PHILADELPHIA — A day before he probably will hear his name called in the first round of the NFL Draft, Garett Bolles stood outside an auditorium at the Shriners Hospital for Children, holding a miniature white helmet with several names written on it.
Cassidy . . . Greg . . . Nidhi . . . Ann . . . Rob . . . Ivanna.
They are patients dealing with orthopedic conditions, burns and spinal cord injuries, and Bolles was one of several top prospects meeting with them Wednesday morning to help lift their spirits.
Bolles felt inspired by them.
“I got these kids’ autographs on this helmet because those are the true heroes in life,” said Bolles, a 6-5, 297-pound tackle from Utah. “These kids are something special, and I want to tell every kid about my story, that you can go through adversity and change things around.”
Bolles feels great empathy for any young person who experiences difficulty, whether through a devastating injury or emotional wounds. He lived his own nightmare growing up in a dysfunctional household and acting out. He got involved with drugs and was jailed for vandalism. He was kicked out of high school, then kicked out of his house by his father in 2011. At age 17.
Had it not been for Greg and Emily Freeman, Bolles doesn’t know what might have happened to him.
Greg Freeman was Bolles’ lacrosse coach at Westlake High in Lehi, Utah, and after the troubled teen was told to leave home, he adopted Bolles. Freeman and his wife, Emily, helped Bolles transform himself from a misbehaving teen into a fully functioning adult who faces a bright future as a highly regarded NFL prospect.
Among the teams who have studied Bolles closely are the Giants, who brought the bruising left tackle in for a visit during the offseason.
“New York, it’s the Big Apple,” Bolles said. “That’s a great organization. If I go there, I’m going to get ready to work and protect Eli (Manning) with all I’ve got.”
Regardless of where he goes, Bolles always will remember the difficult path he took to get this far.
“I always share my story because I want people to learn from it,” said Bolles, who credits his deep religious faith with helping his turnaround. “It doesn’t matter where you start, it’s how you finish. I just want to reach out to those kids that struggle with a learning disability or whatever they have. 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.”
Bolles hopes to form a foundation to help troubled youths.
“I want to get these kids in homes where they can go and feel safe, or do homework, or have a dinner,” he said. “I want to show them the love that I needed in my life. That’s what the Freemans showed me. They showed me love. With love, anything can change.”
He’ll also keep working tirelessly to become a big-time left tackle. Despite entering the draft at the unusually late age of 24 — he went on a Mormon mission and played two years at junior college before going to Utah — he believes he has what it takes to excel in the NFL. Just like another tackle, Michael Oher, who endured a difficult childhood before being adopted and serving as the inspiration for the movie “The Blind Side.”
“Michael Oher was a hero for me, because you look at people that can turn their lives around, you’re like, ‘I can do it,’ ” Bolles said. “Anybody that turns his life around, I give them credit, because it’s not easy.”
So he’ll keep that miniature helmet autographed by the kids at Shriners Hospital, another reminder of what it takes to overcome challenges. Another reminder of all he has overcome in his own life.