On the western fringes of Palm Beach County, where miles of sugarcane fields dominate the horizon, sits a hotbed of rising college football and NFL talent. The cities of Belle Glade and Pahokee boast a combined population of fewer than 25,000, but the area has been producing prolific football players for decades. Athletes like Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Ricky Jackson, running back Fred Taylor, wide receiver Santonio Holmes and corner back Janoris Jenkins, among others, all cut their teeth on the hallowed fields of the Muck Bowl far from the beach—and, in turn, have become role models, examples of hard workers who got out and made it big. For Pahokee native and now Super Bowl champ Anquan Boldin, football was not just a tool to a better life for him and family but also a way to give back to his community and those in need.
Anquan Boldin's touchdown reception in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLVII helped propel the Baltimore Ravens past the San Francisco 49ers. Representing the culmination of 10 years in the NFL, the touchdown has helped cement Boldin's reputation as one of the league's leading receivers. Now, he is a member of 49ers, the odds-on favorite to return for Super Bowl XLVIII.
Photo credit: Ben Liebenberg/NFL
“It’s definitely a way out for a lot of people, myself included,” says Boldin, who’s career reached the mountaintop in February when he helped lead the Baltimore Ravens to their second Super Bowl victory in franchise history.
For Boldin, who stands 6’1”, weighs 220 pounds and runs a 4.71 in the 40-yard dash, football comes naturally: He was named Florida’s Mr. Football in 1998 while a senior at Pahokee High School, was a freshman on Florida State University’s 1999 National Championship team and was selected in the second round—fifty-fourth overall—in the 2003 NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals. During Super Bowl XLVII, Boldin was the leading receiver on the night, bringing in 104 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter that helped lead the Ravens to a 34-31 victory—the crowning achievement of his ten-year career so far. “I’ve been waiting 10 years for it—10 hard, long years,” Boldin says. But for many—some who have never even seen an NFL game before—Boldin has come to mean a whole lot more than athletic exploits.
Now a member of the San Francisco 49ers, Boldin runs on to the field during preseason.
Photo courtesy of @anquanboldin
Shortly after being drafted, Boldin started a foundation dedicated to helping underprivileged children in his hometown. The Anquan Boldin Foundation, Q81, has created a network of support, guidance and mentoring through after-school programs, an annual summer enrichment program and the annual Palm Beach County All-Stars Football Camp, a veritable who’s who of up-and-coming talent from ages 10-18 across the county. With programs set up in Pahokee and in cities where Boldin once hung his pads, underprivileged children have access to free life insurance, home energy and dental programs (both in Phoenix) as well as seasonal services, including holiday dinners and shopping sprees, back-to-school and computer items, and football equipment for the start of season.
“My main goal is to help these kids as much as possible. That’s always been my dream, to be able to affect people like that,” says Boldin, who was named the Ravens’ Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2012, an annual award given by the NFL to honor player’s volunteer and charitable work.
On a hot and muggy July afternoon, I met with Boldin at the Seacrest Sports Complex in Delray Beach, the scene of the annual Palm Beach County All-Stars Football Camp. Now in its third year in partnership with fellow NFLers Abe Elam and Brandon Flowers, the camp guides football players ages 10-18 through skill assessment, drills and seven-on-seven scrimmages to gear up for the upcoming season. The participants and their parents, many of whom in attendance in the bleachers, hold Boldin, Elam and Flowers in reverence; everyone wants to be around them, learn from them, follow in their footsteps.
“For us, this is an annual thing,” Boldin says. “The kids look forward to it. I think it's something they need. And it's great to see guys that have made it come back, hopefully setting an example for guys in the future.”
As camp breaks for lunch, Boldin stands among a streaming crowd of youngsters, all wanting to give him a high-five as they walk by, which he happily obliges with an encouraging word. Amid the clack of cleats on sidewalks and asphalt, shouts and boasts from kids just getting off the field challenging each other to sprints, Boldin is in his element, on the field leading through example. And though in shorts and a T-shirt now, it was only a few short weeks earlier that Boldin was walking up the steps of the Capital Building in Washington, D.C. in suit and tie to testify before Congress at a special hearing about the exploitive mining practices of western companies in destitute regions of Africa.
Mr. Boldin Goes to Africa
Boldin first got interested in Africa two years ago, when he and fellow NFL wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Roddy White planned a trip to Ethiopia.
“I was reading about the drought [Ethiopia] was going through at the time. It was probably the worst they experienced in over 50 years. I wanted to see how I could help, if I could,” Boldin says. “I started doing some research and got in contact with OxFam America. Instead of cutting a check, I wanted to see for myself where the money was going, how it was being used.”
So, Boldin, Fitzgerald and White went to Ethiopia in March of 2012 to do just that.
“That’s how I got hooked on Africa,” Boldin says.
Anquan Boldin in Senegal in March 2013. Visiting with Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, Boldin and the others saw firsthand how local communities were affected by large-scale mining facilities. “To see the way a lot of these companies take advantage of the locals in Africa, for us, was outrageous,” Boldin says.
