Garett Bolles stood on a curbside in Lehi, Utah, all his belongings scattered around his feet in a few duffle bags and cardboard boxes. Tears stained his cheeks as the realization hit: He had no place to go. Suddenly homeless at 18, Garett didn’t know what to do with his life, let alone where he’d sleep that night. That’s when Greg Freeman pulled up next to the 6' 5" teen, unable to miss the imposing figure. Not knowing what else to do, Greg loaded Garett’s belongings into his car, not understanding this simple moment would change all of their lives forever.
Suspended from multiple schools, moving to four new homes in just as many years, struggling with a learning disability, and growing up with a dad who was forced to fill the role of both parents, Garett Bolles’s childhood wasn’t the ideal.
“I fought a lot because people would make fun of me. I would hold it in, and then one day I would just explode,” he says. In August 2010, Garett got arrested for vandalism while pulling a school prank. He was falling behind in school and fighting with his siblings, and now he had a criminal record.
When Garett began ninth grade, his bishop could see the teen was struggling. He called a woman from the ward, Emily Freeman, who recruited other women to mentor and tutor Garett. “Monday through Thursday I would go to their homes. They would feed me dinner and help me with my homework,” Garett recalls. “They knew I would get in trouble on the weekends and at night, so they were protecting me… But they were also like my family. Whatever it was, clothes, shoes, they were always there for me to take care of me.”
And the sacrifice wasn’t lost on the teenager. While at the Freeman’s house listening to a family home evening, Garett became very still when Emily challenged everyone to write a letter of gratitude to one person who changed their lives. “I went over to Garett and asked, ‘Do you know what you want to write about?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I want to write about those ladies who have helped me—I just don’t have words,’” Emily says. “It was such a sweet moment of just realizing that he was so overwhelmed by the goodness and support that lasted for four years, until the day he graduated from high school.”
But Garett’s hardest struggles were still ahead.
Finding a New Home
“I was still getting in trouble,” Garett says about the summer after his graduation. “I was heading to prison, and everyone sort of knew that. At the same time, they didn’t really know what to do.” Though he would listen to gospel messages or advice from those who loved him, Garett allowed his rage to control him, fighting with his siblings and dabbling in drugs and alcohol.
Garett’s father, Grove, decided Garett should live on his own until he figured out his life. That decision came after Grove arrived home to find Garett with three friends who were forbidden from being in their home. Grove gave his son four hours to get himself and his things out of the house or he would have Garett arrested for trespassing. Just a few hours later, Greg Freeman found Garett crying at the side of the road.
Greg called Emily as he drove to their house, explaining the situation. “The first thing [Emily] did when she hung up the phone was pray. They still had two daughters at home—one was in high school and one was in ninth grade. And so they were really scared, you know, because I was a lost, troubled teen trying to figure out my way. So she prayed, and the Lord said, ‘Bring him home,’” Garett remembers, tears beading in his eyes. “That’s a big miracle, you know. Not too many people can just take a random kid off the street that had all these struggles.”
When Garett arrived at his new home, Emily had him leave all of his belongings in the car until he agreed to four rules: (1) go to Church, (2) pay his tithing, (3) turn in his phone at night, and (4) don’t talk to his old friends.
Greg thought Garett would not last three days living under such strict rules. Emily gave him three weeks. “But I proved them wrong,” Garett says.
Finding His Mission
Over the next few months, Garett struggled to know what to do with his life. From joining the military to going to a trade school to joining the Peace Corps, nothing was working and nothing felt right. Garett only knew one thing for sure: he was not going to serve a mission.
Overwhelmed by stress and the uncertainty of his future, one day Garett broke down sobbing at the top of the staircase. “He was so worried,” Emily recalls. “He was sitting up here on the stairs just crying, and he asked, ‘How long are you going to love me?’ And I said to him, ‘Forever. When you get married, I am going to be there at your wedding. When you have your first baby, I’ll be there. For the rest of your life, I am going to always be here.’
