Dan Bolden has never been afraid to step up to a challenge. Or step into one, for that matter.
Bolden, a junior linebacker on the Toledo football team, is attempting a comeback this season following back-to-back season-ending injuries that wiped out his 2021 (torn ACL) and 2022 (torn Achilles tendon) seasons. After what amounts to two full seasons of rehab, Bolden worked his way back into the starting lineup and is excited to finally be back on the field.
“I’m feeling really good,” said Bolden, who started in the season opener vs. Illinois and made three tackles. “This is the best I’ve felt since before I tore my ACL. Physically I’m in the best shape of my life. I’m confident in how I’m playing. Hopefully I’ll keep building off of that.”
“I would say he is in great condition right now,” added defensive coordinator Vince Kehres, who also coaches the linebackers. “He had to work very hard to get there.”
Bolden’s return is a big lift for Toledo’s defense. Despite missing virtually all of the last two seasons, he does bring a lot of experience to the lineup.
He played in 31 games and made 71 tackles in three seasons from 2018-20, working his way into the starting lineup in the COVID-shortened season of 2020. He brings a fiery intensity to his game (he won the “Bringing the Lumber” award in 2020 for the hardest tackle of the season), as well as providing behind-the-scenes leadership that may go unnoticed to the untrained eye. He’s the kind of teammate – and person – you want on your side: quick to help others while routinely deflecting credit away from himself.
Bolden has always been that way, said those who know him best. His father, Dan Bolden Sr., said being a part of a big family may have something to do with that. Bolden has five siblings, all of whom played or coached sports, often at a high level (older brother Joe played football at Michigan, while his younger brother Ed currently plays at Wittenberg).
“When you’re one of six kids you’re not always the center of attention,” said Bolden Sr., a former athletic director and current high school football coach at Colerain High School in Cincinnati. “You learn to live with brothers and sisters. You grow up knowing there are expectations beyond yourself when you come from a big family. You get to go to a lot of other people’s games. You need to make contributions to others in the family.”
Bolden picked up on the importance of helping others at an early age. When he was in the fifth grade, he intervened when he noticed that some boys were tormenting another boy named Ralphie, a special-needs student in the second grade.
“Kids in his grade were picking on him at recess and in the lunchroom,” Bolden said. “I stepped in and put a stop to it. The bullying and picking on kids, that doesn’t fly with me. Picking on someone smaller than you, that doesn’t sit right with me. So when I can do something about it, I love to do that.”
Bolden’s intervention began the start of an on-going relationship. For the remainder of elementary school, through middle school and high school, Bolden became a mentor to Ralphie, spending time with him each school day: reading with him, helping him with school work or just talking about sports and ordinary things.
Bolden’s role as a helper didn’t end there. A short while later, a blind student enrolled at his school. School officials didn’t have to look far when seeking a volunteer to walk the boy to class and help him participate in gym class. Bolden was only too happy to oblige.
Considering Bolden’s character, it should come as no surprise that the culture of Toledo Football impressed him when it came time for him to select a college home. Head Coach Jason Candle’s mantra of “Give More Than You Take” was a perfect fit for someone who was already living his life that way.
“Dan comes from a football family and from a household that raised their children the right way, that understands the importance of football and what it can do for a young man in building his character,” Candle said. “He understands the value of paying it forward in his everyday life.”
Bolden has embraced that philosophy of giving in his time as a student-athlete. He volunteers for as many community projects as possible, including the Boys and Girls Club of Toledo, the Toledo Northwestern Ohio Food Bank, the Cherry Street Mission Ministries as well as at many preschool, elementary and middle schools in the Toledo area. He also has been a member of the football team’s leadership council since 2019.
For his efforts, Bolden is a two-time nominee for the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, which honors college football players who balance academics and athletics while remaining committed to helping others and bettering their communities.
“It was instilled into me as a kid that you always give back, no matter what,” Bolden said. “I grew up around that. My grandmother was the most giving person I know. In high school, our football team would always go talk to the elementary school kids. To be able to go out into a community that I’ve grown to love and give a little bit of my time is something special.”
Bolden especially values using his role as a college football player to help inspire young children who may not have had the same advantages in life that he has.
“Every time we go to the Boys and Girls Club it’s a whole lot of fun,” said Bolden. “You play games, you share your story, you listen to their story. Sometimes they just want to talk. You never know what’s going on with them in their life. Maybe a conversation with you and hearing your story will impact their life.”
In a sense, Bolden found himself on the other side of this equation in the aftermath of his two injuries. The physical challenge of lengthy physical rehabilitation was hard enough. The mental aspect was even more taxing, especially after he faced a second-straight season on the sidelines following his injury on the fourth play of the game in the 2022 season opener. The support of his family, his coaches and his teammates made a big difference almost immediately.
“I wish I could say I was mentally strong from the very beginning,” Bolden said, recalling his despair following his Achilles injury last September. “There was a mental high coming into the LIU game. I was over the moon, so excited to be back on the field. For it to all go away in the snap of a finger was really hard on me. When they carted me off the field, I was like, ‘Am I done? Is that it for me?’ Getting told I was going to have to miss an entire season again, that was tough.”
His self-pity didn’t last long, though. His father made sure of that.
“My dad came into the training room right away and said, ‘You’re good. It could’ve been worse,’ ” recalled Bolden. “I kind of had to snap myself back in. I thought, they’re not getting rid of me that easily. I’m going to play until someone tells me I can’t play anymore.”
Bolden, who has already earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and is working on a second degree in communication studies, has two more seasons with the Rockets and then will take a shot at playing in the NFL. After that, who knows? But rest assured that Bolden will give it his all, no matter what he’s doing.
“Dan understands the importance of doing the right thing,” Candle said. “Long after he hangs up his cleats for the last time, he will be a successful person in whatever he chooses to do with his life.”