Giants’ Nate Solder details opt-out call and where his life is now
Snacks are on the table, friends are on the couch and Nate Solder is shouting at the television screen.
The Solder family’s Sunday routine includes church in the morning for the five of them — parents Nate and Lexi, sons Hudson and Emerson, and daughter Charlie — and football all day. The only modification from years past is a big one brought on by COVID-19 — Nate is surrounded by his inner circle instead of starting at left tackle for the Giants.
“We’re Joe Football fans and armchair quarterbacks: ‘What were you thinking? Why don’t you start blocking?’ ” Solder said, laughing at the irony. “We watch every Giants game. I’ve been cheering my tail off. I love that they are building and getting better.”
In an exclusive interview with The Post, Solder detailed for the first time how he participated in virtual meetings in the spring, trained on his own and wrote out note cards to study new coordinator Jason Garrett’s offense — only to decide at the last minute to opt out of the season. Solder is a cancer survivor and his oldest son is a cancer patient five years into cyclical chemotherapy.
The two-time Giants co-captain shared in private conversations with team ownership and coaches the three-pronged burden he felt of letting down teammates, of deferring $9.75 million in salary and of understanding how physically difficult it is to return to football from a year away.
“It really weighed hard on us,” Solder said. “Joe Judge and John Mara were so supportive that it took some of my anxiety away and I could just look objectively at what I had in front of me: Does it make sense to play football in the midst of all that is going on, when my family is going through our own medical crisis? I’m trying not to waste my time and be diligent with my body and my mind.”
To that end, Solder is a lead team member with “Fill The Stadium,” a Compassion International initiative seeking to help 70,000 at-risk children by asking NFL fans to redirect some of their spending. For about the $500 cost of four tickets, parking and concessions, a year’s worth of food, nutritional supplements, hygiene essentials and medical screenings can be provided, according to Compassion International.
“Now that these stadiums are empty because of COVID-19, imagine if we were able to fill them with people who are in need of help around the globe,” Solder said. “There are people who are starving and they need our assistance immediately. That’s what Compassion is doing — and that’s where our hearts are.”
Solder, 32, is making the most of this season in limbo. He isn’t fully committed to Eli Manning’s Sloppy Joe sandwich-eating retirement plan.
Instead, he’s dedicated himself to other pursuits: taking hikes, dropping off his two older children at their socially distanced classrooms, raising a 7-month-old son and pursuing a master’s degree in Biblical Studies through online classes at Reformed Theological Seminary.
But there’s also a career to continue, which has Solder engaging in trainer-recommended strength and conditioning workouts in his home basement, taking tennis lessons to sharpen quickness muscles in a 6-foot-9, 316-pound body and attending regular appointments with the Giants’ team psychologist.
“I feel like I’m in such a blessed position because I’ve had a window into what life after football is going to look like,” Solder said. “If it ends like this, I really enjoy what I’m doing and the opportunities I have. That does not mean it’s going to happen now. It could be in two, three years. I have not made that decision yet.”
Exercising the NFL’s COVID-19 opt-out clause pushed Solder’s four-year contract through 2022 and freed up salary-cap space for the Giants to sign Logan Ryan. But the Giants have two promising rookies at offensive tackle if they want to move in another direction.
“I think I can physically perform and play at a high level,” Solder said. “Mentally, I’m getting healthy and I feel strong, and I have some pieces together that I didn’t have at this time last year. I’m going to wait to see what happens and what the possibilities are.”
Solder’s unexpected exit just before training camp upped the ante for first-round pick Andrew Thomas. Instead of playing right tackle opposite a veteran — the way Solder was eased in as a New England Patriots rookie in 2011 — Thomas is in Solder’s shoes.
“I hope that doesn’t weigh on his mind,” Solder said. “He has enough to worry about on the blind side of the quarterback. He’s going to be a really solid player. I love watching him. He’s really strong, got great feet. His hands are getting better. He’s not lunging his head like he was before. I think it says a lot about him handling this situation.”
The Giants offensive line is in the middle of its best seven-game stretch in years thanks to an unorthodox strategy of converting tackle Nick Gates into a center — “It’s not easy what he’s doing,” Solder said — and rotating six other blockers around him. After playing 97 percent of the snaps over the last two seasons, Solder can see the improvement in the Giants’ line.
“I don’t feel retired, but it does feel a little strange,” Solder said. “It is nice to take a step back.
“They are working together and they are not making a lot of foolish mistakes to hurt themselves. They are building these consistent positive drives that look really nice. I think the rotation makes sense because guys are maximizing performance, young guys are getting experience and you are getting depth on your line.”
Managing the pandemic
The Solders donated $1 million to Compassion International during the pandemic and have teamed with NFL stars Nick Foles and the McCourty twins on Fill The Stadium. So far, 16,469 seats are “filled,” and Solder would love to see the numbers approach the 100,000-plus crowds the Cowboys typically draw in Dallas.
“The virus itself is bad, but what makes it more difficult is the borders are shut down, so where there would be support, tourism and commerce, it all gets shut down,” Solder said. “These communities are so dependent on each other to make it through tough times. It’s an easy benchmark for people to say, ‘I love football, and this is a goal we can all work toward of helping other people.’ ”
Solder is a two-time nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award whose commitment to fighting poverty has included delivering aid to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and helping fund 11 new child-development centers in developing countries.
Closer to home, 5-year-old Hudson Solder, who had surgery to remove a rare Wilms tumor on his kidney during the Giants’ bye week last November, is doing “excellent” and is a “big, strong and healthy” newcomer to soccer as he recovers from a third round of chemotherapy.
Because cancer survivors are an at-risk group for COVID-19, the Solders faced “fear and trembling” as they turned to prayer to set their priorities in the early stage of the pandemic. Like other families, they are settling in as time passes and conflicting information gets sorted out.
“We’ve been living our life in some semblance of normalcy,” Solder said. “We aren’t taking a lot of unnecessary risks, but we aren’t huddled up in our homes afraid of the first noise outside. There are ways to work around it.”
Two of Solder’s teammates, cornerback Sam Beal and receiver Da’Mari Scott, also opted out during the preseason. Since then, the Giants have put eight players on the COVID-19/reserve list, and all returned after the minimum time missed under the league’s protocols. Months later, Solder remains confident in his decision.
“It was a traumatic, hard time for us, and I couldn’t find a good reason to play this year,” Solder said. “There are going to be things on the plate for next year, and I want to be prepared. I’m getting my mind right because it’s so critical with so much anxiety with the pandemic and family and football.”