As the NFL approaches its 100th year of existence, it’s rare for players to come along who are unlike any we’ve seen before. But I promise—Anquan Boldin is one of them. After 14 seasons in the league and stops with four different franchises, the wide receiver reportedly informed the Bills on Sunday that he plans to retire. In typical fashion, he left the game in a way that was entirely his own. “Football has afforded me a platform throughout my career to have a greater impact on my humanitarian work,” Boldin, the 2015 Walter Payton Man of the Year, said in a statement. “At this time, I feel drawn to make the larger fight for human rights a priority. My life’s purpose is bigger than football.”
With 1,076 career receptions, Boldin is walking away 25 catches shy of Cris Carter for fifth on the all-time list. Only 13 players in league history have more receiving yards than his 13,779. One of the most consistently productive receivers to ever play the game, Boldin lasted 14 years in the NFL in an era when most players with his physical profile wouldn’t have lasted 14 months. Coming out of Florida State in 2003, Boldin famously ran a 4.72-second 40-yard dash at the combine; his other measurables weren’t much better. The Cardinals still liked him enough to draft him 54th overall. All Boldin did in his first game was catch 10 passes for 217 yards with two touchdowns.
One could get the sense from watching Boldin that the wideout’s lack of speed naturally heightened every one of his other abilities. He boasted some of the strongest hands you’ll ever see. The way he pulled balls down in traffic was legendary; I’m surprised one never exploded in his hands. It didn’t seem to matter what kind of shot he took or how many bodies flew in his direction; if Boldin got a hand anywhere near the ball, it was his.
At a position long defined by style and flash, Boldin was the exception. While other wideouts dominated the headlines, he carved out a reputation as a tough-as-nails badass. The 6-foot-1 220-pounder often looked more like Rob Gronkowski than any of his receiver counterparts while running downfield after the catch, to the point that I felt for any defensive backs who stood in Boldin’s way when he could smell the end zone. The moment people will rightfully mention when highlighting the ways Boldin just isn’t built like the rest of us came in September 2008, during a Week 4 game against the Jets. After hauling in a pass between defenders, Boldin took a helmet-to-helmet shot from safety Eric Smith that left him with a fractured sinus membrane and required surgery and seven plates and 40 screws in his head. Boldin missed the Cardinals’ next two games; in his first three back, he scored five touchdowns. Arizona finished that season inches short of a Super Bowl win.
Boldin eventually did get his Lombardi Trophy, four years later as a member of the Ravens. Following the 2009 season, the Cardinals flipped him to Baltimore for third- and fourth-round picks—a decent return for a player hitting his 30s and entering the final year of a contract, as well as further proof that Boldin was always underappreciated, even by those directly around him. His numbers in Baltimore dropped off compared with his production in Arizona, but ask Ravens fans whether that’s relevant after his run in the 2012 playoffs, when he racked up 380 receiving yards with four touchdowns. I guarantee they’d make the trade 100 times over.
Going back through the highlights of Boldin’s four-game stretch that postseason is the equivalent of taking his career and injecting it straight into your jugular. Every catch is contested, but that’s how it always was. What happened on the field around him never made a difference. With every extension, every collision, and, eventually, every reception, Boldin seemed to say, “Nah, this is mine.” And a few times, such as when he stood over Patriots safety Devin McCourty in the end zone during the 2012 AFC championship game or barked at 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver after a sideline catch in Super Bowl XLVII, he might have actually said it.
The Ravens dealt Boldin to San Francisco for a sixth-round pick after the 2012 season, because no one ever seemed to know what they had in Anquan Boldin. In his first two seasons with the Niners, the veteran averaged 84 catches and 1,120 yards. He’d started to slow over the past two seasons, the most recent of which in Detroit, but when Boldin signed with the Bills earlier this month and seemed poised for Season 15, the move made sense.
Boldin’s style made it seem like he could play forever. His game was never predicated on the physical abilities teams typically crave, and even last fall he looked as if he could haul in 60 receptions per season until the end of time. After the Bills traded Sammy Watkins to the Rams, Boldin figured to play a significant role in Buffalo’s passing game. Instead, he will shift his focus to ongoing advocacy efforts for criminal justice reform.
He’ll leave the game within arm’s reach of milestones that would place him among the best receivers in NFL history. On the surface, Boldin’s numbers seem Hall of Fame–worthy, but the glut at the position doesn’t make his inclusion certain. I’ll leave that debate for another day.
That’s because for me, appreciating Boldin rarely had to do with statistical benchmarks. His array of gifts was unlike any receiver’s I’ve seen during my lifetime. His lack of traditional athleticism didn’t matter; his hands and his heart allowed him to thrive within the margins of the game in singular fashion. The world will surely benefit from Boldin taking his passions elsewhere, but damn if I won’t miss watching him want it more than everybody else on Sundays.