Giovani Bernard's borrowed minivan finds new home with Marine vet

CINCINNATI -- Bengals running back Giovani Bernard's borrowed minivan became something of a local icon when he was a rookie, thanks to HBO’s "Hard Knocks." The TV show dedicated a segment to the vehicle during the Bengals’ training camp in 2013.

Now the reliable old van is heading to a second home thanks to Bernard’s future mother-in-law, Anita Call, who owned it and let Bernard borrow it for OTAs and training camp that year. The new owner is Dustin Hoog, 33, a Marine who was severely injured from an ambush in Fallujah, Iraq.

“It was amazing, just that entire experience,” Bernard said. “But honestly it really wasn’t all me, it was Anita, my mother-in-law, who kind of put the whole thing forward. She was the one donating the vehicle and she loaned it to me years back, so it was pretty cool to have that experience and see it go away to a family in need.”

The 2002 gold Honda Odyssey caused a stir when Bernard showed up with it during his rookie season. He didn’t understand the fuss, having spent college riding around in his brother’s old car. His teammates, however, found the whole thing hilarious.

First, teammate Vontaze Burfict posted a picture of the car on social media as a joke. Then "Hard Knocks" did a segment on the van later that summer.

At one time, it was famous enough that fans would yell, "Hey, Gio!" when they saw the van out in public.

“I was just rolling around and obviously the guys gave me heck for it. It was whatever,” Bernard said with a smile.

The van stayed in the family long after Bernard had upgraded to a Mercedes. It was the only car big enough to transport Call and her crew to and from his games.

“The crazy thing is that I drove it all spring and when she comes to the games here that’s usually the car that we normally take. It just fits the most people,” Bernard said.

Call was finally ready to let go of the car this summer. When she went to the Mercedes-Benz dealership in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, to purchase a car, she started asking around about the possibility of donating the old van. Even though it had about 150,000 miles on it, with some new parts it was as reliable as ever.

Dan Tilley, an employee at the dealership, had known the Hoog family for years. Tilley and his wife had been looking for a new car for Hoog and his wife, Heather, who live in Indiana with their five children.

The Hoogs previously got by with a 1999 Buick Century that had more than 200,000 miles on it before the odometer stopped working last year. The car’s reliability was waning and the family needed something that could not only fit everyone but could get Hoog the 45 minutes from his house in Indiana to the Cincinnati VA every day.

That’s where the football connection came in. Right around the time Tilley was discussing the Hoogs' situation with another employee at the dealership, Anita was asking Dan Bell, the dealership’s marketing director, if there was anyone who needed a car.

Bell remembered the old van right away.

“This whole thing was kind of funny, how it came together on 'Hard Knocks' years ago and the ribbing he’s taken for it,” Bell said. “When she wanted to donate the van, I said, “THE van? The famous van?”

Somehow the timing was perfect.

“I like to call it coincidence,” Dustin Hoog said. “My wife likes to say it’s God’s blessing. Any way you want to call it, it’s worked out great for us.”

Hoog sheepishly admitted he was actually a Cowboys fan, but said his daughter, Hannah, is a lifelong Bengals fan. Hannah, an all-star defensive end and wide receiver in her youth league, has pledged to become the NFL's first female player.

She immediately struck up a rapport with Bernard, and her father said he couldn’t help but be impressed when he watched Bernard interact with Hannah and her siblings.

“I was kind of surprised,” Hoog said. “I figured he’d go there, show his face, and then leave. But he stuck around for about two hours and talked to the kids. He was really down to earth. ... They just talked to him about football, mostly my daughter. She loves football and she plays tackle football, too, in Boone County."

Bernard said the van holds a lot of memories for him, and he'll miss it. But he's happy with the ending.

“It was awesome, it was obviously hard to see it go, but it was cool to see it go to a family that needs it," he said.

Hoog said the van has been treating the family "great" and that Bernard has made him a fan for life.

“It means a lot because I don’t drive and my wife has to drive us all around,” Hoog said. “We now have a vehicle we can all fit in and be a family. That means a great deal to be able to have my family’s support with me all the time.”