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Utah football: 'A lost kid,' five-star recruit Garett Bolles picked himself up

Published August 15, 2016 1:05 pm

Utah football • A troubled adolescence gives way to family, stability — and marriage — for lineman Garett Bolles.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

They met for the first time last March, minutes before midnight.

Garett Bolles, a lumbering 6-foot-5, 300-pound goliath of a man, approached Natalie Williams and asked her for a kiss. It was True Badger Night, an annual tradition at Snow College in Ephraim when such bold requests are not just innocent and part of a campus ritual, but charming.

She accepted. He had a wide, goofy smile. His baritone sounded like the earth rumbling from some deep, secret place. They kissed, and made plans to meet later that week.



At that time, Natalie didn't know much about Garett — not that he was an offensive lineman for the Badgers, on his way to becoming a five-star recruit who would play at the University of Utah the next year. She decided to Google him.

The first picture that came up was a mugshot.

On their first date, she asked Garett about his life, hoping an explanation would arise. Over the next hour and a half, he told her everything — making her weep and changing both their lives forever.

'The whole package'

To look at Bolles is to see his potential. He's tall, wide, strong — everything anyone could want physically out of an offensive tackle. From his second day in Utah fall camp, he's taken repetitions with the first-string offense and not looked back.

"He's got the whole package," coach Kyle Whittingham said. "He's got the height, the length, the feet, the hips, he's flexible, he can bend, he's strong, he's athletic.

"He lacks nothing."

His gifts were evident when he was growing up in Lehi, a fast-growing football and lacrosse player.

But a troubled and stressful home life from a young age translated to problems for Bolles, who was suspended or kicked out of five schools as a teenager. His lacrosse coach, Greg Freeman, formed a group of neighborhood families who would host him and help him finish classwork.

As Garett got older, his habits and problems got worse. He used drugs, cut class and ran afoul of the law. As a senior at Westlake High, he was arrested for vandalizing Lehi's campus in 2010, and as an adult, he had to spend time in jail.

"I was a lost kid," he said. "I was confused, angry, like 'What am I doing in here? This isn't who I really am.'"

It came to a head in 2011, when his father, Grove Bolles, kicked him out of the house. He was on the street with a few bags of clothes to his name when Freeman found him and picked him up.

The Freemans, Greg and his wife Emily, laid out strict rules for Garett to live under their roof: He couldn't hang out with his old friends. He had to go to church. He had to pay tithing (and therefore had to work). If he broke any rule, he could be kicked out without warning.

"I remember going to bed that night, and my husband and I talked about it," Emily Freeman said. "I thought he would last a few weeks. Greg thought he would make it three days."

Honest work

For about two years, Garett was in the garage repair business. He still likes the idea of tinkering on garages to this day.

But what he really loved were the car rides he had with Greg. While he usually slept through them in the mornings, they talked a lot during the year-and-a-half when they worked together.

"We talked about life, how to be better person," he said. "I'm just super grateful and honored that I had him and my mom [Emily] in those years as mentors. I miss that job."

He took a break from the working world to serve an LDS Church mission in Colorado Springs, which he credits with steeping him in his faith. Coming back to Utah, he wanted to give football another shot, and he found one at Snow College.

Emily said she worried at how Garett would take to college — would he cut corners in classwork and lose himself again? But she was relieved when coach Britt Maughan, in one of his first meetings with Garett, laid down the law.

"He said, 'This is not whether you can play football — this is whether you can cut it at college,' " she recalled. "He said school was going to come first."

For the first time in his life, Garett took school seriously. He pasted up posters of Michael Oher, the hero of "The Blind Side," as an idol, and took the same spirit to his school work. He went to class, and was spending late hours at the library.

"I had to do those things," he said after a recent practice, "otherwise I wouldn't have been able to be here."

Coming around

After learning about Garett's life, Natalie was taken with the big-hearted giant who had laid out his flaws on their first date. It took nine months from their first meeting to their wedding day, but "when you know, you know."

He structured their courtship carefully. Though Natalie noticed that football coaches called him constantly, Garett set up blocks of time just for school, and just for her. Though he was nasty on the football field, he was gentle when he was around her. He made her feel safe.

Shortly after getting married in December, Garett made his decision to come to the Utes in January — the highest-rated recruit in Utah's class, and less than an hour away from his hometown and both his families: the Bolles and the Freemans.

Through time and lots of difficult conversations, Garett, now 24, said he's repaired his relationship with the father who once kicked him to the curb. Grove now is a regular guest of Garett and Natalie's, and a frequent presence at Garett's games.

And yet, he holds the Freemans close, and calls Emily Freeman his mom. They gave him a chance when he was a troublesome teenager, gave him guidance, beckoned him to the church, and celebrated the painstaking steps he took to get to Utah.

He writes a number of sayings and inspirational phrases on his cleats in black marker, among them: "Bolles and Freeman — Family Forever." Whenever he looks down, he's reminded of their bond.

He couldn't be more excited about another generation to come: He and Natalie are expecting a son to arrive in January, which Emily proudly calls "my first grandbaby."

The Freemans still worry at times. Is there any chance that Garett could revert? Could he stumble back into his old, bad self, and make a mistake? But even if he does slip up someday, Emily said, Garett's capacity to better himself gives her hope.

"A champion picks himself up everytime he falls," she said. "Every single day I worry for that kid, but I don't worry that he won't pick himself up."

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon —

Garett Bolles at a glance

• Slated to start at left tackle for the Utes this fall.

• Rated a 5-star lineman by Scout in 2016 recruiting class.

• First-team NJCAA All-American in 2015 for Snow College.

• Played at Westlake High as a defensive lineman.

 

 

 

 

 

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