This week, the San Jose Earthquakes announced they would not be bringing back Victor Bernardez next year.
For most people, this news barely registered on their radar, if at all. For me, it is the end of the line for one of my favorite players, on my favorite team.
Who was Victor Bernardez? He was an attacking central defender for the Quakes. When he played, he constantly made you wonder if he was being overly aggressive, or out of control. My heart would skip a beat when he would dive in on a tackle, and more often than not, he would come away having made an amazing play.
The first thing that stands out physically about Victor is his strength. He’s like a bull or an angry rhinoceros -- he played fearlessly and with passion. I constantly underestimated his offensive abilities. I can’t count how many times it would look like he was just kicking the ball wildly to clear it, and it was actually a long pass in a perfect place for a counter attack to start. Through some of the lean years, Victor’s long balls started many of the team's best offensive chances.
He was a relentless player who provided me some of my happiest moments as a fan. I can clearly remember how despondent I was and how happy I ended up being at the 2012 California Classico at Stanford Stadium. I had organized a trip for my kid’s soccer club and had over 200 people in our group. For many, it was their first time to an Earthquakes game. I wanted them to love the Quakes as much as I did. Steven Lenhart scored an early goal (and did some pull ups on the goal). Then David Beckham scored, Jason Hernandez scored an own goal, and Landon Donovan put Galaxy up 3-1 in the 41st minute after a misplay by the Quakes defense.
We were sitting in the end zone, pretty close to the Galaxy supporters group, and I was dreading things would get worse for my boys in the black and blue. Then, in the 44th minute, Big Vic scored his first MLS goal on a swinging redirect off a Marvin Chavez corner kick, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve seen before or since. It changed the whole outlook of the match. Chris Wondolowski capped off the comeback with his unforgettable whirling, back-to-the-goal finish for the game winner.
I won’t forget the free-kick goal Victor scored that same year against Chivas where he took about 14 steps before he shot the ball around a 3-man wall and into the corner of the goal. Nor will I forget the same approach he took when an opponent try to discourage him from a restart after a foul and stood about 3 yards from the ball. Instead of asking the referee for 10 yards, he ran up and drilled the guy with the ball. It deflected out of play for a throw-in and Victor had made his point. I don’t remember an opponent ever taking that same tact with him around.
Victor was listed as six-foot-two, but I was fortunate enough to share an elevator with him once. I’m 5’10” and all I can think is that they measured him while wearing his longest studs on his cleats. The truth is, while on the field, he played like he was six-foot-two -- and with the ferocity of lion.
It was pretty clear this season that the club did not have plans for a 36-year-old center to come back in 2018. In the middle portion of the season, other players found themselves where Victor had been a constant for years on the back line. One of the things I am most grateful for is that Victor got a chance to be an impactful player on the run to the playoffs. His passion for the club, and the game, shone bright. His aggressive play in the September 30th must-win 2-1 victory over Portland showed the team how it needed to play if it was going to make the playoffs. In spite of having trouble keeping up with speedster attackers, he was able to shore up a defense that ended the season -21 in goal differential, and get them into the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
There are other ways Victor has impacted my life. He made me care about the country of Honduras, and how their national team is doing. I openly cheered for a man nicknamed “Muma”. I have no idea what it means, but it just sounds cool and makes me feel closer to him, even though our paths have rarely crossed. He showed me how to be ready for when my number is called after feeling left out for a while. He exemplified so many of the great things about the game and were a part of my growing love for the sport. Most importantly, he showed me what can happen if a person puts their heart and soul into their craft, and complements it with humility, humor, and love.
Victor, I wish you well in whatever lies ahead. Thank you for all the wonderful memories you provided me and my family as we got to watch you ply your trade.
Joe Washington is the senior coordinating producer for NBC Sports Bay Area/California -- and a lifelong Quakes fan