Brandon Bolden opened his eyes and confusion set in. He had questions. “Why was it dark out?” “Where was everybody?”
The Patriots running back was lying in his bed at Mass. Eye and Ear in the spring of 2018, days after being diagnosed with mucoepidermoid carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. He thought he was in for a short procedure.
“When I came to after surgery and saw how dark it was outside and I couldn’t find anybody who was supposed to be there, that’s when I found out I was in surgery for nine hours,” Bolden told the Globe in an exclusive chat this past week.
In the following days of recovery, Bolden’s eyes opened again.
While walking down a hospital hallway with a couple of tubes sticking out of his neck, he had a chance encounter with an older patient named George. George had triple the amount of tubes attached to him, and he appeared to be in for a longer recovery.
“But he spoke to me like he didn’t have six tubes coming out of his neck. He was just smiling ear to ear, just kind of a happy-go-lucky guy,” said Bolden. “And I was like, ‘You know, it always could be worse, you could have no tubes and be in a box.’ “
It was a new perspective for Bolden. No longer would he be ashamed of his cancer diagnosis. With the support of his wife, Arianna, and his children, he was ready to fight.
When Bolden returned home, his daughter, Axelle, played a pivotal role in his return to normalcy.
“Right after surgery, even though I felt like I probably looked like something out of a horror movie, she never shunned away from me. She even helped change my bandages at 1 year old,” said Bolden, who spent mornings alone with Axelle as his wife took their son Brycen to school. “She made me feel like I was normal. She didn’t feel sorry for me. And I didn’t feel sorry me. And it became a point to where it’s like, all right, I want everybody to stop doing stuff for me. I can do it myself. I can get up, I can walk around, I can move.” Bolden has always been the type of guy who faces challenges head-on.
Whether it’s taking on a blitzing linebacker, making a clutch third-down grab, or landing one of his patented, crunching tackles or blocks in the kicking game, the nine-year veteran has always been front and center, never one to avoid the action.
As coach Bill Belichick said Friday, “He’s been super dependable and consistent.”
There was one particular instance, however, when Bolden did decide to put something on the back burner.
It started in 2015 when Bolden leveled Colts linebacker Andy Studebaker to help spring Julian Edelman on a punt return in the AFC Championship game. It was the kind of textbook, open-field block that special teamers dream about. Ironically, it was the beginning of a three-year nightmare for Bolden.
Following that hit, which caused Studebaker to cough up blood on the sideline, Bolden noticed a lump on the side of his face. It wasn’t painful and if he massaged it, the bump would disappear, at least temporarily. He decided he would ignore it. After all, there was a Super Bowl to be played.
Following that shocking win over the Seahawks, Bolden was riding high. He wasn’t going to let what he thought was a harmless lump bring him down.
So, he hid it. Literally.
“Not only from everybody else but from myself,” he said. “I grew out a full beard, and as it turned out, I did a pretty good job hiding it.”
Fast-forward to the final day of 2017, when Bolden was involved in another high-speed collision in the season finale against the Jets.
“I took a shot directly on it and that didn’t feel like any other hit I ever took,” said Bolden, who remembers a shooting pain running from his neck down into his shoulder.
“Why does it hurt like that?” he asked himself.
He went to the trainers, who suggested he get a biopsy. Bolden agreed, but he wanted to wait until after the Patriots’ playoff run, which ended with a loss to the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
After getting back to Foxborough, Bolden had the biopsy before heading home to Louisiana.
He was home fixing breakfast for the family one day when his phone rang. He knew it was from the Patriots’ team doctor and he knew it was about the biopsy. With his wife following him, Bolden went outside to take the call.
“He told me words I never thought I would ever hear associated with my name: ‘Brandon, you have cancer,’ “ Bolden said.
“It was along the jaw and ear canal where all your facial nerves all cross up,” Bolden added.
The post-surgery treatment would include chemotherapy and radiation to prevent a possible regrowth, but Bolden, who had watched his grandmother go through that course with breast cancer, rejected that.
“That conversation didn’t really go over too well with the doctors at first,” he said.
Bolden made a quick visit to Gillette Stadium and saw some teammates. He filled in a few of them on what was going on but asked them to keep it quiet. In fact, Bolden kept most everyone in the dark about his fight.
“I didn’t want a pity party,” he said.
He even told his parents to keep it quiet, and some family members didn’t know about his ordeal until Bolden revealed it on social media late last month.
“When the story came out, my sister called me and gave me an earful because she didn’t know,” he said. “And I’ve seen my sister in between, of course, but she had no idea and I was like, ‘Well, we did a good job of keeping it away from everybody.’ “
Inspired by his family, Bolden was on a mission to not only get healthy but make a return to the NFL, something doctors were not so sure about because the surgery went from his neck to his shoulder and that could prove troublesome.
“I was like, ‘Hey, if something happens with the shoulder, something happens with the shoulder,’ “ he said.
Bolden, 31, said he “worked his tail off” to get back and described the painful process of his nerves waking back up, likening it to a feeling everyone can relate to — when your hand or foot falls asleep.
“But instead of feeling a thousand pins and needles, it was like a thousand pins and needles actually going in and out of your skin,” he said. “It was one of those pains that will wake you up out of your sleep.”
Bolden remembered one day stretching and contorting his face as the nerve pain kicked in.
“My son Brycen was like, ‘Oh, your face is waking up, huh?’ “ said Bolden, who confirmed it was.
Bolden got in shape for training camp with the Patriots but after being cut ended up in Miami, where he played for a season before coming back to New England in 2019.
Bolden opted out last season because he was on high-risk list for asthma and cancer. He missed football, for sure, but he wouldn’t trade his 2020 for anything.
“It was a blast. I had fun being a dad for a full year. And especially with the cancer and everything else, I took so much time away from them, and trying to get myself back into football,” he said. “So, I just stayed home and took care of them during the pandemic.”
This season Bolden has taken on much of the third-down back role formerly filled by James White, one of his closest friends, in addition to being one of the club’s top special teams performers.
Bolden’s message to others is simple: Don’t wait.
“The moment you feel something’s weird … something you can’t really explain, go get it checked. Immediately,” he said. “Early detection is the best detection.”
He said the outpouring of support has been amazing.
“I appreciate everyone that was there for the ride,” he said. “Teammates, coaches, family, extended family, Pats Nation, everybody.”
It was while looking at some old photos recently that Bolden decided to make his story public. He wanted to help give hope to others who might be in a similar position.
“I wanted to tell everybody that it’s not a death sentence,” he said. “We can all work past it and if you’ve got the right team, the right people, loving you and everything else, you can get over anything.”
Where he once grew a beard to keep things hidden, he now shows off his surgical scar proudly.
“It’s one of those things that reminds me of a real dark and scary time in my life,” Bolden said. “And not only did I pull myself out of a slump, but I continued to try to make myself shine, make those around me shine. Because that’s just the type of person I am.”