After quintuple bypass surgery and some subsequent complications, Manny Bernardez is on the road to recovery.
The players and the fans in the stands cycle through as the years fly by, but there are some constants; lifers that are in the gym or on the fields doing the various jobs that keep the institution of high school sports moving. Manny Bernardez is one of those guys; a football official, a basketball referee and baseball umpire, a fixture.
He was in his familiar role on opening night of the current basketball season when he tossed the ball up at the center circle at Pascack Valley High School like he has done so many times before. This time, however, something was different.
“I tossed the ball up, I ran to one side, I ran to the other side and it was like my whole chest was so heavy. It was like I couldn’t breathe, there was just so much pressure,” said the 59-year old Bernardez from his home on Wednesday night. “I was working with Joe Ciofi and Rich Lustig and when I came in at halftime they looked at me and said, ‘You are white as a ghost.’ I didn’t come out for the second half and I went to an Urgent Care to get checked out.”
That set off a chain of events that Bernardez is lucky to be talking about in the past tense now about six weeks later. That trip to Urgent Care turned into a trip to Englewood Hospital and the news that he needed almost immediate quintuple bypass surgery, which was successful. It was a persistent fever that presented problems in his recovery and led to some touch and go moments until doctors were able to pinpoint the root cause which lay in his pituitary gland.
Not to get too deep into the medical stuff, but it was scary there for a while.
“They started checking random things -- blood work, cultures, everything -- because they did not know what was going on with his fever,” said Manny’s wife Cindy. “They were wonderful. I have nothing but wonderful things to say about the staff [at Englewood Hospital], the care was amazing, but for a long time they didn’t have an answer to what was going on.”
This is not a story about saying nice things about a guy after he gets sick, instead it is about a nice guy who got sick and if there is a silver lining to all of this it is the way so many people rallied to the cause of the Bernardez family, which includes Anthony and Lauren, both students and Northern Valley/Demarest High School. They have been buoyed by both the NVD and local officiating communities, which immediately sprang into action for reasons that are all too clear.
The family has health insurance and, while co-pays alone will add up and there are aspects to Manny’s physical therapy that will not be covered, Cindy Bernardez was reluctant to accept help monetarily or otherwise.
She was overruled…big time.
A Go Fund Me campaign with a goal of $25,000 has raised nearly $23,000 in its first week of existence
and so many have reached out with other acts of kindness. Let’s just say that enough wine and Chinese food has been left on the porch to get the Bernardez family comfortably through 2024.
“People like Manny Bernardez are rare in today’s world. He is a class act who is well respected across North Jersey athletics and his two kids that are in our high school are so respectful and hardworking,” said Demarest athletic director Mike Oppido. “Manny would be the first guy to want to help someone who went through what he just did. Manny has a lot more to give to this world and I am happy that he is on the road to recovery and also that he will be able to positively influence the student-athletes like he has been for over 20 years. The comeback is always stronger than the setback and to see hundreds of people rally behind him is what life is all about.”
You would think it would be easy to find somebody with something negative to say about an official, but other than the parent of the kid who was just called for a charge when the defender’s feet were clearly not set, it has proved impossible to track down a single detractor.
On the other hand, a reporter’s phone could blow up with the amount of positives that colleagues want to convey.
“The high school officiating world in North Jersey is really missing Manny’s presence and this will continue through baseball season,” said Andy Wingfield, who has officiated many a basketball game with Bernardez over the years. “He’s a tremendous referee and umpire and you just can’t replace a guy like him on the court or on the field without a significant impact on the games. We are all praying for a complete recovery and can’t wait to see him back out there doing what he loves.”
In baseball, it is not just Bernardez’s ability to call balls and strikes that will be missed, hopefully for just this season.
“Nobody is more respected on or off the diamond than Manny. Fellow umpires, coaches and ADs all consider him to be one of the best around,” said Ed Ahearn, himself a well-respected umpire. “The work he does behind the scenes to make BCUA umpires better and more knowledgeable is unmatched!”
Taking it easy is not going to be easy for Bernardez, who is so twitchy that he once refereed half a basketball game while in need of open-heart, quintuple bypass surgery, but he has committed to the process of slow and steady progress. Having just returned home from the Helen Hayes Rehab Center on Monday, his goal is to make it back in time to join his crew under the Friday Night lights during the 2024 football season. If the goal posts move, so be it.
“This is going to be a long haul, it is going to take some time,” said Bernardez, who has shed about 30 pounds since this while ordeal began just a month-and-a-half ago. “I am not going to be running around in a month, but the long term prognosis is that I should be okay. I should be able to get back to my normal way of living and doing everything the way I did before.”
For now it’s a focus on his rehab and a thankfulness for his family and everyone else that has made their presence felt. He was uncomfortably close to crossing over, but now he gets to hear exactly what those on this side really think of him.
“Obviously my wife has been unbelievable through all of this, so strong and supportive. My brother came up here from Florida for about a month and he has been such a big help. My whole family, the community has really rallied around,” said Bernardez. “The Go Fund Me, the checks I received at home, the response from the referees, the coaches and the athletic directors has been unbelievable, The love, the prayers…how do you say thank you? I am so grateful.”
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