LEADVILLE, Colo. — Look at Ed Solder’s hands and you can see two decades of labor. They may have gotten into a fight or two with a hammer. The hammers may have won. The hands may have tried to strangle a screwdriver here and there. The screwdrivers obviously were resistant. Solder’s hands are hardened in a way that he couldn’t be more proud of.
There are dried flecks of blue paint on the outside of one of his hands, near his pinkie, a sign of the work being done around mid-July, the installation of insulation from the outside of the 10-room Victorian home, and the repainting of side panels.
The house, a soft blue with louder pink trim, is a few streets over from the main road in Leadville. It seems even more hidden with scaffolding and plywood scattered around.
Solder didn’t imagine the work would take longer than a few days.
When he and his wife, Peri, decided to turn their home into a bed and breakfast, there were reasons beyond business.
Peri had waited tables, that’s how she and Ed met, but she also had worked in real estate. Ed had served in the Navy. After that, he worked in the post office for nine years. They married, started a family, and a life. But with each passing day at the post office, he was looking for more.
The Naval Academy had taught him that his ambitions were within his grasp, even when he didn’t think so. He and Peri made their Mountain Hideaway Bed and Breakfast their goal.
“I did that out of pure desire,” Ed said. “I did it out of love. It was a place I can go and get answers when I really needed them. Sometimes I’d be sitting down crying, looking at a mess, and I worked out of it, bit by it. The shapes changed, colors changed, pieces changed, but I became a carpenter.
“We did everything together,” Peri said. “It was always a group effort and it was a payoff.”
Before the Patriots took Ed and Peri’s son with the 17th overall pick in last year’s draft, before he was a strong if svelte rookie with a neck-cramping upside, before he faced the subtle pressures of filling the role of the retired Matt Light as protector of franchise quarterback Tom Brady, Nate Solder learned what work meant at that bed and breakfast.
He saw his parents pour their heart and soul into it, reaping the benefits of watching their sons (John and Nate) grow up there and seeing all the faces come in and out. Nate would do odd jobs — painting, moving furniture — from the time he was a kid to the time he was in high school.
But he always was able to see what it did for his parents.
“It was kind of a leap of faith,” Nate said. “My parents have always been extremely hard workers. That’s kind of taught me what hard work gets you. They fought for it, they continue to fight for it, and I think that’s what I learned from them growing up.”
A unique place
Leadville is about 100 miles southwest of Denver, the 2½-hour drive weaving you in and out of the mountains, taking you through the continental divide. Its elevation (10,200 feet, proudly displayed on a stone marker) is almost four times its population (just over 2,600), the highest city in North America.
“This is not a big town,” Ed said. “This is not a wealthy town. This is a working man’s town. There’s not too many people that swing the big stick around here.”
It’s 34 miles from Buena Vista (pronounced “Byoona” by the locals), where Nate Solder went to high school. It’s 121 miles from Boulder, where Solder spent four years at the University of Colorado. Moreover, it’s 106 miles from Columbine, 38 miles from Vale, 114 miles from Aurora, 127 miles from the wildfires that scorched Colorado Springs for weeks, and just 10 miles from the Treasure fires that burned during Independence Day weekend.
“It’s nearly impossible to describe it,” Nate said. “I think everyone that I tell about where I’m from has some sort of skewed perspective or doesn’t really understand. I think it’s a really unique place. It doesn’t relate to a lot of people. When I tell people, I usually say I’m from a small town in the mountains, but I don’t think most people know what that means. But I guess I like that it’s a little different and hard to describe.”
There’s a humility and simplicity that he hangs onto.
“It’s your roots,” Solder said. “You came from there, those people saw you grow up. They’re all real proud of you for who you are just as much as they are for what you’re accomplishing. In a small community like Buena Vista and Leadville, they really know who I am, and that means a lot to me.”
There were only seven years when the Solders didn’t run the bed and breakfast, and that was when they moved to Buena Vista. They had to.
Nate, in fifth grade at the time, had been typecast as a troublemaker at his elementary school (the last straw was when a playground dustup with a kid who kept kicking him led to a one-week suspension).
“He was pretty emotionally distraught,” Peri said. “I said to him, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing on Monday, but you’re not going back.’ ”
Peri went on a mission to get Nate into a different school, in a different setting.
He ended up being around people who boosted his confidence, math teacher and football coach Bob Marken among them.
Before Marken retired last year, he had been in the school system 33 years and had seen all types of kids. He didn’t know much about Nate’s past but he could understand it.
“I could see that,” Marken said. “He could easily be hurt by words people say, because he’s a very sincere, caring, sensitive young man. Still is.”
Marken had a way of getting the most out of Solder in the classroom and on the field. When Solder got to his class in the eighth grade, Marken made him sign a contract for his math class.
“He was one of those teachers that really changed my whole academic future,” Nate said. “He really challenged me when I was in his class. He really pushed me to be the best that I could be. He made things really hard, but after being so hard you started being able to do it and you started to feel that confidence.”
It worked the same way on the football field. If Solder had it his way, he’d be Randy Johnson, the pitcher who was too tall and too imposing to get a hit off. But he recognized his skills in basketball, because he starred on his high school team in Buena Vista, and when it came to colleges, Dartmouth was immediately interested.
But with his skill on the gridiron, Marken told Solder that if he wanted to, he could play football at the college level.
“I thought I was giving him a vision of that for himself, because I thought he always thought of himself as average, just like all the other kids,” Marken said. “He didn’t look at himself as, ‘I’m bigger, faster, stronger than this kid.’ He never did. I don’t think that he saw that he was that way. So I tried to always give him that vision.
“I just kept trying to keep the vision open that he could play college football, and tried to keep him in contact with people.”
