MANY PEOPLE have experienced the mix of dread and anticipation that comes when they power up a cellphone after a long flight and find dozens of new voice and text messages waiting. Far fewer have received the kind of life-altering news that greets Anquan Boldin as his Iberia Airlines plane taxis on a runway on the outskirts of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, on a cool West African evening in March 2013. Just five weeks after starring in the Ravens' 34-31 win over the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, the 32-year-old wide receiver learns that he's just been traded to the losing side. This is Boldin's second trip to Africa in a year, the result of a developing relationship he has with Oxfam America, a charitable organization focused on helping the world's poor. An hour or so after landing, Boldin and his wife, Dionne, make it through customs and are greeted in the airport parking lot by Bridgett Coates, Boldin's PR rep, and Andrew Blejwas, an Oxfam official. Both of them have heard about the trade, but neither knows whether Boldin has. "It was a weird situation," Blejwas recalls later. "We're standing there wondering what his reaction will be."
There's a case to be made, in the unlikely event anyone is asked to make it, that Boldin is one of the five best receivers of his generation. It's a contention both reasonable and ridiculous. Reasonable, because of performances like this season's opener against the Packers (13 catches, 208 yards, one TD) and the entirety of last season's playoffs (22 catches, 380 yards, four TDs and 17.3 yards per catch in four games). The latter included a back-shoulder grab on a third-and-inches late in the Super Bowl that many of his new teammates consider the play of the game. ("I thought he was the reason they won," says Niners QB Colin Kaepernick.) Ridiculous, because if you ask most NFL observers to rank the top receivers of the past decade, you'll hear many names -- Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Randy Moss, Wes Welker -- before anyone outside Palm Beach and Baltimore counties mentions Boldin. Despite 10 solid years since Arizona made him its second-round pick in the 2003 NFL draft -- including catching 400, 500 and 600 passes faster than anyone in league history -- Boldin has never enjoyed superstar status. That's partly because of a public persona that makes the Daft Punk guys seem chatty and partly because he's always played Sundance Kid to flashier Butch Cassidy wideouts like Fitzgerald and Torrey Smith. There's also a fantasy explanation, in that Boldin hasn't spent that much time in the end zone: He is 10th among receivers over the span of his career, with 58 TDs. (Moss, with 96, ranks first.)
But Boldin's strength -- what makes him, in the words of Falcons receiver Roddy White, a "player's player" -- is obvious in situations like that fourth-quarter fade in New Orleans. He ranks fifth among all receivers from 2003 to 2012 in third-down receptions with 217 (Tony Gonzalez has the most with 228). He's also fifth in first downs with 495 (Wayne, 637) and yards after the catch with 3,913 (Welker, 4,490), showing a tenaciousness that impresses peers almost as much as his toughness. "I don't ever see him break," says White. "He never has a down moment."
Not even when he learns that he's been traded for a sixth-round draft pick, the second time in his career that Boldin has been shipped off for little in return by a team he helped take to the Super Bowl. In both cases -- Arizona sent him to Baltimore in 2010 for two middle-round draft picks -- management decided that an aging Boldin wasn't worth the salary cap hit. So it's no small irony that No. 81 learns of his most recent football-is-a-business indignity at the start of an odyssey that will end with his making a case before Congress that every person is due his rightful compensation, not least poor farmers in Senegal. "I guess we're going to be neighbors," Boldin says outside the airport when he greets Coates, who lives in the Bay Area. The tension broken, he reassures Blejwas about his focus. "We're here to work," he says, "I'm glad to be back in Africa."
