Why do you do what you do?
It's a fair question that every person must ask themselves at some point in their lives.
What is your purpose?
Why are you here?
Who are you doing it for?
For many of us, the answer is that we do it because we love what we do, and we're doing it for the ones we love.
The same can be said for Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton — but to understand why, you have to go back in time, to Frisco, Texas, where a 9-year-old Bolton would wake up to the sound of a bell ringing in his 18-year-old sister Jazmine's bedroom.
As soon as he heard it, Bolton would jump out of bed and race to her room to see what she needed.
Jazmine was a star basketball and softball player who had dreams of playing in college. Her senior year, she was named first-team All-District in basketball, averaging 7.4 points per game, leading her team three-pointers, shooting 30% behind the arc. In softball, she batted .297 and led her team in triples and home runs.
She was also the older sister who took care of Bolton while their parents were working. 10 years his senior, she made sure he ate after school and put him down for naps when he was younger. In a predraft interview with NFL 360, Bolton referred to his sister as a second mother to him.
Soon after her senior season, doctors discovered a three-inch tumor in her brain. The surgery to remove it was supposed to take seven hours; instead, it took 11.
During her battle with cancer, she would ring a bell whenever she needed a glass of water, help going to the bathroom or something else.
“You can’t just look past it,” said Bolton... “You see your sister look a certain way one day, the next day you see her look totally different.”
He answered the bell because she needed him, but that's not why he was running to get there first: Bolton is the second oldest of four brothers, and like all boys, they would compete to see who could help their sister the most throughout the day.
Since Bolton's room was the closest, he won most of the time.
His senior year at Lone Star High School, Bolton was named District 13-5A MVP after recording 130 tackles and five interceptions. His high school coach Jeff Rayburn attributed his success to always being prepared.
“He has been the backbone of our defense for the last four years and is a tremendous leader. He has really been a coach on the field and it’s amazing when you get a kid like Nicholas Bolton, who forces you to become a better coach because he’s always so prepared.”
When colleges started recruiting him, Bolton set up a dry erase board in his bedroom to map out important facts about every team that was recruiting him.
The three-star recruit Googled the coaching staff and its reputation — it was important to know if the head coach was in danger of losing his job. He read articles about the players. Most importantly, he mapped out the depth chart on the whiteboard, calculating where he thought he could realistically be on it when he got there.
He gets a lot of this from his father, Carlos, who played linebacker at Louisiana Tech. Starting when Bolton was in first grade, the father and son would sit down after each game and break down the tape together.
This sort of preparation and commitment has helped Bolton make a smooth transition from college to the NFL. In his first six games as a member of the Chiefs, Bolton lined up at outside linebacker, but when the Chiefs traveled to Tennessee to face the Titans in Week 7, Bolton got the start at MIKE (middle) linebacker because Anthony Hitchens was injured.
“The Titans game, things starting slowing down a little bit,” Bolton recalled. “I went back to playing MIKE; coming back from the outside, the game started slowing down when you go outside in... I was sinking in a little better, but I’m still trying to get better every week.”
Despite the Chiefs losing, 27-3, Bolton had a team-leading nine tackles in the contest. He finished his rookie season, leading Kansas City in tackles.
A lot of the success Bolton had in his rookie season, he attributed to linebacker Anthony Hitchens.
“Hitch has always been an extension of the coaches to me,” Bolton shared. “He’s been here and done a lot; he’s been here three years, so he already knows the subtle nuances of the scheme. Coming in every single day and learning from him, going out on the field and talking through things, seeing what he sees... Hitchens has been a great vet for me.”
He won't have Hitchens to lean on next season, though.
On Tuesday, the team announced that they had released him — a move that saved the Chiefs $8.4 million against the cap. This means the MIKE linebacker job is Bolton's next season.
With safety Tyrann Mathieu also set to become a free agent, the Chiefs could be looking for Bolton to step up and become a leader on the defense.
Bolton is not that same fiery sparkplug that Mathieu is. He is laid back and soft-spoken. He's not the sort of guy who will get in your face and yell at you, but that doesn't mean he won't speak up if something needs to be said.
“He’ll say he’s not vocal, but he’ll speak when he needs to speak,” Jalunda Bolton, his mother, said, via The Athletic. “As his confidence rises and as he understands what’s going on around him, he’s more vocal.”
The way Bolton leads is more substantial than screaming words of encouragement: he helps people become better football players. While at Mizzou, he would follow up each summer workout by sitting down with his roommates (who were also on the football team) and help them learn schemes and coverages to maximize their chance of getting playing time the following season.
That's the leader Nick Bolton is: he's the guy who's more concerned with your success than being on NFL Films' "Mic'd Up."
His sister's diagnosis was a life-altering event.
Bolton decided as a young child to throw everything he had into succeeding in sports. He would tell his mom that he wanted to do good to, "make sissy proud."
His personality changed as well. He wanted to be the caregiver: the superhero she saw him as... the person who did everything for everybody.
He wanted to give his best for Jazmine.
The Bolton's have a family motto that should be familiar to most Chiefs fans:
Bend; don't break.
By the time Bolton was in high school, Jazmine was through the woods and in remission. He was excelling on the football field. Things were going well. Then the Bolton family was dealt their second blow by cancer — and this time, it was his mother, Jalunda.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer. In his interview with NFL 360, Bolton said that his mother's battle with cancer was scarier than his sister's because he was old enough to know that not everybody survives.
Bolton needed to stay strong for the two most influential women in his life. His mom fought through her cancer and survived. His mother said that she drew strength from Jazmine in her battle. When she was asked how she could be strong for her mother, Jazmine replied simply but poignantly, "I was strong for her, because she was strong for me."
It had stretched everyone in the family, but Bolton's don't break.
Questioned about the pressure to perform for his family, Bolton has replied confidently.
"The pressure was on my mom and my sister —they went through the pressure. This is leisure; This is fun."
Bolton grew up in a family of people who fight for the people they love, and if that's the sort of guy who's leading your locker room, then you're going to be OK.
Hearing Bolton's story reminds me of the words spoken by the legendary ESPN sports anchor Stuart Scott during his acceptance speech after winning the Jimmy V award at the 2014 ESPYs.
“When you die that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer, by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live. So live — fight like hell.
And when you get too tired to fight, lay down and let somebody else fight for you.”