EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – After entering the NFL as the New England Patriots' first-round draft choice in 2011, Nate Solder became one of the league's most durable offensive linemen. In his first nine seasons he missed only 13 games – 12 in 2005, when a torn right biceps prematurely ended his season. Solder's stability continued after joining the Giants as a free agent in 2018; he started all 32 games at left tackle in his first two seasons with the team.
Solder didn't play a down last year and it was entirely his choice. A cancer survivor whose young son, Hudson, first underwent cancer treatment as an infant, Solder opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. Now, at age 33 and almost 18 months after last playing a game, he is back with the Giants, hoping to help the team in 2021.
"I'm just thankful they gave me the opportunity to come back," Solder said on a Zoom call today after a minicamp practice. "There's no guarantees with that. And the other thing was just excitement. I was excited to come back, I was ready to come back and those were the determining factors. Sitting down with my wife (Lexi) and making the decision and all that stuff was a group decision between me and her.
"My mindset was if I can be somewhere where I'm fulfilling my purpose, where I can be around guys that have the same set of values and goals and myself, it's a real honor and it's a privilege to be part of the NFL. I would say I missed the excitement and fun of being a part of it, so I'm fortunate to be in this position."
Much has changed since Solder last wore a Giants jersey. Head coach Joe Judge is entering his second season, but Solder knows him well because they were together for six seasons in New England. The coaching staff is almost entirely different, including first-year line coach Rob Sale. Of the five current starting linemen, only Will Hernandez and Nick Gates were with the team when Solder last played in 2019 – and Hernandez, who started each of those 32 games next to Solder at left guard, is now on the right side. And Gates was a first-time center last year.
"It is so different," Solder said. "It's interesting how many guys are new, and you know what, I love the feel of the guys, I love the way that they are working, I love that the way we are covering the details in the meetings. We are doing so many good things, so it's really neat to be part of it."
Perhaps the most significant change is that Andrew Thomas, the Giants' draft choice a year ago, is now entrenched at left tackle. But Solder did not return with the goal of taking back his former job.
"One of the great things about coming back is just the opportunity to work with a group of guys," Solder said. "Who cares who starts? I just want to be a part of an excellent group that's getting better every day that plays at a really high level. I've been fortunate enough to play with some great O-lines, and nobody cares who is starting and who is not starting, because we're all part of the team and we're all necessary and we're all needed. So, if I can encourage, protect, guide, lead and compete, whatever it takes, I'm here to do it."
Solder received no promises when he told Judge he wanted to return.
"He said the best five are going to play," Solder said. "I've been on enough teams where there's six, seven off the bench that there's significant time, so I don't know what that's going to be. Who knows? They are going to game plan something up, and I'm hoping to get some time on the field but whatever the case is going to be, I'm going to work my tail off and be the best I can to support the guys around me."
Solder was impressed with Thomas watching him during the season and has become a bigger fan of the young tackle while spending time in meetings and on the field with him this offseason.
"He's awesome," Solder said. "He goes about his business, works hard, keeps his head down, humble, just grinds, excellent athlete. It's a real pleasure to work with him."
Solder had an odd confluence of feelings last year. He never second-guessed his decision to not play. And he did enjoy his time at home.
"It was interesting, and I thought about it, it was the first time I had a break since middle school," he said. "I didn't even know that fall existed outside of a football locker room. It was a nice little break and I needed it mentally and physically, and that's been really a wonderful break that I got to have and spend time with my family which was nice."
But he also missed football and is happy to again be part of a team.
"That's one of the best parts of being in the NFL is the locker room with the guys, the camaraderie, and having a collective goal," Solder said. "I really did miss that and I'm glad to be back part of that."
Returning to the field after a season away from the game presents daunting physical challenges. Solder said he weighs "not too much less" than the 316 pounds he was listed at in 2019. "(That) is a little bit shocking to me," he said. "But it's good. I'm working hard."
Solder did his best to stay in top condition during his idle year.
"I haven't played much football until the last couple weeks, so that's been a little different," he said. "But I did a few things. I was in my backyard doing pass sets and I got a weight set down in my basement, stuff like that.
"It's a little transition back here into regular life again, but it's nice to get back in the weight room with all the guys and back on the field and I'm getting better every day as much as I can."
How will his body respond when opposing defensive lineman attack him during a game?
"The Lord knows, I have no idea," he said. "I'm thankful for the opportunity. I still feel fresh. I'm as fast and strong as I feel like I have ever been. Who knows, how could I project and predict what's going to happen. I'll do my best to stay out there and be healthy."
View the best photos from Tuesday's minicamp practice at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.