From the sports editor: Like UVa., Floriani’s story is inspiring

Bernie Floriani

The moment was pretty magical for Bernie Floriani.

What could top watching his beloved Virginia men’s basketball team win its first national championship on Monday night?

But what was truly music to the Dover High grad’s ears was hearing his son, Max, say that he wanted a No. 5 Cavalier jersey — like the one worn by UVa star Kyle Guy.

Living in Illinois, the teenager had long resisted Floriani’s attempts to make him a fan of his alma mater.

Wait, though, the story gets better.

Floriani’s wife went digging in a closet for Bernie’s Virginia uniform — including the No. 5 jersey he wore after making the Cavaliers’ roster as a walk-on in the late 1980s. It had ‘Floriani’ written across the back.

Of course, Max wore it to school the next day.

“He’s bigger than I was — even in college,” Floriani joked. “It was kind of neat to see him. He even liked the short shorts.”

As far as Floriani is concerned, Virginia’s comeback story should make everybody a Cavalier fan. It was only a year ago, of course, that UVa became the first No. 1 seed to get knocked off by a No. 16 in the NCAA tourney.

“It’s very inspiring to know that, even in your darkest day, that the sun can come up tomorrow,” said Floriani. “It will come up tomorrow.”

The irony of Floriani’s words aren’t hard to miss. Not when you realize that the 50-year-old former athlete is sitting in a wheelchair, more or less paralyzed from the neck down when he says them.

It’s been five years since the father of two started feeling weakness in his body.

Since then, the cruel, degenerative disease ALS — better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease — has ravaged the one-time Delaware golf state champion’s ability to use his muscles.

Like so many other people forced into Floriani’s shoes, he’s lived through some dark days since the diagnosis. With the help of his religious beliefs, though, he’s tried to come to peace with his fate.

“This crazy disease,” is how Floriani refers to it.

“Every time I lost the ability to do something, you go through a grieving process,” said Floriani, who now lives in Gurnee, Ill. “So I’ve been through about a million grieving processes. Just some guilt, some embarrassment and questioning God — I’ve been through all that.

“But I’ve found that for everything that’s been taken away from me, God has filled that with something good. Given the situation, I’m doing OK.”

“Obviously, I’m very proud of Virginia,” said Bernie Floriani. “It’s one thing, as a fan, when ‘your’ team wins the championship. And it’s another when — even if it was 30 years ago — you’ve been involved in it.” UVa photo

Floriani can even consider himself fortunate in some ways. After all, unlike many ALS victims as this stage, he can still talk and chew and swallow.

And if having something like Virginia basketball winning its first national title comes along to brighten his day, well, Floriani is going to embrace the moment.

“Winning the championship was awesome,” he said. “I do, I guess, lean on the fact that I was able to be part of Virginia basketball. Because I physically can’t do anything now, it’s helped me to be able to look back.”

The fact that Floriani ever put on a Virginia basketball uniform is a pretty remarkable story.

He went to the school on a partial golf scholarship. But, in 1988, when the Cavaliers needed a practice player, former UVa assistant coach Jeff Jones discovered the 5-foot-10 Floriani playing intramurals.

Floriani got in 11 games over three seasons, netting a total of 12 points. In his first season on the squad, Virginia reached the NCAA Elite Eight, falling to eventual champion Michigan in the regional finals.

“That was incredible,” said Floriani.

Floriani felt a certain connection with this year’s Virginia squad. He really liked coach Tony Bennett after meeting him a couple years ago.

Also, his former teammate, roommate and long-time friend, Dirk Katstra, has a son on the team. Like Floriani, Austin Katstra first made the squad as a walk-on.

And there was just something about the Cavaliers’ redemption story that means so much to Floriani.

Like the rest of their fans, he was crushed by UVa’s historic upset loss last March.

“That just broke my heart,” he said about the loss. “As a No. 1 seed, there was just so much promise and hope that they would at least go to the Final Four. That was devastating.

“Obviously, I’m very proud of Virginia,” said Floriani. “It’s one thing, as a fan, when ‘your’ team wins the championship. And it’s another when — even if it was 30 years ago — you’ve been involved in it.

“I look at Virginia’s story, and obviously anybody should be inspired by the fact they experienced a very dark day,” he said, referring to last year’s upset loss. “To endure that, and live with that. … it’s not like they just made the Sweet 16. The story really needed to be that they win it all.”

Of course, Bernie Floriani has his own story of endurance and living every day with pain and frustration.

His story is pretty inspiring, too.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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