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Garett Bolles’ difficult journey to the NFL draft gave him something teams can’t ignore

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The Utah left tackle has special kind of toughness that NFL teams are looking for. He also happens to be a pretty good blocker.

Foster Farms Bowl - Utah v Indiana Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA — Slap a beret on his head, dress him in a gold-buttoned, decorative medaled jacket, and Garett Bolles would easily pass for a brazen army sergeant. The 6’4, 295 pounds he effortlessly carries, the 34-inch arms, would help seal it. His bruising, booming voice would provide extra conviction.

But he is a football player, a left tackle from the University of Utah. The son of a Navy veteran.

A literal prodigal son.

His dad, Grove, kicked Garett out of their Utah home when he was 19.

Disrespect? Drugs? The wrong crowd?

"All of that — and much more,’’ Bolles said. "I was a lost kid.’’

The lacrosse coach at his Saratoga Springs, Utah, high school, Greg Freeman and his wife Emily took Bolles in off the streets. They gave him strict rules, lofty challenges.

Emily told the Salt Lake Tribune late last year that she thought Bolles would last a few weeks before they would have to kick him to the curb, too. She said Greg thought Bolles would last three days.

* * *

But something clicked for Bolles.

"God changed me,’’ he said.

From what to what, he was asked?

"From old to new,’’ he answered. "From someone I don’t even recognize anymore. My life was crazy. Adversity changed me.’’

After moving in with the Freemans, Bolles traveled for missionary work, enrolled at Snow Junior College in Ephraim, Utah, where he played football, transferred and starred at Utah for one season, married Natalie, had a four-month-old son Kingston, patched things with his father and is here at the draft, a prime, practical, likely first-round pick.

Since his first position in football was defensive tackle, he has a defensive-minded approach to playing left tackle.

"My thing is to knock those guys out,’’ Bolles said.

He was asked the difference between NFL coaches who scorn rookies and NFL coaches who embrace them?

"If you come in and you have a big mouth and not work, they’re not going to like you,’’ he said. "If you shut your mouth and go in and work hard and get better, they love you.’’

Spoken like a sergeant, a prodigal son, a changed man.

"I met with Garett Bolles at the combine and I was so blown away with him that we had him in for a visit afterward,’’ one NFL head coach said, requesting anonymity. "We had no initial plans to do the follow-up. But he left us no choice. And he came in here and we saw more of what we first saw. This is what you want in a football player, a guy who’s been through some things who is tough. I am a total believer in his change and in his ability. I don’t know if he is going to fall to us, but we have our radar way up for him in this draft.’’

Several teams do.

It’s the athleticism — he ran a sub 5.0 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, a fast time for any linemen. He employs nifty angles on his blocks and he should be a premiere NFL talent on sweeps and movement plays.

Some scouts question his core strength.

Can he simply be bull-rushed, bulldozed, run over?

"Who said that?’’ he asked.

NFL scouts say it, he was told.

"Well, one day three or four years from now the club that said that, the scout that said it is going to wish they would have grabbed me.’’

* * *

He is all Michael Oher and the movie of his life, Blind Side, the adoptive kid who rises from struggle and reaches the NFL, Oher with the Baltimore Ravens in 2009, a first-round pick at No. 23 overall. Or is he?

"I respect him,’’ Bolles said. "He has his own story and I have mine. He found a way to make a way from trouble as a youth and so did I. Someone reached out to help and him and that happened for me. I guess you could say we are two testaments. All I know is a year and a half ago I was at Snow College and today here I am.’’

He was at Children’s Hospital on Wednesday morning on this city’s North Side visiting with patients along with other draft prospects. Bolles brought his own small, white plastic helmet. He had the children sign it. He wanted them to know that their autographs meant more to him than giving any. He said he will keep the helmet, filled with kid signatures, forever.

Garett Bolles is one of those rare draft prospects whose deeply checkered past is already covered by maturation and growth before his name is called.

He tells all NFL teams that the one that selects him gets a changed man, a new soul, a husband, a father, a 24-year-old who is wiser and on the edge of football greatness. He believes it.

The stunner is how much NFL teams do, too.

"If I walk across that stage on Thursday night and I am drafted in the first round, it is going to be an amazing walk, an amazing journey,’’ Bolles said. "If it happens Friday night and I’m in the second round, it still will be. Sure, you want to go in the first round. But I can honestly say the meaning, the experience, the achievement, none of it will feel any different or mean anything less to me on Friday night. Either way, I’ll be on my way.’’

Garett Bolles is one of few players who have ever said that while oozing truth.