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How a youth track team spawned six NFL players, including Bills' Victor Bolden Jr.

It’s not uncommon for a group of 11-year-old boys to dream of one day making it to the NFL.

The odds of that happening for even one of them are supposed to be astronomical – let alone all of them.

That did not stop the Cali Rising Stars.

A collection of elite track and field athletes from the Inland Empire area of Southern California (about an hour east of Los Angeles), the Rising Stars lived up to their name.

Incredibly, the team featured six athletes who would all go on to have NFL careers, a group that includes current Buffalo Bills receiver Victor Bolden Jr.

“I know that's crazy,” Bolden said. “That's something people would tell you would never happen, but the collection of hard work that we've been putting in since that age has gotten us to this point. A lot of people will tell you to surround yourself with like-minded people, and it works.”

In 2006, when they were 11 or 12 years old competing in the midget division, Bolden was among a group that featured:

Green Bay Packers running back Jamaal Williams: Entering his third season, the 24-year-old Williams has rushed for 1,020 yards in his first two seasons with Green Bay. His 556 yards in 2017 were fourth among any Packers rookie in team history.

Los Angeles Rams cornerback Dont’e Deayon: The 25-year-old is entering his third NFL season, having played eight games over the last two years – four with the New York Giants in 2017 and four with the Rams last year. He finished fifth on Boise State’s career list with 17 interceptions.

Tennessee Titans defensive back Dane Cruikshank: The Titans traded up in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft to take the 24-year-old, who played in 12 games as a rookie, making 11 tackles.

Miami Dolphins receiver Trenton Irwin: A rookie undrafted free agent signed by the Dolphins last month, Irwin, 23, finished his college career at Stanford with 152 catches, 1,178 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

Wide receiver Darren Andrews: The 23-year-old is a free agent after being released by the New England Patriots in March. Andrews spent the 2018 season on New England’s reserve/non-football injury list. He played at UCLA, finishing fourth on the Bruins’ all-time receptions list with 162 for 1,977 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Bolden, meanwhile, entered the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent from Oregon State in 2017. He spent his rookie season on the 53-man roster, then was on the 49ers’ practice squad in 2018 until the Bills signed him to their 53-man roster in December.

“I mean, honestly for us, that was everybody's dream to play in the NFL,” Bolden said. “We never looked at it as like, 'All of us ended up making it, it's going to be a rare thing or such a hard task to do.’ The goal in mind was to make the NFL. I don't think we had any doubt in our minds that we couldn't get to this level, just because of the amount of work that we were putting in.

"We were serious as far as athletics goes since that age. If you work hard, you can get to this point.”

From left, Jamaal Williams, Darren Andrews, Victor Bolden Jr. and Dont'e Deayon in a 2006 photo with their track medals. (Provided photo)

Bolden’s parents played a major role in instilling that work ethic. They were coaches for the Rising Stars, which had a range of athletes from 5 to 18 years old. Victor Bolden Sr. and Zelda were standout athletes at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. Victor Sr. played football and ran track, while Zelda is still the school’s record holder in the 100 meters and 200 meters with times of 11.23 seconds and 23.12 seconds, respectively. Those records have stood since 1984. Formerly Zelda Johnson before getting married, she also holds the University of Washington women's record in the 100 meters, with a time of 11.47 seconds set in 1985.

“When are you going to beat your mom?” is a common question Bolden got growing up. That happened in his freshman year of high school at Los Osos in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

“Once I got that, then I felt like I did something,” he said. “My whole entire family on both sides are athletes top to bottom. I think it's just in our genes to be athletes. I definitely looked up to her and my dad. Both of them played big roles in my athleticism and my success so far.”

Bolden’s parents were wary of the physical punishment football can take, so their son wasn’t permitted to play until the eighth grade. Track served as a base for the Rising Stars who would go on to play football.

“You could see something that was just different about this group,” Zelda said. "And we knew this. So did we push them a little bit harder? Yes. Did we demand a little bit more? Yes. Did we expect a little bit more? Absolutely.

