Former Husker Bernard Garner, 41, received his bachelor’s degree Saturday.
By Randy York
On a Monday after commencement’s pomp and circumstance officially loses its luster, Dennis Leblanc had an interesting comment about one of the 55 Nebraska student-athletes who graduated last Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Leblanc’s observation came from the heart and revolved around a Nebraska men’s basketball season ticket holder who only misses a game if it conflicts with his work schedule at the Lancaster County Juvenile Detention Center.
Meet Bernard Garner, one of the most prolific two-year players in the history of Nebraska men’s basketball. The 6-foot-7, 245-pound forward from Many, La., via Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff, started 43 games and scored 649 points on Husker teams in 1995-96 and 1996-97. On Saturday, the married father of two received his bachelor’s degree in Child, Youth and Family Studies and let the record show that Garner, at age 41, treasures his degree like no one else. “I’ve been around national championship teams, but when I see something like this happen and a player comes back at that age to finish what he started, it moves me even more than winning a national championship,” said Leblanc, Nebraska’s Senior Associate Athletic Director for Academics for more than a quarter century.
Bernard Garner scored 649 points in two seasons, 1995-96 and 1996-97.
Garner Accepted the Challenge, Never Looked Back
Championships are won through blood, sweat and tears, but the tears of a 41-year-old who becomes the first college graduate in the history of his mother’s side of the family are indescribable. How do I know? Because I huddled up with Garner at a Graduation Reception Saturday afternoon on the third floor of Memorial Stadium. We found a quiet area and within seconds, I knew why Leblanc was so moved about the way Garner accepted the challenge to finish his college degree. Nebraska Athletics paid for tuition, fees and books and offered the same kind of support available to every single student-athlete who becomes a Husker.
“This is probably the most exciting, outstanding, heroic thing I’ve experienced since the birth of my 6-year-old son and my 4-year-old daughter,” Garner told me. “My wife was here and my mom was here. She still lives in Many (La.), but she wouldn’t miss something like this. I have seven brothers and sisters, and I’m the first to graduate from college. When Dennis first called to ask me if I was interested in coming back to college and getting my degree, I had to call him back because I was working at the time. As soon as I was done working, I called Dennis back and told him ‘I’m ready to go, so let’s get it done.’”
Just thinking about the journey was enough to choke up Garner less than a minute after we sat down. “I got it done, but I can’t say enough about Dennis and the University of Nebraska,” he said. “They just go far and beyond to make you feel like you still belong. I mean, it’s been a long road, and I didn’t and couldn’t take that road by myself. I did it all with the help of the University, and I see the light, man…I definitely see the light. In fact, I am now a beacon of light for my nieces and my nephews just like I’m a beacon of light for my own children. I can encourage them just like the university motivated me.”
Great Intentions: Use Diploma as a Welcome Mat
“I did something that money cannot buy. No one can take this degree away from me because I earned it with the support of the university,” Garner said. “We live on a farm near Roca (Neb.) and I’m going to hang this degree as near as I can to the front door of the house. It’s going to be like a welcome mat for everyone who comes in. It’s just sheepskin, but it’s a symbol of fulfillment for me.”
At this juncture, Garner gets caught up in his own emotion. He looks down, breathes in. Tears begin to roll down his cheeks. He swallows hard and is not embarrassed or apologetic. These are tears of sheer joy.
“This is probably the greatest university in the world for college students,” Garner said after composing himself. “I mean, you just can’t beat the University of Nebraska. Nothing and I mean nothing can stand up to the University of Nebraska. If I won the lottery today, I would give every dime to the University of Nebraska. I would take absolutely nothing. I would give it all back to a university that gave so much to me.”
A 6-foot-7, 245-pound forward, Garner transferred to NU from junior college.
Once You Reach 40, Git’r’Done the Only Option
Garner said words are inadequate. They can’t describe Nebraska’s passion or its commitment to inspire. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “They don’t give you anything but the opportunity, but they find a way to inspire you to do what you have to do to get it done.”
When Garner realizes he’s sounding a little bit like Larry the Cable Guy, he laughs. “That’s really what Git’r’Done means to me,” he said. “Who else gives a 40-year-old the opportunity to grow as a young man, so he can become a leader, a role model and feel like a modern citizen more than ever? The University of Nebraska has more character than I can explain. I don’t know what to say about the university because words simply cannot say what I feel in my heart. Athlete upon athlete upon athlete has tried to describe how this place embraces them and guides them from a young boy to a man. They do it with such grace and style, you just can’t beat it because it becomes a part of you.”
Last year, Garner purchased four tickets on the second level of Pinnacle Bank Arena. “I do whatever I can to support the university,” he said. “If I’m working and have to miss a game, my son is still there with my wife. Coach Miles, he’s doing a great job. I liked him the minute I met him. He’s a heck of a man. He’s a talker now, but when it comes game time, his team is prepped and ready to go. There’s a lot more to come with Tim Miles. Success is a big part of him, on and off the court…in the classroom and around the campus…wherever you find Nebraska people, he’s motivating fans like he motivates his players.”
Garner Believes NU Can Win Big Ten Someday
I ask Garner if he believes the Nebraska men’s basketball team can win its first regular-season conference championship since the Huskers were members of the Big Seven Conference more than six decades ago. “Yes I do!” he said. “Because those guys believe in the system that Coach Miles has installed, and they’re willing to work as hard they can on team basketball, not individual basketball. They will get it done. Shavon Shields can get it done any way you want it. That guy can shoot the three and he can drive to the basket and shoot all kinds of shots. Terran Petteway, he’s the T.P. He’s the Total Package. Look at Walter Pitchford, and what about Benny Parker? He’s the spark plug. He’s probably not even 5-foot-6 and he wants to take on the best offensive player every game. That whole team loves to compete. They play great defense. They know their assignments, accept their roles and do everything they can together. That’s why they’re winning.”
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