Photo by Audra Melton/Oxfam America
When it comes to international aid, most Americans help by writing a check; not many actually go to witness the circumstances and relief efforts firsthand. “It's just hard,” said Andrew Blejwas, humanitarian media manager with OxFam America, who traveled with the three receivers to Ethiopia and Senegal earlier this year. “The initial trip to Ethiopia was really about learning what was happening there, a way of becoming more informed.”
After the trip, Boldin’s interest in international relief and development was sparked, and plans were quickly laid for a return to Africa in the offseason—this time to Western Africa, dealing with a whole different set of issues.
On the heels of Super Bowl XLVII, Boldin, Fitzgerald and White visited the West African nation of Senegal in March 2013, where natural resources—specifically gold—has become big business, despite the effects it has had on local communities. While visiting Sabodala, a small village in eastern Senegal, Boldin was confronted firsthand with the disruption and devastation these large-scale gold-mining operations can have on farming communities that have tilled the same land for generations.
In many instances, landowners were stripped of their property or received a pittance in compensation, while restricted from the land once used for agricultural purposes. Whole communities are forced to pan for gold in the hopes of finding flakes and dust to earn enough to feed their families, while the large mining operations rake in untold profits without proliferating any benefits or help to the local community.
Boldin in Sobadala. After a mining company stripped the land from the villagers, much of the community relies to panning for gold to feed their families.
Photo by Audra Melton/Oxfam America
“To see how these companies take advantage of the locals, it was just outrageous,” Boldin said of his time in Senegal.
So moved by what he saw, Boldin testified before the U.S. Congress on July 18 to “support measures to strengthen human rights protections for communities impacted by the oil and mining industries in Africa”:
“During my visit to Africa, I promised the people I met that I would do everything I can to bring their stories back to the U.S.,” Boldin said in his testimony. He added: “When the land they farmed was sold out from under them to a large mining company, the community, which had been farming the same land for generations, suddenly had nothing. Meanwhile, the community that lost its land sees little benefit from the enormous mine in what was once their backyard. No percentage of the revenue from the mine, which is bigger than several football stadiums and brings in untold revenues, ever makes its way back to the community. … I believe the U.S. Congress should call on Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, to take action to improve the conditions of mining-affected communities in eastern Senegal. He should ensure that mining companies respect human rights, that mining revenue is managed in a transparent way, and that communities receive adequate compensation and have a meaningful voice in decision-making about where mining takes place.”
Boldin is "a man of his word,” Blejwas says. “He made a promise to those people in Senegal that he would go to D.C. and do whatever he could to bring their stories back. If he says he is going to do it, he’ll do it.”
Like his work with Q81, Boldin’s presence alone has a lasting effect, even to those who've never seen an American football game. “It's pretty incredible for Africans who are experiencing poverty to see someone like Anquan, Roddy or Larry, who are clearly celebrities—powerful, strong men both in a physical sense and in presence—come to these communities and talk to them. It's kind of a transformative experience in a lot of ways,” Blejwas says.
While in Senegal, Boldin and crew not only visited with villages and the community but also got their hands dirty, helping out any way they could. Some of it was a simple as moving rocks from a field so children could play soccer and rugby; they also built fences to keep hippos from trampling and eating a community’s garden. The simple act of helping goes a long way. And though this had an immediate impact on the ground in Senegal, Boldin's time in Washington, D.C. has the opportunity to be much more lasting.
“Anquan, Roddy and Larry realize that they have a unique position, that they have a platform,” says Blejwas, who accompanied Boldin to Washington, D.C. for the hearing with Congress. “It was kind of amazing for us working as a nonprofit in Washington, constantly trying to secure meetings with staffers, to have Anquan come in. Suddenly, we’re not meeting with staff members but congressmen and senators, in their offices. And they listened to his issues in a bipartisan way—every single person we met said, 'Let me know what I can do to help.' That’s what you want. People want to help other people, and this is a pretty easy way to do it. They love talking to him; he’s a great ambassador.”
Boldin playing rugby with some of the locals.
Photo credit: Audra Melton/Oxfam America
After Boldin’s initial visit to Washington, D.C. in June, the hearing—something OxFam had been trying to secure for more than a year—was scheduled two weeks later. “Congress doesn’t move that fast,” Blejwas joked, “but I guess it does for Anquan.”
Much like the impact he brings to the field, as a member of the Oxfam team, Boldin is quickly becoming a strong advocate for human rights around the world. He is in a unique position for a spokesman, admired for a game so at odds with what he champions off the field, and his voice has the opportunity to be much more impactful. In a time when athletes making the news—or better yet, testifying before Congress—is usually tagged with unfortunate headlines, Boldin is a player who uses the clout that comes with being an NFL star to good use.
“It’s unfortunate; a lot of NFL players … we get a bad reputation because of things happening in the media, mistakes that are being made,” Boldin says. “I think a lot of players give back in a lot of ways. There are a lot of people in need. We want to try and help as many as we can.”