Rolling over the rivals
Bocce Under-21 champ headed for 'fierce' world competition
Joey Bernardi compares his bocce ball style of play to the game of chess.
"It's assuming what your opponent is going to do next," the Pleasanton resident explains. "The stereotypical game is checkers; when I play, it's chess."
Bernardi, 21, is obviously successful on the bocce court: He is the U.S. Under-21 champ and is headed for the International Championships being held at a new facility in Rome starting Sept. 27.
"From what I hear, it will be something like I've never experienced before," he said. "It's a huge deal. The bleachers will be packed."
Bernardi recalled being stunned by the intense competition when he attended his first international competition in Toronto in 2008. The other country's players are fierce, he said, especially those from Italy, Brazil, Canada and China.
"It was my first rude awakening," he said. "My lucky shots are their normal shots and God forbid they get lucky."
The last American to go to the international Under-21 tournament finished 29th out of 32, he noted.
Bernardi comes from a long line of bocce ball players; his sister Navina, 16, is also a champ and competed in Italy with a local team. Joey began to pursue the game seriously after one fateful day on the rugby field.
"I went to De La Salle High School in Concord where I played rugby for three years," he explained. "An unfortunate incident caused me to tear my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), MCL (medial collateral ligament) and meniscus about five minutes into the game."
He continued to play, went home and iced his knee, then went to bed.
"It swelled to the size of a cantaloupe," he recalled. "I showed my dad in the morning, kind of proud, and he said, 'You're going to the emergency room.'"
The doctor laid out clearly for Bernardi that another injury could mean an end to snowboarding, which is his first sports love. So he had to find another outlet for his competitiveness.
"About that time they were building Campo di Bocci in Livermore," he remembered so he began to play at the facility.
"At first it was a recreational thing, then I got kind of competitive," he said.
"You see a lot of families there," he added. "A grandson can beat a grandfather and vice versa."
His parents, Dario and Natalina, are both Italian-American, and Joey began playing bocce at his grandfather's house in San Jose. He was participating in the bocce nationals when his grandfather Romano Bernardi was nearing the end of his two-year fight against cancer.
"Me and three of the other competitors were kicking it at my house in Pleasanton and my dad came outside and told me my grandfather had passed away," he recalled. "The first thing that came to me was to go see my grandma. I love her to death. I went down that night and stayed until 4 in the morning. Then my dad woke me up and said, 'We gotta play, huh?'"
Joey not only played but won and had his medal engraved "for Nonno Romano."
Bernardi has a lot of family in Italy -- his mom was born there -- and he speaks the language. He's in constant touch with cousins, whom he's visited several times.
"I leave Sept. 4 and am spending two weeks with my family in Northern Italy, Venice and Torino," he said.
He is a senior at Santa Clara University, which is back in session Sept. 20.
"I've worked very hard for three years so if I couldn't get time off from school I wasn't going to go," he said. "I went to all my teachers and they were incredibly supportive. They all knew it's a once in a lifetime deal."
Bernardi said that bocce players may be mostly older than the college level but said competitors are "starting to get younger." The bocce community around Pleasanton is extensive, he remarked, and includes John Madden and other well-known people who've been helpful to him.
"My dad, of course, is very good - normally he beats me up pretty good," said Bernardi. "Everything I shape myself to be is after him."
He added that he admires his mom, a civil engineer, and he is majoring in civil engineering to follow in her footsteps.
He also noted that while bocce is not physically exhausting, it takes different skills -- which is where the comparison to chess comes in.
What: 'Arrivederci Joey' pasta dinner to send off Joey Bernardi and his coach Ben Nicosia to bocce world championships in Rome
When: 6 p.m., Monday, Aug. 23
Where: Campo di Bocce, 175 E. Vineyard Ave., Livermore
Cost: $20, cash bar