The Purdue running back tore the ACL in his right knee as a high school senior and wasn't fully recovered by the time he arrived in West Lafayette, playing mostly on special teams in 2008. At full strength the following fall, Bolden rushed for 935 yards and 11 touchdowns, earning consensus second-team All-Big Ten honors.
Primed for an even bigger junior season, Bolden suffered an all-too-familiar setback. He tore the same ACL in spring practice and sat out the entire 2010 campaign.
After another lengthy rehab, Bolden is once again on the verge of a return.
Ralph Bolden rushed for 935 yards during the 2009 season.
"I'm so ready," he said last week. "I have dreams about playing games and everything. It's hard to explain."
Bolden notes some positive developments during his time away from the spotlight.
For starters, his leg is stronger and more explosive, and he can squat more than he used to. He feels more natural in his cuts after doing countless foot drills during the rehab process. The time away also allowed Bolden to spend more time studying film.
Bolden participated in most drills during spring practice but was held out of contact, just to be safe.
"There were a couple times I actually tried to get into practice, but the coaches were holding me out," he said. "They let me run around, skelly, all non-contact stuff, but they didn't want me to do contact stuff. They said, 'No rush.'"
Bolden's most recent ACL recovery differed from the first because he had to rehab both legs. Doctors used graft from his left leg to help reconstruct his right ACL during surgery.
Other than that, the rehab was standard for the 5-foot-9, 194-pound Bolden.
"I knew what to do," he said. "I knew how to do it."
Unfortunately, Bolden wasn't the only standout Purdue athlete going through ACL rehab last year. ACL injuries have become somewhat of an epidemic for the Boilers.
Bolden's teammates Robert Marve and Keith Smith suffered ACL tears last season, and Purdue basketball star Robbie Hummel tore his right ACL twice in an eight-month span.
"During the fall and summer last year, we were working out a lot together," Bolden said. "We pretty much went through the same thing. He'd ask me how my knee feels and he'd give me feedback on how his knee felt.
"When he tore it [again], I actually got scared. I was like, 'Oh man, we had the same surgeon and everything. It's going to happen to me.' But I'm not worried about it."
Bolden is only worried about returning to the field this season. Though he's a likely candidate to reclaim his starting job, nothing is guaranteed with coach Danny Hope, who never writes his depth chart in permanent ink.
Purdue's one-dimensional offense finished fifth in the league in rushing last fall but should have a more balanced attack as players get healthy.
"The best players are going to start," Bolden said. "I look at every year as a new beginning, so I'm going to go all out in camp to show the coaches what I can do."