There were always points when Nate would have to be convinced that he could reach beyond his own ambitions. He had to be convinced that he could play football at CU, then be convinced again that if he switched from tight end to tackle he could make a way for himself to the NFL. When he became a consensus All-American, first-team all-Big 12, and Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year, he finally could see it.
“He grew right out of that and came right into his own self,” Ed said.
Draft a process
About five or six NFL teams contacted Marken before the draft, doing their due diligence. The only team that sent someone out in person, initially, was the Cowboys.
“I was kind of shocked,” Marken said.
Everyone else usually would send questionnaires and follow up with a phone call. It was always about character.
“They can tell whether someone can play or not way better than I can. But they’re just trying to turn all the stones over and make sure there are no character issues,” said Marken.
Going over all that stuff for Solder, Marken said, was cake.
“It was so fun for me,” Marken said. “We spent about 10 minutes answering those questions. Then we just sat and talked about football.”
Solder had made a name for himself in the predraft process. A clip of one of his workouts actually went viral.
He was working out for the Broncos with director of player personnel Matt Russell, whose name rings out in Colorado.
“His name’s on the stadium at CU,” Solder said. “He was a Lombardi Trophy finalist. He was very well known in the CU community.”
He and Nate had met a few times. Nate knew he was a scout.
“I definitely knew him,” Solder said.
But during the drill, Russell ended up being a tackling dummy. Nate had to run down a set of cones and then explode on a pad Russell was holding. Nate floored Russell. The pad went flying. Russell went rolling. The few people in attendance lit up.
“I thought it was perfect,” Solder said. “A scout would never say it, but when they see you put someone on their back, it always kind of sticks in their brain a little bit. I wasn’t trying to hurt him or anything. But I liked it. I liked that contact. I thought it was funny. I got a kick out of it I guess.
The video’s been viewed more than 110,000 times. Neither one of them can get away from it.
Nate chuckled some, and said, “I hear about it every once in a while from him.”
The draft process was a taxing one, the lowest point easily being when Solder had to squeeze himself into the middle seat on a plane on the way to a workout with the Redskins.
Originally, in the time leading up to the draft, he had two dates set up in New England. One was with the Patriots. The other was with a girl in New Haven. After that he would be going to Dallas.
He met the girl, but never the Patriots. The day before he was supposed to fly to Boston, the Patriots called and canceled. He flew to New Haven anyway.
“There was nothing else he could do,” Peri said.
Days before the draft, he got a call from the Patriots. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said he wanted to visit him in Boulder.
“I didn’t know much about the Patriots,” Nate said. “I didn’t know much about Coach Scarnecchia.”
They went through some drills. Solder learned as much about Scarnecchia as Scarnecchia did about him.
“I liked him because he was real down to earth,” Solder said. “The image you get of the Patriots from Colorado was very successful, very untouchable. So once I found out about Coach Scarnecchia and saw that he was a blue-collar, hard-working, middle-American kind of guy, I kind of connected with that.”
By the time draft day came, Solder had no desire to run through any of the hoopla. After the college season was over, Nate and his family went to New York for the academic Heisman, then they flew to Orlando for the Outland Trophy presentation. Then to Connecticut for the All-American ceremony at Yale.
“We literally were flying everywhere for a while there,” Peri said.
They would have had to hop another flight to New York for the draft, but they had no interest in the suits, the cameras, the spectacle, and at that point clearly the travel (if only to avoid the problem of Nate ending up in another middle seat).
So they invited eight family members and eight of Nate’s college friends to the bed and breakfast and they waited on the call.
“That was one of the best things we did the whole way through,” Ed said.
If he had to admit it, Nate said his head swiveled more during the lockout-stunted preseason than during his first NFL game.
“The interesting thing about the way they run things in New England, my head was spinning more in practice, during that camp, during that week before the first game, during the preseason games,” he said. “They really put it on you in terms of the amount of information you need to know. The speed and the accuracy with which you need to play.”
When Solder made his NFL debut — a season-opening “Monday Night Football” game against the Dolphins in Miami where the humidity was like nothing he had ever seen and he was matched up against Cameron Wake — he didn’t necessarily know what to expect.
His friend and former basketball coach Scott Crites was at the Broncos game, the second game of a doubleheader that night, keeping an eye on Nate and the Patriots on the in-stadium TV sets.
What he remembers most is analyst and former coach Jon Gruden locking in on Solder and Wake in the third quarter: “Let’s check this guy Nate Solder.
“Give this guy credit, he’s going to be a good one.”
Ed and Peri were at Dolphin Stadium, and after it was over, after the Patriots ran Miami over, 38-24, and Solder had survived his NFL baptism, they went to find their son and congratulate him.
Nate told Ed, “Dad, did you see me puke? That was the hardest game I ever played in my life.”
It was the first in a run of six straight starts at right tackle. Throughout the season, he had ups (he knocked Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis on his back in the AFC Championship game) and downs (Von Miller jackhammered Brady on Nate’s watch).
“There are a lot of things I know, there’s a lot more that I don’t know,” Nate said. “But I think that as you kind of get a hold on things, you’ve got to keep perspective that there’s a lot of good players that you go against, so no matter how good you get or how much you think you know, you always work hard and prepare and really improve, because if you don’t there’s always going to be someone better.”
Since that day, everything’s moved like a time-lapse photo for the 6-foot-8-inch, 320-pound Solder. Now, in taking over for Light at left tackle, he has an opportunity he never would have seen or even reached for years ago.
He said, “I think if you go toward the things that are a little bit intimidating or a little bit scary or things you don’t think you can do initially and you’re persistent and you don’t give up and you continue to work at it and continue to increase the effort you put into it, the competency, the precision, the level you do it as you go on, you start to do things you never imagined you could.”