And he just cried, these big alligator tears just rolling down his cheeks.” “In that moment, I realized I really did have a family that I could rely on that loved me,” Garett says. “So that was just a reassurance that the Lord would send this family to take care of me and just to be there for me through all my hard times.”
By October, Garett felt secure in his new home but still didn’t know what to do with his life. “Nothing felt right, so I went to visit my bishop,” Garett says. Garett discussed several options with his bishop. Finally, once Garett exhausted his list of possibilities, his bishop suggested he serve a mission.
“I was like, ‘Bishop, listen, you’re crazy. I’m never going to serve a mission. [Then] the Spirit just hit me, and I started to cry. I looked up to my left and, I’ll always remember this, there was [a painting of] Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane lying on the rock and going through the Atonement process, and I just started to cry.” At that moment, Garett knew he needed to serve a mission.
Finding the Lord
About a month later, Emily Freeman was lying in bed when she heard voices upstairs. She recognized Garett’s voice, but she was terrified to learn who the other person might be. “I didn’t dare go up there because his friends were really scary,” Emily says. Instead, she woke up Greg. “So Greg crept up the stairs all quietly, and he didn’t come back for this long time,” Emily says. Ten minutes later, Greg returned, saying he listened to Garett read an entire chapter of the Book of Mormon and say his prayers out loud.
“Here’s this kid just up there, in his room, and he has a hard time understanding the Book of Mormon when he reads, and so his bishop told him to read it out loud,” Emily says. “He just was so genuine in whatever his bishop said, that’s what he was going to do. And so he did. Read it out loud, every night, until he finished it.” The day Garett finished the Book of Mormon, he rushed downstairs, ecstatic. Then Emily asked if he had tried Moroni’s promise. The thought hadn’t even occurred to him.
Have we talked about the cleats? Because it is one of my favorite parts of his football life. It all started during his first few weeks at Snow College. He was having a hard time remembering the plays. We talked about the power of the Spirit. How it can help you remember. "Find a way to keep the Spirit with you on the field" I encouraged. This was his solution. He writes inspirational quotes and scriptures on his game day cleats. Black sharpie on soft leather. Then every time he looks down he remembers who he is, where he came from, and where he is trying to go. I get a little giggle every time I think of the guy who lines up across from him. If that guy takes a second to read the words written on the cleats...faith, hope, charity, Son of God... I wonder if for a second he thinks Garett will play soft. For just a split second, until he gets pancaked right after the whistle. Love this kid. Love those cleats. #garettsstory #everypair #everygame A post shared by Emily Belle Freeman (@emilybellefreeman) on Nov 7, 2016 at 7:24am PST
“I went to church growing up, but I never truly believed it. And so the next night, I read and I prayed, and it was so surreal to me that this lightning bolt, that’s how it felt, just hit me. The minute I said ‘amen,’ my knees just sunk to the ground and I knew the Book of Mormon was true, that I was going to serve a mission,” Garett says. “[I knew] everything that I was doing was right, and I was in the right place, and it was the most amazing feeling.”
Though Garett struggled to understand the scriptures and the intricacies of the gospel, he worked tirelessly to learn the heart and core of the gospel. “If you just truly believe God, that He is there and that He loves you and that He blesses you with a testimony of this Church, and know that He is real, and that the Atonement is true, then that’s all you need to know. And that’s how I live my life,” Garett says. “My brain thinks so simply, and so if I just make the gospel so simple, as all of our prophets and revelators do, you know, pray, read, go to church, pay your tithing, some of those things are so hard for a lot of people, but I cherish those things because it’s how my brain works.”
While serving a mission in Colorado Springs, Garett continued to work hard and stick to what he knew was true as he shared his newfound testimony with others. “There was a kid named John. He was a 14-year-old kid and his mom was in prison and his dad was in prison. He had nobody,” Garett says. “The minute I saw him, I was like, ‘That is the man I need to speak to.’ And when I spoke to him, it was so crazy. He was just like me. He was just the kid that was lost.” Within months, Garett baptized John and then watched him grow. “I got to give him the priesthood. I got to give him everything that I can. And it’s just so amazing to me that the Lord calls you to an area where you can bless people.”
