in common.”
For Delhomme, having a kid named for him by a 36-year-old man in Virginia he has never met is “very humbling.”
“I get almost embarrassed talking about stuff like that,” Delhomme said. ‘On the flip side, it's good to hear. It's nice to think that maybe the things I stand for – on or off the field – are good by them.”
The quarterback, though, had a question he wanted to pass along to Bernhardt.
“Why didn't he pray for us to win?” Delhomme asked. “That would have been nice.”
Oh, doesn't Bernhardt know it.
“I'm a lawyer,” he said. “How in the world did I ever leave such a gaping loophole?”
Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140