I FIRST MET Boldin in March 2012, in a hotel lobby in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The previous fall, an Oxfam official told me that Boldin had contacted the organization after reading about the drought in East Africa. Boldin grew up in Pahokee, Fla., a town in sugar cane country known for its high-caliber athletics and low-caliber economics. He jokes about his childhood poverty ("The good thing about growing up in Pahokee is that we didn't know we were poor because everyone was") but devotes a great deal of his time and money to various causes aimed mostly at resource-poor kids. Still, he wasn't reaching out to Oxfam solely to donate money. Boldin also thought that if he and Fitzgerald visited Ethiopia, they could use their fame to raise awareness in the U.S. Knowing I'd just stepped down as editor of ESPN The Magazine, my Oxfam contact asked whether I could help generate stories for the pair's offseason trip. I ended up going and writing an article for The Mag, which is where I expected my dealings with Boldin to end.
So I was surprised when, six months later, I got a call from Oxfam about another Africa trip, this time to Senegal to investigate exploitive mining. It's not an issue that gets much play in the U.S., but Boldin and Fitzgerald -- as well as White -- were on board. I was intrigued. It's one level of do-gooding to endure long, uncomfortable van rides and short, scary plane flights to help drought-stricken Ethiopians. It's another level entirely to do it all again for a far less sexy cause.
Senegal is one of the poorest countries on earth, with annual income per person at $2,100 (versus $50,700 in the U.S.). But the nation of 13 million people is also rich in minerals and metals, and in recent years the government has tried to increase its mining exports. Unfortunately, very little money generated by the international mining companies pulling wealth from the ground goes to the villagers under whose property the bounty is buried. That's the injustice Oxfam is trying to remedy, with the help of Boldin, Fitzgerald and White.
From Dakar, the three players fly east across the country to visit mining sites in the Kedougou region, near the border with Mali. There they participate in various hands-dirtying experiences, which include building a fence (to keep hippos away from farmland) and manning a bucket brigade (to irrigate farmland far from a river). All three are enthusiastic participants, but Boldin always digs a little deeper. He probes village leaders about money they get from mining companies (not much). He asks what large-scale mining does to the land (ruins it). He even requests a turn on a drum during a parade in celebration of that new fence (he keeps the beat). Throughout their three-day journey, the receivers are frequently sequestered with an ESPN camera crew, downloading impressions for a planned video piece. Boldin, though, spends the most time talking to microphones, not least because his trade is big news stateside. For a guy who claims to disdain the media, Boldin can feed the beast. Then again, he has an agenda. In all of his interviews, Boldin manages to mention Oxfam. Blejwas appreciates the effort: "Anquan cares about publicity to the extent it will help others," he says.
Blejwas, of course, has his own agenda. Oxfam has been trying for more than a year to get Congress interested in the plight of West African farmers, and he's hoping the players will travel to Washington to lobby on their behalf. At minimum, Oxfam wants as many elected officials as possible to sign a letter encouraging West African governments to adopt a mining code that would even the playing field. Ideally, the agency wants a congressional hearing, which will cause West African governments to worry about a U.S. embargo or other economic obstacles. "Simply drawing attention to the problem makes a difference," Blejwas tells the players. "It would really help if you lobbied with us."
IT'S A cliché that most professional athletes hate to lose any contest, but only Boldin can be said to have knocked the stuffing out of an 8-year-old girl in a pickup rugby match. On the last day of their trip, at a school for at-risk kids in Dakar, the receivers spend a few minutes learning the rules of the game and practice handling what is essentially an obese football. Soon enough a match begins on a dusty sandlot, with White and Boldin on one side and Fitzgerald and his brother Marcus (who played receiver at Marshall) on the other. The match is a friendly, but late in the action Boldin breaks free on a long run, the only obstacle between him and a score being the aforementioned girl, who doesn't seem concerned about the 6-foot-1, 220-pound American barreling toward her. Just before impact Boldin tries to juke his would-be tackler, but instead he puts a shoulder into her as he attempts to keep his balance. The girl falls and somehow brings Boldin down with her, both of them disappearing in a cloud of dust. It's a worrisome moment until she pops up with a grin. Everyone cheers, but on a sideline, Dionne, who started dating Boldin in high school, shakes her head and mutters, "That man is so competitive."
