Bernstein feasted on Penn State after fasting
At the end of the holiday of Yom Kippur, Jews who have been fasting for 24 hours gather for a "Break the Fast" -- a feast of eggs, bagels, and other comfort foods for bodies that have gone without for 24 hours.
"I love Break the Fast parties," Matt Bernstein said Sunday. "Last night was the only one I've missed my whole life."
Don't let him fool you. Bernstein had his own Break the Fast party Saturday night in Camp Randall Stadium. The Wisconsin junior feasted on a pregame IV bag, and during the game, moved on to turkey slices, fruit and the Penn State defense.
Bernstein, who had never carried more than six times or rushed for more than 29 yards, carried 27 times for 123 yards Saturday night. A guy used to opening the holes, not running through them, made all but one of those carries after halftime. A player as proud as he can be that he lowered his 40 this summer to 4.86 -- a result that wouldn't get a second look from a I-A recruiter looking for a tailback -- took over a Big Ten game.
And that player didn't eat or drink for 24 hours before the game, a Judaic custom taken from a passage in Leviticus.
"Everything just worked out," Bernstein said. "I was lucky."
The improbable stardom of Bernstein had its genesis (lower case) last summer, when he and his father Steve first realized that the Penn State game took place on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Well, it did and it didn't. Yom Kippur began at sundown Friday and ended at sundown Saturday.
"Me and my dad were discussing it," Matt said, "hoping it was a night game. If it was at 11, I couldn't play."
Wisconsin kicked at the unusual time of 4:45 p.m., thanks to a request from ESPN, which wanted the game to lead in to the movie Hustle.
Bernstein discussed it with coach Barry Alvarez and offensive coordinator Brian White, his position coach.
"They told me, 'Do whatever you've got to do,'" Bernstein said. "I told Coach White that I wouldn't warm up (before the game). It was real easy. Everybody was real understanding."
Bernstein's brother, Alex, is a year behind him at Wisconsin. Their parents came in for the game. The family attended a Yom Kippur service at the Hillel on campus Saturday morning (a third brother, Ben, is a freshman football recruit at Columbia). Instead of warming up, Bernstein received an IV an hour before the game. White, who is also the running backs coach, told Bernstein he might have to play tailback, because so many of his teammates are banged up. He takes two or three reps at tailback in every practice drill, just in case.
"Actually, this was the first time I've ever played tailback," Bernstein said. "In high school, I was a fullback but we played a wing-T."
Alvarez took Wisconsin to three Rose Bowls in the 1990s because he loves to pound the ball. Penn State had no answer for Bernstein Saturday night. He liked being the big dog in the Wisconsin backfield, and he is happy to take his customary position two steps ahead of Davis, who is expected to get medical clearance Monday to play on Saturday against Illinois.
"If you ever worked out with AD, you pretty much know why you can't play tailback," Bernstein said. "He's special. The cuts he and Dwayne make are a lot faster."
He found out something else he likes about playing fullback -- blocking.
"It's a lot harder to get hit than to hit somebody else," Bernstein said. "I'm beat up. It feels great."
As for his religion, Bernstein has an inkling of his new status as a role model. He knows the story of Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax, who didn't start a World Series game for the Dodgers that fell on Yom Kippur. And he read with interest last week about Los Angeles outfielder Shawn Green, who wrestled with whether to play against San Francisco on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Green played Friday night and sat out Saturday.
"It's a tough decision," Bernstein said. "If your own team is looking for you to be there, it puts him in a hard spot. I can't doubt him."
Wisconsin will go as far as its defense takes it, which, judging by the first four games, is pretty far. Davis is likely to jump-start the offense. But when the Badgers looked for Bernstein, he was there. There won't be a more inspirational story this season.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at email@example.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.