Cancer survivor Brandon Bolden having career year with Patriots

Indianapolis Colts cornerback Kenny Moore II (23) works to bring down New England Patriots running back Brandon Bolden (25) on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, during a game against the New England Patriots at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Indianapolis Colts cornerback Kenny Moore II (23) works to bring down New England Patriots running back Brandon Bolden (25) on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, during a game against the New England Patriots at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. /

Perhaps one of the most amazing stories of the 2021 New England Patriots is the resurgent season for role player Brandon Bolden, who is having his best campaign as a professional with his 32nd birthday nearing on January 26. What’s all the more amazing is that Bolden revealed in an Instagram post on the morning of Dec. 30, with additional comments to the media that afternoon, that he had had cancer in 2018 and feared that his career might have been over.

It doesn’t get any lower than that. It’s one thing if coach Belichick cuts you, or you feel that you have to move from a Super Bowl contender to a 6-10 team (which is what Bolden did in 2018 when he signed with the Miami Dolphins as a free agent). Though head coach Brian Flores appears to have that Dolphins program turned around, at the time it was a definite demotion.

But if it appears as though God might be getting ready to cut you from the active roster? That’s frightening. According to Angelique Fiske, writing for the Patriots team website, Bolden was diagnosed with epidermoid carcinoma, which had to be surgically removed and caused him to temporarily lose muscle functions on the right side of his face. He wasn’t sure if he would play ever again, though eventually he made a full recovery and signed with the Dolphins for the 2018 season before finding his way back to New England in 2019.

We can also understand part of the reason why Bolden elected to sit out 2020 due to the pandemic. Of course, it’s a private matter, and the press is really not entitled to challenge a player’s motives in electing to sit out. But given that a cancer diagnosis was specified by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), to be a risk factor for COVID-19, it’s less mysterious why Bolden made the choice that he did. For a player who has to fight to make the roster every year, that decision could have ended his career and no doubt was not made lightly.

Bolden is already an anomaly because running backs and special team aces usually don’t excel after age 30. In summer camp this season, he somehow forced his way onto the 53-player roster despite the odds stacked against him. Did anyone really foresee Bolden making the roster and Sony Michel being traded? Despite Michel’s great talent, Bolden’s versatility as a special teams performer, as well as the presence of ball carriers Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and J.J. Taylor, made the Patriots decide that they might rather have two future draft picks (a fourth rounder and sixth rounder) for Michel, and keep Bolden.

For the season, Bolden has managed to set new career highs in receiving yards, with 364, demolishing his previous career high of 180 set back in 2015. Additionally, he has 18 catches for a first down compared to eight in 2015. He has 540 yards from scrimmage versus 423 back in 2013. He also has 10 total tackles on special teams, beating his personal high of seven set in 2017. When he does get a chance to run the ball, he has done well, gaining 176 yards and 4.9 yards per carry. Perhaps the special teams numbers are the most important ones, though. He’s a role player for the offense, filling in when someone is injured, but he’s first string on special teams and can truly be considered to be a star player on the coverage units.

In 2019 he reinvented himself as a kick returner, with 23 returns for 515 yards and 694 all-purpose yards. This season, he has only been asked to return three kicks, gaining 62 yards. His all-purpose yardage stands at 602 for the season, so there’s an outside chance he may set a new personal mark for all-purpose yardage as well with good games against the Jaguars and Dolphins.

Fans may remember him as No. 38 and may wonder why he switched to No. 25 this season. That was was to honor his grandfather, Frank Pitts of the Kansas City Chiefs. That was actually a bit of a shocker for your humble correspondent, because he’s old enough to remember Pitts as a player. Pitts was one of the heroes of Super Bowl IV, in which coach Hank Stram taught the NFL that their brand of football was like checkers, and the Chiefs and the AFL had come ready to play chess. Pitts was a speedy wide receiver, and ran a couple of reverses versus the Minnesota Vikings and really torched them. Now he has a grandson in the NFL? Wow, time flies!

Nonetheless, the Patriots seem to specialize in tough players who understand the game of life just as well as they do football. Having overcome one of the most difficult challenges that life can throw at a person, Bolden can probably be counted on to stay calm under pressure. Players like him seem to have a habit of coming up big during big games. We shall see what the future holds as the regular season winds down and the playoffs rev up.

It’d sure be nice to see Bolden give this team an unexpected veteran boost in the postseason after all he’s been through.