Many have compared Garett Bolles’ story to Michael Oher’s that was detailed in the movie and book “The Blind Side.” Emily Freeman, the mother of the family who took him in, says her son loves the comparison.
“It was his favorite movie growing up,” Freeman said. “He would watch it all the time and now he says, ‘I loved Michael Oher’s story but I want to make my own story now and I want people to know I am where I am because the good Lord got me here.' And there is so much power in that.”
Freeman had never even watched the NFL draft until two weeks ago. But on April 27, when Bolles was drafted in the first round by the Denver Broncos, she was reminded of “how remarkable the things God can do when you turn your life over to him.”
Freeman, a well-known LDS author and speaker, shared her version of Bolles' story on Thursday at BYU Women’s Conference. It's a story Freeman said “is especially close to heart right now.”
Freeman and her husband, Greg, first met Bolles when he was a ninth-grade lacrosse player on the team Greg coached. The Freemans tutored Bolles in an effort to help him succeed on and off the athletic playing fields, where he thrived.
As he got older, Bolles found more and more trouble, including drug use and run-ins with the law. But one day in August 2011, shortly following Bolles’ graduation from high school, Emily Freeman got a call from her husband. He said Bolles was standing on the curb with all of his belongings. Greg Freeman asked his wife what he should do.
“I did what I always do,” Emily Freeman said Thursday. “I prayed and asked Heavenly Father, ‘What should we do with Garett?’ And the message came back clear: ‘Bring him home.’ So we did.”
The couple immediately established expectations.
“We gave him rules of what it would look like to live in our home. This was a boy who had been in jail, who was trying to overcome a lot of addictions, whose childhood had been really, really hard,” Freeman said. “If you live with us, you’re going to go to church. You’re going to pay your tithing and you’re never going to be able to speak to your friends again, because his friends were scary and I didn’t want them to come in our house. I told him, ‘As long as you can do that, you can stay, but if you break any of those rules one time, we will find you somewhere else to live.’”
Greg Freeman gave him three days. Emily Freeman gave him three weeks.
Nearly five years have passed since that day.
“I saw a man in the parking lot a week ago who came up to me and said he heard about our story with Garett,” Freeman told the BYU Women’s Conference audience. “And he said, ‘We’re doing the same thing at our house right now and I see all the good that has come from it at this end but I just need you to tell me, was it hard?’ And I said to him, ‘It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.’ And he said, ‘That’s good to hear, that gives me hope.’”
Garett Bolles is photographed with his wife, Natalie, and their son, Kingston. | Provided by Emily FreemanFreeman shared that during one particularly hard time with Bolles, she found herself at the Heinrich Hofman art exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art, standing in front of a painting of Christ and praying. The prayer was simple: "What are we going to do with Garett? What do you need me to do?”
The answer that came back was simple: “Just love him.”
“That wasn’t the answer I wanted,” Freeman recalled. “I wanted him to tell me what to do. What did I need to do with Garett? ‘Where is he going to work? What’s he going to do for the rest of his life? Is he going to live with us forever? I didn’t know.’”
But the answer didn’t change, and so the Freemans loved Garett Bolles.
“What I always say about Garett that I love is he’s not afraid to admit what he did wrong but what he always does is gives the glory back to God. He knows that everything he has achieved has come through the grace of God and he will tell you that every time you ask him. He talks about the good Lord every time you talk to him and I love that about him."
Bolles didn’t graduate from high school NCAA eligible and even the Freemans doubted his ability to achieve his dreams. But after returning home from an LDS mission to Denver, Bolles was unexpectedly offered a scholarship to play football at Snow College. At Snow, Bolles became a five-star recruit and, according to Freeman, received scholarship offers from almost 30 schools across the United States. He chose to attend the University of Utah, where he played for a year before declaring for the NFL draft. He was one of 22 players invited to attend the draft in person. The Freemans were invited to attend with him.
When his name was called at No. 20, Bolles, who was married last year, and his infant son, Kingston, stole the show. Bolles told the audience he was there “by the grace of God” and wore a temple lapel pin on his suit.
But the Freemans were not an afterthought.
“They’re here with me today and I love them dearly,” Bolles told BSN Denver the day after the draft. “I get emotional when I talk about that family because they mean the world to me. When they picked me up off of the streets in August of 2011, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I realized what a family is, what love is, how a structured family looks and how I want to raise my son. … I love them dearly so much; I give them so much credit for helping me to reach my dreams and to be standing here today.”
For Emily Freeman, the green room served as a place of reflection.
“As we were sitting in that room and I looked back over Garett’s life, I thought to myself how remarkable the things God can do when you turn your life over to him,” Freeman said. “And I thought had I been standing in front of that picture on that day when things were so hard with Garett, and the spirit had said, ‘Don’t you worry about him. He’s going to go to college. He’s going to play at the D1 level. He will be invited one day to the NFL draft; one of 22 boys in the entire United States. He will meet and marry a beautiful girl. They will be sealed together as a family and have a baby. You know what I would’ve said? No. That’s not going to happen. Tell me what we really need to do with Garett.”