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Immune to the Haters

The 49ers made a deal for the man who torched them in the Super Bowl. What they've gotten from Anquan Boldin goes well beyond the skills he displayed last February

Reading the comments beneath a story is often a journey through Trollville, where faceless residents send rivers of shocking vitriol flowing through the streets. Still, there are occasions when the remarks are more insightful than infuriating. One such instance occurred in 2009, when the Palm Beach Post wrote about Pahokee High School’s new football field being named after Anquan Boldin, the local boy who became a star in the NFL.

"This decision was FITTING and PROPER for one of our own," the comment began. "Mr. Boldin has and still is representing Pahokee High School and the City of Pahokee with superlative standards. The Anquan Boldin Q81 Foundation annually gives to the youth in Pahokee, Pahokee High School and the City of Pahokee. We are proud of you Anquan, you make us feel good. There can be only one, you are the right one. A GREAT DECISION PAHOKEE!!"

The respect for Boldin isn’t limited to his hometown. It can also be found throughout the NFL, where Boldin is considered a man’s man and a pro’s pro. It’s not just what he does, like returning to the field just three games after being knocked unconscious and having reconstructive facial surgery from a helmet-to-helmet hit in 2008. It’s also how he does his job, with a steady professionalism that sets the standard for everyone else—a point that’s particularly significant to the 49ers, who sent a sixth-round pick to Baltimore to acquire Boldin in an offseason trade.

San Francisco, which has played in back-to-back NFC Championship Games and advanced to the Super Bowl last season, is seasoned at every position but wideout. With Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham out with injuries, Boldin’s 137 career starts are 84 more than the combined total for the 11 other healthy receivers on the roster. None in that group has started more than 17 games.

The role of mentor is one that Boldin neither seeks nor runs from. He won’t impose himself on others, but he will divulge everything he has learned over the past 10 seasons—the first seven with Arizona before being traded to Baltimore—if a teammate is interested.

"Q has been so good with the younger guys, trying to teach them how to be professionals," says fourth-year receiver Kyle Williams. "He’s not just teaching them what to learn, but how to learn it, how to learn concepts and how you can see certain things in coverages. I think his whole mentality, his whole approach to this game is something we all can learn something from. He’s so serious about it. He doesn’t play around. I mean, he’ll joke around. It’s not like he’s a hard guy to be around or anything. But it’s all business with him. That’s something to be admired and a standard for young guys who are looking for someone to model their game after or their mentality after. There may not be another guy that you want a group of young guys to learn from."

'A Grown Man'

Peter King visited 49ers training camp earlier this offseason, and was taken aback by the sight of Anquan Boldin in a 49ers jersey. He wrote about the impact Boldin will have on the Super Bowl contenders.

Talk may get someone’s attention, but production is what holds it. Boldin’s achievements include most receptions in a rookie season (101), most receiving yards in the first game of a career (217) and most receptions in a player’s first 26 games (157). He’s the fastest in NFL history to pull down 400 career receptions (67 games), as well as the fastest to 500 (80 games) and 600 (98 games).

What he lacks in speed he makes up for with quickness, toughness, vise-lock hands and a MENSA football IQ. Last February in Super Bowl XLVII he had a game-high six catches for 104 yards and a touchdown, helping the Ravens outlast the 49ers, 34-31. If a big play needed to be made, he made it. On consecutive possessions late in the second half—after San Francisco had cut a 28-6 deficit to five and two points, respectively—he picked up 30 yards on 3rd-and-3 to help set up a field goal, then 15 yards on 3rd-and-1 to position Baltimore for another field goal.

The beauty of Boldin’s game is that even when he appears to be covered, he’s not. "He’s so strong that he knows how to get the ball in traffic," says cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who has known Boldin since they attended the same football camp in high school. "He’s like one of those basketball players who, even if he’s double-teamed in the post, knows how to fight and position himself to hold onto the ball. You can’t sleep on him."

I've never liked for a coach to tell me, 'You've got it.' I want to be pushed and challenged every day."

Yet Boldin’s value cannot be measured solely in statistics. He brings toughness and tenacity to the offense and the locker room. The next time he shies away from a block will be the first. The next time he pulls a verbal punch will be the only time. For instance:

• After striving to win a championship for 10 years, including a Super Bowl loss with Arizona, which was better, the reality or the fantasy of winning a title? "The reality—and then some. I don’t care what anybody says, unless you win a championship you don’t feel complete as a player."

• After getting a ring, is the hunger still there? "For me it doesn't change. That's the reason why I didn't go to the ring ceremony at the White House. If you take time to celebrate, you kind of lose that edge, lose that hunger."

• On being a mentor: "The guys that are successful in this league, they take heed. The guys that don't, they fall by the wayside."

• How does he like to be coached? "I've never liked for a coach to tell me, 'You've got it.' I want to be pushed and challenged every day."

In San Francisco, Boldin will be challenged by offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who has one of the game’s most creative minds. How will Boldin fit into the 49ers’ scheme? Will he run the same type of layered routes that he did in Baltimore? Roman isn't one to get too specific about how a player will be used.

One Year Later

The 49ers are, like last year, a Super Bowl threat. But to get there, they'll have to rely on a much different pass-catching crew than the one who led them to the big game in 2012. Find out more in The Season.

"We’re always going to look at the player and what the player does well and adapt the offense to the player," Roman says. "He’s a pretty easy guy to adapt to. He’s so smart and he’s a strong, physical guy who can make the plays short, make the plays deep. If you put it near him he’s probably going to make a play. He has great ball skills. He has such a strong will to get it done."

Boldin is proud of his accomplishments on the field, but he takes greater pride in what he has done to help kids in his hometown. That’s why each offseason he returns to Pahokee for a weekend fundraiser known as Q-fest. His foundation, Q81 Foundation, has partnered with Florida Crystals Corp. to fund a summer program that gives high school students a chance to catch up academically through computer-based credit recovery courses.

"Anquan has made countless plays on the field, but the man he is off the field is what makes him so special," says former Cardinals teammate Larry Fitzgerald. "Q continues to inspire the children from that area, and that's much bigger then any touchdown he will ever catch—and he has caught a lot of them in the biggest of moments. He just won’t turn his back on [the kids]."

"I love football, but one day that ends," Boldin says. "My foundation is something that will carry on when I’m done, and others will benefit from that. It has a lasting effect. I care about my name. I care about how it’s carried, how it comes out of other people’s mouth. And I believe if you’re going to put your name on something, you have to be involved."