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Thank You, New England

Apr 12 2018
Photo by
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Photo by
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Nate Solder
New York Giants
Apr 12 2018
W

hen the Patriots drafted me out of Colorado in 2011, I thought that the whole reason for my existence was to win football games. For most of my life, I had been pushed to be good at football — to win. And now I was going to New England, where winning is everything. So I thought it was the perfect fit. I definitely felt the pressure of being a first-round pick and being drafted to protect the blind side of the greatest quarterback in history. But I also figured that winning would alleviate that pressure. I thought winning would fix all my problems.

Because winning fixes everything, right?

Then, my rookie year came … and we won. A lot. We went 13–3 in the regular season and made it to the Super Bowl. And even though we lost to the Giants, I expected to feel a certain way after it was all over. Not necessarily happy, because we ultimately lost the game. But … satisfied. Or at least fulfilled in some way.

But I didn’t.

All I felt was emptiness.

I spent that entire off-season traveling. I had always wanted to travel, and for the first time in my life I had the money and the time. So I was on a plane to a different destination every week. Sometimes I would wake up and forget what city I was in. I was constantly on the move.

Looking back, I can see that I was searching for something. I just didn’t know what. But whatever it was, I couldn’t find it. I came back from that off-season completely deflated. Still unfulfilled.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that was just the beginning of my journey toward finding my purpose.

Since signing with the Giants last month, I’ve been thinking a lot about my journey and the seven incredible years I spent in New England. Not about the seven straight AFC championship games, or the four Super Bowls, or the two rings we won. I’ve been thinking more about the relationships my family and I made there — relationships that will last forever.

I’ve also been thinking about irony and how God works in mysterious ways. Because I was a kid who thought his entire purpose was to win, and then I went to New England, where winning is everything.

Only to learn that it’s not.


Back in October 2015, when my son, Hudson, was three months old, my wife, Lexi, and I were giving him a bath when I felt a lump in his belly. We didn’t think anything of it, but we noted it. And when it didn’t go away, we took him to the doctor to get it checked out.

After what turned out to be a long series of tests with multiple doctors, we learned that Hudson had tumors growing in both of his kidneys.

I felt like I had failed my son.

Cancer.

The doctors immediately sent us to Boston Children’s Hospital. They offered us a ride in an ambulance, but we decided to drive ourselves because … I don’t know. I guess we thought that needing an ambulance would make it feel more serious. More real. So we decided to drive ourselves.

Lexi and I cried the entire drive. Hudson was our first child. So Lexi and I were still brand new parents. You can understand our grief. But for me, I was overcome by guilt as much as anything. I couldn’t shake the idea that I was Hudson’s father. It was my job to protect him from everything, at all times. And I felt like I hadn’t done that.

I felt like I had failed my son.

We spent five days at the Children’s Hospital while doctors began treating Hudson. I was fortunate — as strange as it sounds — to have been injured at the time. I had torn my biceps the week before and I was on injured reserve. It was a blessing in disguise because it gave me the freedom and flexibility to be there for my son and my family without having to contend with the pressures and demands of football.

Lexi and I spent those five days learning about the kind of cancer Hudson has and about different kinds of treatment and medications. There was so much information. It was overwhelming. When we were finally able to leave the hospital and take Hudson home, the doctors gave us a thick binder — almost like a playbook — that included all the information we had learned throughout the week, along with a list of about 15 medications we had to give Hudson on a consistent basis.

So we finally get home with Hudson, and it’s complete chaos. He won’t stop crying. Lexi and I haven’t eaten in hours. We’re all exhausted. And our kitchen counter looks like a pharmacy. There are little orange bottles everywhere — various meds with dosages and instructions on the labels.

Take this one every six hours. This one every eight. This one at night. Another twice a day, with a meal.

And on and on.

It was a lot. At one point, while Hudson was crying, Lexi and I were both just lying on the floor trying to make sense of everything and figure out how to move forward.

Then Lexi’s parents saved the day.

They came over and her dad made a chart of all Hudson’s medications — name, dosage, timing. Her mom cooked up some food. We were finally able to comfort Hudson and put him to bed. And slowly, you could just feel the air start to come back into the house, like we were finally starting to rise above the fear and anxiety. And for the first time since Hudson’s diagnosis, we felt like, Yeah, we can do this.

