At the end of Ravens practice yesterday, rookie free agent Alex Bernstein sauntered toward a goal post, Gatorade in hand. He passed a few autograph seekers, ran a hand through his carrot-colored hair and recalled a conversation he and his best friend had four years ago.
"We were sitting down real late at night, just having a heart-to-heart, and I told him I was going to be the first player in JTC years to come out of the NESCAC [New England Small College Athletic Conference] to play in the NFL," Bernstein said.
"[He] laughed at me. I was like 265 to 270 pounds back then."
Bernstein, 21, has grown since he was a freshman. And, as a 6-foot-3, 325-pound graduate of Division III Amherst College, he is unquestionably an untraditional pro football player.
Bernstein is vying for a spot on the Ravens' 53-man roster. If he makes it, he would be the first Amherst player in 19 years to reach the NFL -- the Miami Dolphins' Sean Clancy was the last, following the better-known Jean Fugett (Cardinal Gibbons), Baltimore Colt Freddie Scott and Miami's Doug Swift -- and the fourth player from the NESCAC currently in the league. And if Bernstein, a three-year starting defensive tackle at Amherst, survives the two cutdown days over the next five weeks, it will be as an offensive lineman.
"When we scouted him, we saw a guy who was a big, physical player," said Kirk Ferentz, Ravens offensive line coach. "We were impressed with him in the spring. When the draft was over, we worked hard to get him to camp here, and just felt his skills and talents were more suited for offense.
"He's made good strides, but it's still going to take time."
Bernstein spent his football career at defensive tackle until now.
"My goal is to improve a little each day," Bernstein said. "And Kirk Ferentz is probably one of the best coaches I've ever had, if not the best. That's made the transition as smooth as possible. I'd say I'm 99 percent converted."
Bernstein has made transitions before, passing up Division I or II football scholarships to play college hockey.
He attended the Blake School, a small, private high school in Minneapolis, "for academics and to play hockey," he said. He opted for Colby College in Maine, where he played center on the hockey team and defensive tackle on the football team before transferring to Amherst, where he only played football, after his freshman year.
"I couldn't give up hockey, so I wound up going to a smaller school never thinking I'd be here [NFL camp]," Bernstein said. "I had a disagreement with [Colby's] hockey coach. He wanted me to play defense, and I wanted to stay as a scoring forward. He kind of wanted me to be a goon, and I thought of myself as more of a finesse player. He wanted me to hit people.
"I get enough of that on the football field."
Colby and Amherst, both liberal arts institutions, are better-known for turning out politicians than football players. In fact, Bernstein was a political science major and was named to the NESCAC All-Academic team his senior season.
"Amherst isn't exactly a football powerhouse," Bernstein said. "A lot of guys have not even heard of Amherst. When I tell them I went to Amherst, they kind of smile and nod and they never really heard of the school. And then they ask me, 'Is that by New York?' "
Then there's his red hair and striking goatee, which, along with his college and last name, have made Bernstein the target of his teammates' jokes.
"I guess I'm the only out there with flaming red hair," Bernstein said. "I guess I'm sort of unique. In another way, there aren't too many people with Jewish lineage with red hair who are playing in the NFL."
Still, Bernstein is more concerned with how he looks at his new position. In his switch to offense, he's working on things such as technique, timing and balance.
Ferentz has been known to turn no-name college players into legitimate NFL linemen, such as Ravens starters Wally Williams (Florida A&M) and Orlando Brown (South Carolina State).
"All I can do is work hard," Bernstein said.
Pub Date: 7/17/97