Patriots RB Brandon Bolden ready to share cancer journey, hopes to empower others
Brandon Bolden had just finished making his kids breakfast when he received a call from the New England Patriots’ team doctor.
Only a few weeks removed from the Patriots’ Super Bowl LII loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Bolden awaited results from a biopsy at his Louisiana home. The news he received changed his life.
He had cancer.
“I was just sitting at home and it was a sunny day. It was a great day,” Bolden told USA TODAY Sports+. “Our team doctor broke it to me and it was one of those situations where I couldn’t believe what I just heard.
"When I had to tell my family what was going on, the hardest thing wasn’t necessarily to tell them but to see their reactions to the news.”
Bolden was diagnosed with mucoepidermoid carcinoma, a form of gland cancer, in 2018.
Sunday, he scored two touchdowns against the Miami Dolphins.
In between was a hard-fought recovery almost no one knew about.
Now almost four years cancer-free, Bolden finally feels ready to share his story in an effort to empower others.
Less than a month after receiving the news, Bolden traveled back to New England for surgery at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston.
The procedure, which took place in March 2018, removed a tumor located on one of Bolden’s facial nerves. He was in surgery for nine hours, but complications lasted much longer.
“I might have been four or five hours out of surgery before anyone told me what I looked like or what my face was doing,” Bolden said. “I wasn’t even able to get out of bed for two days, so it was that long until I actually saw what my face looked like.”
Immediately after surgery, Bolden had no control of the right side of his body. He had a titanium plate inserted into his eyelid to help his eye stay closed while he slept. The inability to control the right side of his face was the symptom that lingered most.
“You remember those old Batman cartoons? You remember Two-Face?” Bolden asked. “You remember how his eye looked like it had no eyelid and looked like a perfect circle that was going to just pop out of his head?
“That’s kind of what my face looked like when I saw it for the first time.”
Although Bolden knew his fight was just starting, challenges weren’t new to him.
After four years at Ole Miss, Bolden went undrafted in 2012 and had to battle for playing time with the Patriots. He eventually found his niche on special teams and was part of two Super Bowl championships with New England (XLIX and LI).
“Love Brandon," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He’s been a really good player for us in a number of different roles. Super dependable and consistent.
"We were aware of the situation. It’s not something he talks about a lot, but I’ll always try to be supportive and not bug him about it because he doesn’t like to talk about it. That’s a personal choice and I respect that."
Bolden was unsure of his football future following his diagnosis. He had put off going to the doctor when he first noticed a lump on the side of his face in 2016. He also refused any type of radiation therapy, including chemotherapy, and his decision to undergo surgery left the possibility he would no longer have full control of his right shoulder.
“I wasn’t 100% sold that it would all come back,” Bolden said. “Especially when I saw my face and how long it felt like it took to get any kind of movement or function.”
Bolden leaned on a select support group during his recovery. Along with his wife, Arianna, Bolden’s parents and two brothers were the only people he initially told about his cancer diagnosis. When Bolden eventually went public in December about his battle, he received messages from other friends and family members who couldn’t believe what they heard.
“I didn’t tell anybody simply because I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for me,” Bolden said. “I didn’t feel sorry for me. When I got the news I was definitely bummed out, maybe borderline depressed. But my oldest daughter never shied away from me, even when I had tubes coming out of my neck, and my son was the same way. They helped me feel as normal as possible.”
Bolden also remembers sitting on the couch with Arianna and getting strange looks after she told him jokes.
“In my head, I’m smiling ear-to-ear because I’m laughing,” Bolden said. “But I actually couldn’t smile on my right-hand side, so she thought I was never laughing at her jokes.”
The Patriots cut Bolden during training camp that year and he joined the Miami Dolphins for the 2018-19 season. Former New England teammate Danny Amendola also signed with the Dolphins and advocated for him.
Darren Rizzi, a special teams coach with the Dolphins from 2010-18, said the team knew about Bolden’s surgery from his physical, but he didn’t learn the details until Bolden approached him a month later.
“I think he had to miss a meeting or a walkthrough to get some tests done,” Rizzi said. “He said, ‘Hey, Rizz, I don’t know if you know what’s going on.’ It was amazing because being there at that time, you would have never known. He really kept it to himself and he was the same person every day.
“If that had never come up, I don’t know if anyone would have ever known.”
Rizzi, who is now special teams coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, said he got the impression Bolden “didn’t want anyone to feel bad for him and wanted to keep his private life private." He respected Bolden's choice not to discuss it. Rizzi called Bolden a “role model,” someone he instructs younger players to emulate.
Adam Gase, the Dolphins’ head coach that season, noticed similar traits and recalled Bolden’s leadership ability and determination to play through minor injuries.
“If it was (an issue), he didn’t make it to where we knew about it being an issue,” Gase said. “He’s a private guy in the aspect. I don’t think he wanted anybody to know he was in any kind of pain. He pushes through to the extreme. He’s a great dude on and off the field.”
Bolden, now 31, planned to keep his diagnosis a secret until retirement. Even after rejoining the Patriots in 2019 — opting out in 2020 due to COVID-19 and coming back in 2021 — Bolden said he still refrained from discussing his cancer with most teammates.
Prior to the Patriots’ Week 8 game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Bolden shaved his beard for the first time since the surgery and revealed a scar from when doctors removed a small part of Bolden’s skull under his right ear.
When nobody seemed to notice the scar, which Bolden said can only be seen from a specific angle, he began looking through old pictures from immediately after surgery. What followed was a moment of pride and a willingness to share his story, which he first revealed with a series of photos on TikTok.
“My face came a long way from right after surgery until now,” Bolden said. “I felt proud of myself for not giving in and not giving up on myself. I’ve been betting on myself my entire career. It was a proud moment for me, and I wanted to share that story.”
Bolden realized he had been ashamed of his diagnosis. Then, he remembered what a 70-year-old man with six tubes coming out of his neck told him while they were together in the hospital.
“One of the first things he told me is, ‘The best thing about this is you’re still here and not in a box somewhere,’” Bolden recalled. “You know what? For you to have six tubes coming out of your neck — and I only have two — and for you to say that to me, I appreciate that because it was tough to go from being one of the more healthy people I knew and then, boom, you have cancer.
“What I want people to know is cancer isn’t a death sentence anymore. You can stand up and fight through it and you’ll be better because of it.”
His former coaches weren’t surprised Bolden went public hoping to inspire others.
“Brandon Bolden is one of those guys where people listen when he speaks,” Rizzi said. “He’s quiet and a little reserved in his approach, but every once in a while he would speak and immediately grab everyone’s attention. … I think it can feel taboo when you deal with certain issues and you want to sweep it under the carpet. I think this is a great message that you can deal with things and move on from them.
"Maybe Brandon sharing his experience could save another life someday.”
Added Gase: “His mental disposition is unique in the aspect of, he can will himself to do things that are really hard for probably a lot of people. He can talk himself into doing it. He’s just built different.”
Bolden willed himself into the most prominent offensive role of his eight-year NFL career this season. He amassed 631 total yards from scrimmage this season, 200 more yards than in any other season. Bolden was on the field for more than 30% of the Patriots' offensive snaps for the first time in his career.
And he’s taking nothing for granted — in football and in life.
“I had cancer and I did not think I was going to play another down in the NFL,” Bolden said. “But I’m still here to prove people wrong and get stronger.”
USA TODAY Sports+ NFL Insider Safid Deen contributed to this story.