"I believe because of that, we set the tone at a young age, they believed they could achieve any dream they wanted. And so the dream was the NFL. And look, they all made it.”

The idea of six middle-school track stars making the NFL never seem far-fetched to the Boldens.

“Because it wasn't,” Zelda said. “Honestly, the dream for them, to me, was real. Because we saw the kids who were local who made it to the NFL. Were they anything different than my boys? No. Did they work harder than my boys? No. So, maybe for other people, it was 'Oh, they all won't make it.’

"I told them, and every coach on that team told them, absolutely you're going to make it. Period. And so they all believed it, and look what happened.”

That unwavering belief in their athletes are why the Boldens and other coaches made the commitment to traveling the country. The Rising Stars competed in national events such as the Junior Olympics and the USA Junior Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Victor Bolden (13) stretches during OTA's at ADPRO Sports Training Center in Orchard Park. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

During the 2006 Junior Olympics held in Baltimore, the Rising Stars’ 4-x-100 relay team of Bolden, Andrews, Demanjee Dixon and Armond Hawkins Jr. – who would go on to play college football at Idaho – won a silver medal with a time of 49.91 seconds. At the same event, Deayon placed 10th in the 80-meter hurdles, while the 4-x-400 relay team of Bolden, Williams, Andrews and Dixon finished seventh overall.

A photo of Williams, Andrews, Bolden and Deayon posing with their medals from the event provides a reminder of what those days were like.

“It definitely takes me back to that time,” Deayon said of looking at the photo. “The competition level we were going against, it was like something I've never been a part of before. ... We created a bond and just kept working and competing, trying to outwork each other to become to the best, and it led to what it is now.”

That bond continues to this day. Several former Rising Stars are on a text chain, and Deayon, Bolden and Williams are all part of a nonprofit organization called GoodEatz, which has dabbled in a variety of areas from fashion to football camps to video production. It's a way for the group to find ways to give back to the community both now and when they're done with football.

The boys from that picture went their separate ways for middle school and high school, but all continued to participate in track. Bolden was the first boy from his school to reach the state track meet, a feat he accomplished in the 300-meter hurdles as a junior, and duplicated as a senior.

He eventually accepted a scholarship offer from Oregon State, where he set the school record with 2,420 career kickoff return yards. He left Oregon State ranking third in program history with 5,196 career all-purpose yards and sixth all time in program history with 170 career receptions.

That track-star speed is required for Bolden, who at 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds is among the two or three shortest and lightest players on the Bills’ roster.

“You can't make it to this level if you can't run. Being the size I am, the size that for the most part, we all are, we've been working on speed from the beginning,” he said. “We were all blessed with parents or role models that had that in mind, and we just followed suit.”

Bolden appeared in nine games with the 49ers as a rookie in 2017, returning 19 kicks for 396 yards and four punts for 23 yards. Just days after being claimed by the Bills, he returned three kicks for 72 yards against the New England Patriots.

With an entire offseason to digest the playbook and get used to a new special-teams coordinator in Heath Farwell, Bolden believes he can do what he does best when training camp starts – play fast.

He’ll need to do just that to stand out on what is a crowded depth chart at wide receiver.

“That's the reality of it,” he said. “We're all fighting for a job. I just have to go in every day and continue to get better. That's really all you can focus on. You can't really focus on the fact that, ‘Hey, you're competing against all these other guys,’ because you can get overwhelmed like that.”

Competing is something the Rising Stars have done since an early age.

“All of those kids were really high achievers,” Victor Bolden Sr. said. “They really worked hard. Track really helped them find out about themselves, work hard, and be able to compete at a national level, because you get out of the boundaries of competing against people that you know. It takes a different mentality, and I think it's helped propel them with the success they're having right now. ... I think we laid the foundation to help them fulfill their dreams, and they grabbed a hold of it and carried it out.”

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