Yes, he is, which helps explain why Boldin and Dionne are in D.C. three months later on a sweltering June Monday. To tell Boldin you've been trying for more than a year to get Congress to act is to watch a man catch a scent. On Capitol Hill, he is viewed with curiosity and respect by the staffers and politicians he meets, including three senators (Ben Cardin of Maryland, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida) and one representative (Chris Smith of New Jersey). All listen politely as Oxfam officials detail the problems in Senegal and Boldin adds the emotion. "I made promises to people over there," he says, sounding as if he'd just gotten off the phone with a few. "I said I would give them a voice."
Smith, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, asks Boldin if he'd return to D.C. to testify in the next few weeks, the better to capitalize on President Obama's imminent visit to Africa. Anquan and Dionne exchange concerned glances. They live with their two sons in Palm Beach County, not far from Pahokee, but the family relocates to Boldin's home city during the season. So Smith's timing is not ideal. Three weeks later, though, the couple are back in D.C. for a hearing Smith has convened, with a slate of four speakers that includes Boldin. All that morning the Oxfam team is nerved up, not wanting to waste this opportunity. Blejwas, who has worked with Boldin on his remarks, spends the morning mediating between colleagues, who want to keep prepping their star witness, and Boldin, who is considerably more at ease. "Dionne always tells me I have 26 hours in my days," Boldin says of his always-relaxed demeanor.
That afternoon, Boldin's remarks go smoothly. He testifies about "my friends in Africa" who "opened their community to me." He explains that "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." He asks Congress to pressure Senegal's president to 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."
It will be awhile before Oxfam knows what changes Boldin's testimony will produce, but the hearing itself is a big win. "None of this happens if Anquan isn't involved," says Blejwas, who is impressed by Boldin's rookie testimony. "Anquan doesn't get frazzled," he says. "I would imagine he's exactly the guy you want in the huddle when you're down six with two minutes left."
AT NINERS training camp during the first week of August, Boldin is certainly the guy San Francisco needs, in huddles and meeting rooms. With Michael Crabtree out with a torn Achilles, Boldin is suddenly both the dean of his new team's receiving corps and its go-to option. This status, and his reputation, gives Boldin leeway to play coach on the field. "He's always directing traffic," says offensive coordinator Greg Roman. (It helps that Boldin knows all the routes -- his and everyone else's. Smith, the Ravens receiver, says that early in his career, he was sometimes unsure of his assignment after a play was called. "I'd break the huddle and say, 'Anquan, what do I have?' and he'd get me right.")
During a full-squad, full-pads drill on a postcard-beautiful Wednesday afternoon in Santa Clara, Kaepernick hits Boldin on a slant into the middle, but the pass is knocked away by a defensive back. It's a rare miss for an annoyed Boldin, who says a few words to the rookie tight end who had lined up inside him. "That was what we call a swipe concept," Boldin says late the next evening, explaining that the tight end is supposed to run a certain distance downfield before curling in to take the defensive back out of Boldin's window. "As a young guy in the league you just think about three things: Where do I line up? What route do I have? and Catch the ball. I was annoyed because the tight end didn't do what he was supposed to do, so I told him, 'Look, you got to do this because if you don't, it's going to affect the way Kap can throw the ball, which allows the cornerback to make the play.' It was a teachable moment."
Boldin is talking in the cavernous lobby of the Santa Clara Marriott, leaning back in his chair long after the team's unit meetings have ended, passers-by sneaking the odd peek at him. "I don't want to look across at someone I played with and think, Man, he could have been a lot better had he worked on this but I didn't tell him." As he speaks, it's hard not think that Boldin's motivations as a teammate are similar to a sense of obligation that drives him off the field. "How much money is there in the world?" he asks. "So why are people hungry? Why are people homeless? Why are people doing without?
"That's what you're supposed to do, help people."