We’re gonna be O.K.

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

I think whenever you go through any kind of tragedy or trauma, you have moments when you just can’t keep it together. That first night at home was definitely one of those. But you also have moments of strength — moments when you feel like you have a handle on everything.

A couple of days after we brought Hudson home, Lexi and I decided it was time for us to go see the team. We felt like we were ready for that — it was a moment of strength.

It was actually a game day. I wasn’t playing because I was on IR, but I still made it to pregame chapel. There were a few guys in there, and Josh McDaniels was there with his wife and four children. Lexi and I walked in and stood next to them.

I was still trying to wrap my head around everything, as I’m sure Lexi was, too. On the outside, I was keeping it together. But inside, I was a wreck. I still had this tremendous guilt buried inside me. I couldn’t shake it.

Then, during worship, a song came on and we all began singing.

The song was called “Good, Good Father.”

I started singing the lyrics, and I just broke down. I started bawling. Then Lexi did, too. The two of us were doubled over on our knees, sobbing — no … wailing throughout the entire song, and everybody was looking at us, wondering what was wrong. They didn’t know.

Josh knew, though.

I had spoken to him and Coach Belichick when Hudson was first diagnosed. So not only did Josh know what Lexi and I were going through, but standing there next to us with his four children, I think he really connected with us and understood the pain we must have been feeling.

They treated me like a human being instead of a football player or a left tackle.

Before I tell you what happened next, I need to let you know a little about what it’s really like playing for the Patriots.

It can be a tough environment. It’s very businesslike, and at times it can be cold. Everything in New England is predicated on performance. It’s a place where people sometimes treat you differently based on how you practiced that day or how you answered a question in a meeting. One day, you could walk around the facility feeling like a Pro Bowler — the next, like you’re about to get cut.

I don’t mean that to sound harsh or negative. It’s also an incredible place to play, and I’m grateful for the years I spent there. It’s just that it could be tough sometimes. The Patriots have set a standard, and the pressure is very real. That’s the culture they’ve built — a winning culture — and it’s why they’ve been so successful. Josh is a big part of that culture and in setting that tone.

After that day at chapel, I noticed a change in Josh. He gave Lexi a big hug every time he saw her, and held it a beat longer than usual to ask her how she was doing. Our conversations changed. They used to be only about football. Now, they would start with football and end with us talking about God, our families and just life in general.

My relationship with Josh really took off from there. In a cutthroat business where guys are always getting released and winning is everything and it’s all football all the time, I really appreciated the fact that he took the time to say, “Nate, what you’re going through with Hudson … that’s more important than football.” He told me that if I ever needed to dip out of a meeting because the stress got to be too much, nobody would ask any questions. Coach Belichick told me the same. He said that if I ever needed to miss practice or a meeting, it was totally fine.

“Whatever Hudson needs,” he said.

I don’t think I can even put into words how much I appreciated that — both what Bill said and how Josh handled everything. They treated me like a human being instead of a football player or a left tackle.

Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

That kindness didn’t stop with my coaches, either. It went all the way to the top of the organization. All the way up to Mr. Kraft.

Tuesday was normally the team’s off day. But for my family, it was chemo day. We would leave the house around 6:30 a.m. and drive about an hour and a half into Boston to the Children’s Hospital. Long drives, chemo, blood tests, MRIs — that was our Tuesday routine. I missed a few practices and meetings, mostly during weeks when a Thursday or Monday night game changed our schedule around. But chemo Tuesdays was a family thing. I wouldn’t have missed them for the world.

I remember one Tuesday, a snowstorm hit New England. On Monday, Lexi and I had been watching the forecast and stressing about whether or not we’d be able to make it to Hudson’s early-morning appointment. We didn’t know if roads would be closed or if it would be safe to drive.

That night I spoke with Mr. Kraft, and he put me and my family up in a hotel right next to the Children’s Hospital so we wouldn’t have to worry about the snow. It was a beautiful hotel overlooking Fenway Park, which is right next to the hospital.

It was a small gesture — a little detail that I think speaks volumes about Mr. Kraft and the Patriots organization. And it’s just another example of the kindness and compassion that they showed my family and me during some of our most difficult times. We never felt like we were alone in our fight.

We knew we had an entire organization supporting us.


