Bubba Bolden didn’t so much predict it. He promised it.
With Bishop Gorman’s eventual 55-game winning streak in jeopardy against No. 9 St. Thomas Aquinas during his senior year of high school, the strong safety moseyed into the huddle and nonchalantly told his nervous teammates that he would block the game-winning field-goal attempt. He did, triggering a tizzy and foreshadowing the bravado he still has today.
Now, three weeks before the 2022 NFL draft, the 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pound professional prospect has yet another promise he plans to fulfill the next few years.
“Soon,” he said by telephone from Miami, “you’re going to see the All-Pro Bubba.”
Bolden is every bit as confident now as was when he roamed the secondary for the almighty Gaels. More confident, actually. And more measured after enduring the rigors of young adulthood as a college football player in Los Angeles and Miami.
The 22-year-old native Las Vegan is among the draft’s top safety prospects and could be selected as early as the third round.
But he’ll wait another day if he has to and practice the patience that’s propelled him to this point.
“I text him about the meaning of resilience all the time. The tenacity that he has to be able to fight through things is something that I think is really incredible,” said his mother, Breezy. “You’ve got to start all over (in the NFL) again,” she added.
“But his past experiences are going to inform his future experiences, and it’s going to be OK.”
Raised in Las Vegas
He’s always played with innate intensity. Loves to tackle and talk trash. Lives for it. They are his favorite things about football. By far.
Bolden learned he loved contact by racing BMX bikes beginning when he was 5, each and every fall seeming to inspire more competitive fire. He was so good by 6 that he couldn’t race locally anymore after building a collection of trophies taller than he was.
Football seemed like a suitable alternative. In hindsight, it was the only sport that could serve his insatiable desire for contact. He loved playing so much so that he quit biking altogether, trading trips around the race track for touchdowns as a quarterback and tackles as a defender.
“The kid would not cry during football. He just wanted to play,” his mom said. “He did not care if he got hurt.”
Peewee games were usually on Saturday afternoons, and Bolden would prepare by watching whatever college games were televised and jumping on his couch, pretending that he, too, was a college football player. His parents are Los Angeles natives, his father, Marcus, a die-hard USC fan and one of his peewee coaches.
They would bond over Trojans games and his games, gradually establishing a vision for Bolden’s future: play in college, the NFL and become an inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But first, he would play at Gorman, then the best high school program in the country. While there, he wouldn’t lose a game, captured three national championships and cultivated the work ethic that still powers him today.
He quarterbacked the ninth-grade team to an unblemished record and still believes he was a Power Five-caliber player behind center. But coaches Tony and Kenny Sanchez suggested he play safety full-time as a sophomore upon the arrival of Gaels legend Tate Martell.
By his junior season, he was one of the top prospects in the 2017 class, securing scholarship offers from top programs across the country. He said his first was supposed to come from USC, but lackluster grades during his freshman year delayed that by two years and intensified his academic focus, ensuring he would earn it in 11th grade.
Former USC assistant Keith Hayward, who now works as UNLV’s defensive coordinator, called Breezy on a fall Friday early in his junior year and notified her that he’d be offering her son that night after his game.
Sure enough, he called. She walked onto Gorman’s Fertitta Field and handed her cellphone to Bolden, who cried tears of joy before embracing his mother at midfield.
He’d verbally commit two weeks later, though he’d reconsider amid a coaching change at USC and legitimate interest in other programs like Ohio State and Arizona State. He capped his senior season with yet another national championship, fueled in part by his blocked field goal.
He signed his national letter of intent to USC that ensuing February, solidifying his commitment to his dream school.
The low point
Bolden remains loyal to USC’s football program, even though his tenure with the Trojans was troubled and too short. Their emblem is inked permanently near his right knee.
He speaks favorably about his time in Los Angeles. Even though it was his most trying to date.
He was humbled as a freshman, playing special teams instead of starting at safety, something he was poised to do as a sophomore after a stellar spring and summer. But he was notified three days before the 2018 opener at UNLV that he would be suspended indefinitely, thereby ending his career with the Trojans.
The suspension stemmed from what Bolden called “mutual trash-talking” at a house party several months earlier that involved underage drinking. It was said that Bolden participated in trash talk with other people at the party, with the host feeling “threatened” by Bolden. This incident was reported to USC’s Office of Student Judicial Affairs. Its investigation then led to the suspension. He was never criminally charged.
For the ensuing six weeks, he rarely left his apartment, hardly slept and skipped class while knowing his reputation on campus was in shambles amid the rumors that would swirl until his reinstatement that December.
By then, he’d already withdrawn from the university and returned to Las Vegas, where he enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada, trained privately for an uncertain future and regularly asked himself “Why?”
He wasn’t sure he’d play in the NFL, let alone at the Power Five level again.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever dealt with,” Bolden said. “I’d wake up and it was constant 24-7 stress, 24-7 doubt. Everything you could possibly think wrong is what (was) going through my head.”
Bolden hoped that fall that he could play at UNLV for the elder Sanchez, though his optimism was quelled when he was denied admission amidst the investigation.
Other potential suitors like Hawaii, Utah and Minnesota emerged. Eeventually, so, too did Miami at the behest of former Gaels teammate turned Hurricanes star Brevin Jordan, who personally showed Bolden’s film to coach Manny Diaz after a fall practice.
“Right then and there he was sold,” said Jordan, who caught three touchdowns last season in his first NFL season with the Houston Texans. “I’ve seen Bubba at his lowest. … and for him to get the opportunity to play college football again, he was ecstatic.”
First things first, Bolden needed to maintain his academic eligibility. So he moved back to the Los Angeles area in February of 2019, enrolling at El Camino College and spending time again on USC’s campus. He completed 36 credits between the previous October and subsequent July, suppressing a desire to play for the Trojans.
He moved that summer to Miami, debuting Oct. 4, 2019, for the Hurricanes and beginning the three-year run that solidified his professional prospects. A broken right ankle that fall didn’t dampen his spirits or deter the resolve, and he returned in 2020 as an All-ACC honoree — showcasing the speed, strength, instincts and tenacity necessary to succeed at the NFL level.
Bolden made 74 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, forced four fumbles and secured another interception. He considered declaring for the 2021 NFL draft with Jordan, his college roommate who was selected in the fifth round. But Miami committed to him and he sought to return the favor, opting to play one more college season.
He was limited to seven games in 2021, though, by a nagging labrum tear sustained through years of rigorous strength training. He elected to have surgery Nov. 1 so he could prepare for the NFL’s scouting combine and his pro day. He knows he may have been first- or second-round draft pick had he declared in 2021.
Yet he doesn’t lament last season.
“You can’t just stay stuck in the past,” Bolden said.
Bolden was cleared by NFL doctors at the combine, at which he completed the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds. He bench pressed 225 pounds 15 times last week at his pro day and is in perfect health ahead of the NFL draft. He says he’s spoken with representatives from all 32 NFL teams.
The Carolina Panthers, Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings and Chargers are among the most interested, he said.
He plans to watch the draft with his family in Las Vegas.
“He’s so close,” his father, a basketball and football played turned barber, said while withholding tears. “This is definitely a dream. I’m still floating in it. But it’s real.”
Contact Sam Gordon at email@example.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.