Former Ute Garett Bolles taps into his past to help kids in trouble

The Denver Broncos lineman has been nominated for the Walter Payton Award.

(Jack Dempsey | AP) Denver Broncos offensive tackle Garett Bolles celebrates after an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in Denver. The Broncos defeated the Vikings 21-20.

Englewood, Colo. • The quiet and the solitude were new to Garett Bolles.

Entering the 2022 NFL season, the Broncos’ left tackle had missed only four games in his pro career, which began when he was selected by Denver as a first-round draft pick in 2017. He was always on the field during his three seasons in college. So when he suffered a broken leg in Week 5 last year, ending his season just as it was going forward, Bolles had to find new ways to connect. Rehab is a lonely road, and though Bolles kept in daily contact with his close friend and on-field replacement, Calvin Anderson, he felt a tug to do something else outside of his rehab.

“I’d still watch practice, as much as that hurt me, but I really wanted to focus on my foundation,” Bolles told The Athletic before his comeback 2023 season began. “I got to really focus on that. I looked at it and said, ‘You know, there are so many kids out there who struggle. With learning disabilities, being locked up, not having a parent, being on the streets with drugs and alcohol, just dealing with a lot of things. I felt like it was my time to focus on that and really put my time and effort into helping kids and talking to kids around the country and giving them my love and showing them that if you put your mind to something, you can be special.”

Bolles has always been among the Broncos’ strongest presences in the community throughout his career — in Denver and near where he grew up in Utah — but his deepening commitment to his work with at-risk youth over the past year is why Bolles on Tuesday was named the Broncos’ nominee for the NFL’s 2023 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.

“It means the world to me,” Bolles said in a video released by the team Tuesday. “… I do this because I genuinely love and care for these kids.”

Bolles since 2020 has mentored more than 100 kids and teenagers involved with the juvenile justice system in Arapahoe County, Colo. He has monthly mentorship visits with the 18th Judicial Youth Court Probation Court and makes weekly visits to the Marvin W. Foote Youth Services Center, a secure youth detention facility near where the Broncos are headquartered. That is all in addition to the work he does through his GB3 Foundation, which raises money for programs that empower youth with learning disabilities in Colorado and Utah. The work with the probation court began in October 2020, when the team set up a visit to the facility. Bolles, moved by the event, asked the Broncos’ community outreach team for more opportunities to work with kids navigating the system.

Bolles began making monthly visits, receiving information about kids going through the pre-trial and probation processes. He constantly recorded videos for the youth, providing motivation and sharing his own story. He showed up to court appearances — virtually or in person — as a demonstration of that continued support. Bolles, along with the Broncos co-owner Carrie Walton Penner, this year helped develop a reward program to incentivize youth as they met certain behavioral benchmarks in their pre-trial or probation processes.

“You understand their struggles and you do not allow for them to make excuses,” Gene Forbes, the director of the Foote center wrote to Bolles in a letter that informed the left tackle was the team’s Walter Payton nominee. “You challenge them to make better choices.”

Bolles’ own experience as an at-risk youth has guided the work being recognized by the NFL. At 19 years old, he was kicked out of his home by his father, Grove Bolles. Garett had already had run-ins with city police in Lehi, Utah, and he had spent a few hours in jail after being cited for vandalism. He had graduated high school uncertain of his next step, unaware of his athletic potential. He drifted, partying too much, hanging with kids who consistently landed in trouble. Grove insisted that he still loved and supported him, and that wouldn’t change, but he had to find a new place to live.

Bolles was welcomed by a local couple in Lehi — Greg and Emily Freeman — and their four kids. The transition wasn’t always easy, but Bolles clung to the structure the Freemans provided, his own father still encouraging him with daily phone calls. Bolles soon landed a job, helping Greg fix and install garage doors. He kept growing, too, and landed an opportunity to play football at Snow College in Utah. That’s where he met his wife, Natalie, and he later transferred to the University of Utah for one major-college season that put him on a path to the NFL.

What Bolles takes away most from that pivotal time in his life is that he had people in his corner, whether they were showing him tough love or wrapping their arms around him. He always wanted to be that person for kids struggling with similar issues — or different trials entirely. He leaned into that work as much as ever when he was hurt last season.

“They have a guy who has gone through it and I can communicate that to them,” Bolles told The Athletic. “A lot of these kids, it’s hard for people to relate to them. Going through something like that and experiencing the heartache and the long and cold nights and the shivering nights where it feels like no one loves and cares for you, I want them to know that I do love and care for them. These are kids, man. No kid deserves to go through what they are going through. So when you put yourself there and you talk to them and show you that you love them, things can change quickly.”

That was the case for Bolles. He knows not every kid he works with will find the same support system he was able to have more than a decade ago. Not all have the NFL talent that was sitting inside Bolles all along, waiting to be nurtured. But Bolles is the Broncos’ Walter Payton Man of the Year Award winner because he’s made clear to dozens of at-risk youth in Colorado that they have someone firmly in their corner. When it’s a 6-foot-5, 300-pound left tackle, that’s not a bad place to start.

— This article originally appeared in The Athletic.