Hudson has a small port embedded in his chest just underneath the skin so that doctors can easily draw blood and administer chemo. He endured about a year of treatment before the tumors stopped growing. In October 2016, Hudson’s doctors removed the port in his chest and stopped the chemo.

But we weren’t in the clear yet. We went into what the doctors called “surveillance mode.” Hudson continued to get regular scans to monitor the tumors and make sure they didn’t start growing again. If they did, he would be right back to chemo.

That was the year that we played the Falcons in the Super Bowl. And after that game, that was the first time that I think my heart shifted from fear and guilt and anxiety … to hope. Winning used to be everything to me. But in that moment — being on the field with my teammates and my family after winning the craziest Super Bowl ever — the game and the fact that we had just won our second championship in three seasons wasn’t even at the top of my mind.

Hudson was.

I remember looking at him playing on the field and kicking confetti around, and I was just thankful that he was O.K. His health was everything.

Winning the Super Bowl was icing on the cake.

David J. Phillip/AP

About a year later, in October of this past season, scans revealed that the tumors in Hudson’s kidneys had started to grow again. Doctors put the port back in his chest, he went back on chemo and we restarted our old Tuesday routine — this time, as a family of four, because our daughter, Charlie, had been born earlier that year.

So Hudson is still fighting. We’re still fighting.

And now we’re bringing that fight to New York.

When I was deciding where I was going to play next season, Hudson’s medical needs were a huge factor. My family needed to be somewhere where Hudson would get the best care possible, which eliminated a number of teams right away.

In New York, Hudson will get the medical attention that he needs, and my family and I are excited to start this new chapter.

The toughest part will be leaving the friends we’ve made in New England, both within the Patriots organization and in the community. My family and I have developed so many special relationships with people at Boston Children’s Hospital, the Jimmy Fund Clinic and all over New England from our work in and around Boston.

But I want all those people to know that just because we’re going to New York doesn’t that those relationships are going to end. We’re not looking to replace them. We’re looking to continue them and build on them.

Leaving my teammates is going to be tough as well.

I remember the night before the Super Bowl against the Eagles, a few of my teammates and I held a prayer meeting, like we do before every game. About 10 of us gathered in one of the meeting rooms at the hotel with our character coach, Jack Easterby, who leads our sermons.

I went to New England, where winning is everything. Only to learn that it’s not.

The pregame prayer meetings during the playoffs are usually the toughest because you know there’s a chance that it could be the last time the group meets that season. Before the Super Bowl, you know it’ll be the last time. And that’s tough because you look around the room at these guys who have been through so much together, and you know that some of them aren’t going to be there next year. That’s just the nature of the business.

By the time Jack finished his sermon, most of us were in tears. I just think the love and appreciation we have for one another really came out in that moment. I mean, this was a group of guys who had been attending chapel and prayer meetings and Monday Bible studies together all season — some of us for the past few years. Some guys had gotten married during that time. Others baptized. We shared our deepest fears and struggles and we prayed for each other’s families. The bond we forged is difficult to put into words.

I think one of the guys in our group actually summed it up best that night when he addressed the room and said, “This group has been an answer to prayer.”

I don’t think I could say it any better than that.

I thank God for those men.

This year, I’m one of the guys from that group who won’t be back, and I’m going to miss all those guys. But really, I’m going to miss everyone in that locker room and everybody in the organization, top to bottom. Wherever God may lead me, nothing will ever be able to replace what I found in New England.

Thank you, Mr. Kraft, Coach Belichick, and especially Josh McDaniels, who became much more to me than just a great coach — he became a great friend as well. Thank you for all your support. Thank you to my O-line coach, Dante Scarnecchia, for always treating me like a human being, and for never letting what was happening with me off the field impact the way you treated me as a football player. Thank you to my teammates for always being there for me whenever I needed you. Thank you to everybody Lexi and I have worked with in the community, and to everybody who had even the smallest hand in Hudson’s treatment over the last few years. The warmth and kindness you’ve brought into our lives will stay with us forever. Thank you to the incredible fans who supported this team and me and my family, even during tough times.

Thank you, New England. I’m going to miss being a Patriot. I learned a lot about life over the last seven years, and I also learned a lot about winning — mostly, that it’s not everything.

There’s so much more.

God bless.

Nate Solder
New York Giants