Ten months into his mission, Garett began struggling. After meeting with his mission president, the two decided it would be best for Garett to return home to work through some things. The adjustment was rough, but Garett did what he had learned to do best—turn to the Lord. “When I first got home, I struggled, and it’s funny because I did not want to get out of my missionary clothes at all,” he remembers. “I woke up every day and put on everything.” Garett was intent on moving forward and preparing to serve the Lord in whatever place Heavenly Father wanted him to be—whether that was returning to Colorado, completing a service mission, or finding a new direction in life.
One day after Garett returned home from his mission, someone offhandedly told the 6' 5" nearly 300-pound returned missionary he should play football. Graduating with only a 2.2 GPA in high school, Garett was not NCAA-eligible. Division I football was out of the question. Despite the Freemans, coaches, and so many others telling him it was impossible, Garett decided to drive down to BYU and talk with Coach Steve Kaufusi.
“Coach Kaufusi was a friend of mine,” Garett says. “He saw a light in my eyes, and he told me, ‘We’re going to find a place for you.’” Kaufusi called the coach from Snow College, and soon Garett was headed down for a two-week trial with the team. Snow College only had one football scholarship left, and Garett had to earn it. And that’s exactly what he did.
Making Snow’s football team was just the beginning, however. In order to become eligible for Division I football, Garett needed to get his grades up. He spent every night from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. in the library after football practice, working with tutors and studying. By the end of the year, Garett had earned a 3.5 GPA and became the most highly recruited junior college player in the United States.
But school and football weren’t the only things on Garett’s mind at Snow College. One night at a college dance, Garett had a feeling to walk left.
“The first thing I saw was her and another guy was going towards her,” Garett says of a beautiful cheerleader named Natalie. So Garett swooped in with his best pickup line, thinking he was pretty smooth.
Natalie remembers it differently. “I was like, ‘oh my goodness, is he for real?’” she says. That night, Garett asked for Natalie’s phone number, but she didn’t know what to think of this imposing stranger with a voice so low “he scared me.” The two texted over the weekend, and Garett kept trying to see Natalie again, but she kept putting him off, until one night she agreed to meet him at her apartment.
Natalie still wanted to know more about Garett, so she googled him. “The first thing that I saw was a mugshot of him, and I was like, uh oh. Should I just not let him in?” she recalls. With her roommates at home, Natalie felt that she should at least let Garett inside.
And the first thing she asked was for Garett to tell her about his life, hoping he’d explain the mugshot. “Do you want the whole story?” he asked. She said yes. “So he spent about two hours telling me his life story,” Natalie says. “I cried.” Natalie got to know Garett better over the next few months, and the two were engaged shortly after. At the time, Natalie says, “I personally wasn’t quite ready to go through the temple.” But the couple kept the temple as their goal as they celebrated their wedding day.
Finding a Forever Family
When Garett left Snow College, he could have gone practically anywhere in the United States, but he wanted to find a football program that encouraged players to live their faith. That’s why he committed to the University of Utah. With coaches who cared about him and institute teachers and pastors offering prayers and inspirational messages before games, Garett knew he had found the right fit.
While his football career was growing at the University of Utah, Garett’s family expanded as well. Natalie and Garett welcomed their son, Kingston, to the family. “There was such a spirit in the room. Just holding him in my arms, [I knew] I want this little boy with me for eternity,” Natalie shares.
In January 2017, Garett and Natalie were sealed in the Payson Utah Temple. “That was another dream come true, and it was awesome because we had our son there with us,” Garett says. “He is the best thing that has ever happened to me.” “Having Kingston on the altar, he was smiling the whole time, and I just started to cry, [knowing] this is my forever family,” Natalie adds.
Finding God’s Hand in the NFL Draft
Just a few months after the Bolles family was sealed, Natalie and Garett found themselves in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sitting through one of the tensest nights of their lives. That year, after agonizing over the decision to stay with the U of U or declare for the draft, Garett finally received his answer in the temple: “Act in faith.”
