LAS VEGAS — A Mississippi assistant coach had a piece of advice for Brandon Bolden upon getting wind that the team’s star running back was contemplating making the jump to the NFL after his junior season.
The seed James Shibest planted in Bolden’s head would change the trajectory of Bolden’s life. It’s the very reason their lives have intersected in Las Vegas more than a decade later, with Bolden as a running back with the Raiders and Shibest the special teams coach at UNLV.
“I’m glad we had that conversation,” Bolden said.
“He took it to heart,” Shibest said, tipping his cap to his former pupil. “It takes a lot of maturity for these guys to really do that.”
The conversation was short and direct, but it was life-changing.
Shibest, understanding the difficulties of making an NFL roster, let alone sticking around for a while, pulled Bolden aside in the Ole Miss locker room and told him that if he was serious about playing professionally, he might want to consider adding special teams to his resume.
“Unless you’re a real stud you better be a special teams player to play at that level,” Shibest said.
Bolden was the Rebels’ starting running back. Outside of quarterback, it’s one of the most glorious positions on a football field. Special teams — especially the kind Shibest was hinting at on punt and kickoff coverage — is grunt work typically performed by players with a lower status.
Bracing for some pushback, Shibest was pleasantly surprised by Bolden’s response.
“Yeah, whatever you need me to,” is what Bolden told him.
Bolden ended up leading Ole Miss in special teams tackles that season. More importantly, respect, appreciation and a willingness to excel in that phase of the game were created.
That commitment endures to this day, and it has allowed Bolden to carve out a 10-year NFL career despite never exceeding 275 yards rushing in a season.
Bolden said he approached his 11th year in the NFL just as he had the previous 10.
“You make the team playing special teams,” Bolden said. “You earn your position after you make the team.”
Bolden has played 2,551 special teams snaps in his career compared to 1,230 on offense. Over those snaps, he’s produced 59 tackles, three blocked punts, four forced fumbles and 609 yards on 27 kickoff returns.
“It is very important, because we do a lot of the dirty work,” Bolden said. “The defense doesn’t just get to go out there and start the drive on your opponent’s 4-yard line or whatever. The offense doesn’t get set up on a 40-yard return without special teams being on the field. So it’s very important.”
All thanks to the advice of a former coach. Still thankful after all these years. Bolden made it a point to shout out Shibest this week with a heartfelt thank you.
The 23-year coaching veteran was taken aback upon hearing about Bolden’s public display of appreciation.
“It struck me in the heart a little bit,” Shibest said. “As a coach that’s all you want to be able to do is help these guys. Whether it’s for life or the NFL or the workforce.”
With each of their careers taking various different turns over the years, neither was aware that their current jobs had landed them in the same city. They both expressed a desire to hook up at some point in Las Vegas.
“Now I can go thank him personally,” Bolden said.