NEW ORLEANS – Kurt Warner still winces at the memory of the helmet-to-helmet shot that Anquan Boldin absorbed in a 2008 game against the New York Jets.
Then with the Arizona Cardinals, Boldin was attempting to grab a pass from Warner in the end zone when he was knocked unconscious in a nasty collision with Eric Smith.
“It was the most vicious hit I’ve ever seen, up close and personal,” Warner recalled Tuesday. “It made me think about retirement.
“It’s hard to put into words Anquan’s toughness. I’ve never been around a player that is as tough as he is, physically or mentally.”
Boldin missed only 2 weeks, a testament to his grit and fearlessness. But the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder wants to be known as more than simply a tough receiver.
“I look it as, I’m a football player,” Boldin said. “Not so much a receiver.”
Boldin has been a key figure in Baltimore’s charge to the Super Bowl. After leading the Ravens with 65 receptions and 921 yards receiving during the regular season, he’s got 16 catches for 276 yards and three touchdowns in the playoffs.
That’s why stopping Boldin, who 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio compared with Hall of Famer Art Monk, is a huge part of San Francisco’s game plan in the Super Bowl.
“He’s very determined to bring his team this championship,” 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. “He’s going up high to catch footballs and running past people to catch footballs. Strong after the catch, fearless. We’ll have our hands full with him.”
Boldin, 32, isn’t afraid to cut across the field or challenge a safety by going deep. He can shrug off a hard hit, and also is an aggressive downfield blocker.
If Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco needs a first down in a clutch situation Sunday, he might want to follow the path Warner took when he had Boldin at his disposal.
“When we needed a spark, the first guy I’d look for is 81. Where’s he at?” Warner said. “Because he’ll make those plays for us. If you’re going into battle, that’s the first guy you’d pick on your team, because you know he’s not going to shrink to the pressure, but is only going to rise up and get better in the most critical moments of the game.”
Boldin is back in the big game, and he has no intention of losing again.
“You don’t want to walk away not holding that trophy,” he said. “It’s something that sits with you. For me, it has been ever since that day. I’m glad I got back here, able to make things right.”
Boldin grew up as part of a poor family in Florida, earned a scholarship to Florida State and starred for coach Bobby Bowden. He was drafted in the second round of the 2003 draft with Arizona and set a single-season record for receptions by a rookie (101) and made the Pro Bowl.
Soon after that, he created the Anquan Boldin Foundation, which is dedicated to expanding the educational and life opportunities of underprivileged children.
Last year, Boldin visited Ethiopia with former Cardinals teammate Larry Fitzgerald in an effort to help the drought-stricken country.
“For me, it was an eye-opener,” Boldin said. “I felt like I had it hard growing up – growing up in a less fortunate area – but once I got to Ethiopia, I realize I had it great.”
Boldin’s generosity is evident everywhere, even in the Baltimore locker room. A year ago, he began to mentor rookie Torrey Smith, who has grown into a solid NFL receiver.
“He is the definition of a pro,” Smith said. “Faithful, religious, a great father. He has always been willing to help me in any way. And he is one of the great route runners of all time, so I have certainly benefited from that.”
From Warner to Smith, Boldin has a knack for making a positive impression on his teammates.
“It means a lot, because at the end of the day that’s really what matters,” Boldin said. “The people that you play with, those are the guys whose respect you’re really trying to earn. If you can do that, you’ve really done something.”