After declaring for the draft, Garett was one of only 22 potential recruits invited to attend a special draft event. But right before the Bolles family flew to Philadelphia, they received bad news: rumors had started circulating about Garett’s learning disability, hurting his chances of landing a first-round pick. The family now debated whether or not they should attend. After praying, Garett decided to go, and Emily continued praying that “God would be present,” no matter what the outcome. Arriving at his hotel, Garett found immediate reassurance when he looked up and saw the Philadelphia temple directly across the street.
“Every time we walked down to where the draft was being held, we had to walk under the shadow of the temple, and I just kept thinking to myself, ‘this is such a witness. God is in this,’” Emily says. The night of the draft, Garett, Natalie, the Freemans, and Grove sat around a table, staring at a phone as TV cameras swarmed around. Tension hung heavily, the nervousness palpable as the prospects stared at their phones, willing them to ring so they could learn which teams they would play for.
The first 10 picks went by, and Garett grew anxious. Then picks 13, 14, 15. Nothing. Garett came and went from the bathroom several times, his nerves faltering. At pick number 17, Garett bowed his head and began praying, determined to turn his worry over to the Lord. At pick 20, the phone began to ring. Natalie yelled, “Answer the phone! It’s Denver. Answer the phone.” But Garett could hardly move because he had broken down into tears.
Spending the morning looking over these memories and trying to soak it all in. Things I want to remember from this moment...How a boy with a dream can overcome anything. How learning disabilities don't have to hold you back. How God will perform His great purposes in you. 🏈🏈🏈Natalie won the MVP of the week. Kingston stole the stage. And Garett proved what he always said he would...he's living his dream. Love you @gbolles74 @n_bolles and baby Simba. Dad and I couldn't be more proud ❤️🏈❤️#faithfamilyfootball #bollesfamilymotto #garettsstory #broncos #nfldraft A post shared by Emily Belle Freeman (@emilybellefreeman) on Apr 29, 2017 at 10:14am PDT
Finding Faith in Football
When Garett first declared for the draft, it was predicted he would land in the top 10 NFL picks. But when news broke about Garett’s learning disability and his future seemed uncertain, Garett wondered why the Lord would allow this to happen after he worked so hard to follow His will.
But when Garett answered the phone to speak to the coach of the Denver Broncos, everything fell into place. He would be returning to the state where he served his mission. He would sign with an NFL team that prided themselves on focusing on faith and family. He knew the Lord had orchestrated this moment. He knew this was meant to be.
“We thought that we were going to go to other places, but the Lord knows where you are supposed to go at all times, and if you take care of the small, simple things, and if you put Him first in everything that you do, [then] football is going to take care of itself,” Garett says.
Now settled in their new home in Denver, Natalie and Garett have found ways to keep the gospel an active part of their daily lives. “Garett has Tuesdays off, and we’re going to try to make that our temple day,” Natalie says. “We read scriptures together every night no matter where he is, and we pray together before bed.”
Garett remains close to his father and siblings, as well as all those who helped him along the way. Before every game, Garett makes sure to call his wife, his dad, and Emily to remember where he came from and all he stands for.
“Just because [Garett] went to the bishop that one day and decided he was going on a mission, it doesn’t mean his life has all worked out since that day,” Emily says. “But God has been a part of his life since that day. Garett’s such a great example that God doesn’t want just perfect people. He’s going to meet anybody where they are exactly as they are, but He doesn’t intend to leave them there. Garett’s has been a journey of just becoming better every single day.”
Looking back at his journey from a homeless teen with nothing to an NFL player with a four-year contract, Garett knows he could never be the man he is today without God in his life. “I use [the Atonement] daily,” he says. “I’m not perfect, nor do I want to be perfect, but I strive to be more perfect. And that’s what I want people to know—those people that struggle out there with, you name it, [an] eating disorder or learning disability or depression or anxiety, it’s okay. It’s okay to struggle from those things, but it’s what you’re going do with that struggle and what you’re going to do afterward that counts.”