It’s not every day that a former gang member who served time in prison gets the high honor of being a first round NFL Draft pick. It’s even more rare that an NFL player is known for being an example of character and integrity. Then again, there are very few people like Garett Bolles.
Bolles is a 6 foot 5 inch, 297 pound offensive tackle from Utah. On Thursday night, the Denver Broncos selected Bolles in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He walked to the stage holding his infant son, Kingston. Almost overcome with emotion, Bolles wrapped Kingston in his new Broncos jersey and held him up for the cheering crowd. It was a moment he had dreamed about his entire life.
The story of Bolles’ journey to that NFL Draft stage in Philadelphia is long and full of turmoil. It’s a story of an underdog who consistently proved the haters wrong. But most of all, it’s an incredible story of redemption, faith, and hope.
Garett Bolles grew up in Saratoga Springs, Utah. The son of a Navy veteran, Bolles had a troubled childhood. He started doing drugs and soon joined a gang. He even served time in prison for vandalizing a rival school’s football field.
“You name it, I’ve done it.” Bolles said. “I was a lost kid.”
By age 17, Bolles had been kicked out of five different schools. He was consistently hanging out with the wrong crowd, and things were going from bad to worse. On August 26, 2011, Garett’s father, Grove, called his son into the room.
“We’re done,” Garett remembers his father saying. “You’re not a part of this family anymore, and it’s time to leave.”
With just a few bags of clothes, Garett found himself homeless on the street. He recalls standing there with angry tears running down his face. That’s when Greg Freeman, the high school lacrosse coach, happened to drive by.
“As soon as I saw him, I knew exactly what had happened,” Freeman said. He called his wife, Emily, to tell her about Garett. As soon as Emily hung up the phone, she dropped to her knees to pray.
“A really strong confirmation came to me,” Emily said. “Bring him home.”
She called her husband, who picked up Garett and brought him to live with the Freemans.
“They told me, ‘You’ve got one shot to live,'” Garett recalls.
But with the help of the Freemans, things started to look up for Garett. He ditched his old friends, stopped doing drugs, and got his grades back up. It was during this time that Garett found the faith that changed his life.
“God changed me,” Garett told SB Nation. “From old to new. From someone I don’t even recognize anymore. I don’t even know the old Garett, in case you were wondering. I don’t even know who that old Garett is. I know the new Garett.”
It was faith that inspired Emily Freeman to take Garett into her home. “The God I believe in gives second chances,” Emily said.
Garett didn’t take his second chance for granted. He started playing football again, this time for Snow College. By the end of his time there, he was one of the most highly scouted and targeted college recruits in the nation. He received offers to play for over 20 NCAA Division I schools, eventually committing to Utah. After an impressive season there, Garett Bolles declared for the NFL Draft.
Going into the draft, Garett understandably faced questions about his past.
“[NFL teams] just really want to see what type of man I am, and if I will fall back to my old self,” Garett said earlier this month. “But you know, I know where I’m going… I know exactly what I want to do, and I’m just grateful to be here. And I’m really looking forward to living my dreams someday and playing in the National Football League.”
Garett also has a message for other kids and young people who are in the same situation he was in.
“I always share my story because I want people to learn from it,” said Bolles. “It doesn’t matter where you start, it’s how you finish… Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something, because you can always go forward and change your life. You may make mistakes, but what happens after those mistakes is what counts in life.”
Back in 2015, Garett said he had three goals for his life: “to find a woman I can love forever, start a family, and play football.” Last year, Garett married his wife, Natalie. In January, their first child – a son named Kingston – was born. And on Thursday night, Garett Bolles got yet another chance to play football – this time on the biggest stage of his life.
When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called his name, Garett was so overcome with emotion that he couldn’t speak. He put his head down on the table as his family surrounded him. Pulling himself together, he grabbed his four month old son, Kingston, and walked to the stage.
In the background, the song “All The Above” by Maino blared over the loudspeakers. “I done been through the pain and the sorrow / The struggle is nothing but love (nothing but love) / I’m a soldier, a rider, a ghetto survivor / And all the above.” It was a fitting choice for Garett.
“I’m here by the grace of God,” Garett declared as he stood on the draft stage. It was a powerful moment. The self-described “lost kid” had gone from prison to NFL in just a few short years. The troubled teen who was kicked out of his own home had become a loving husband and father. Redemption was complete.
Perhaps the best summary of Garett Bolles’ story can be found in his Twitter bio: “When your faith in God is strong, you laugh at anyone who tries to stop His plans for you.”
It’s safe to say that Garett has done a lot of laughing.