Ravens wide receivers Derrick Mason, left, and Anquan Boldin… (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl…)
Anquan Boldin's toughness has been defined by one hit in September 2008 — a violent helmet-to-helmet shot while trying to make a touchdown catch over the middle that knocked him out and shattered his face.
Multiple facial fractures had to be repaired by 40 titanium screws and seven plates. The wide receiver's displaced jaw had to be wired to realign his bite.
Then, as if he were coming back from a broken finger instead of a broken face, Boldin returned to the field after two missed games to make nine catches.
"To me, that wasn't the most devastating thing I had to go through," said Boldin, the Ravens' biggest acquisition of the year, who opens training camp with the team this week. "For me, I just saw it as another obstacle."
Boldin's gritty attitude comes from "The Muck," the nickname for his Florida hometown, Pahokee.
It lies on the shore of Lake Okeechobee, about 40 miles west of West Palm Beach, where the dark soil is rich and the population of 6,500 is generally poor.
Over the past decade, the town lost its only hospital and funeral home. A few years ago, the captain of the football team was shot in the head leaving the homecoming dance.
The town's hard life was part of Boldin's. He recalls his parents taking him out to the field to pick corn. He didn't want to do it for a living.
He remembers the days when sugar cane was burned (it reduces the amount of leafy materials delivered to factories for processing). Young people would line up in front of the flames to grab escaping rabbits. Boldin said he easily caught more than 100 rabbits, whose hides went for up to $3 each.
"I felt like if I could make it out of there," Boldin said, "the rest of the stuff is easy."
At a position where many stars crave the spotlight, Boldin is a warrior, not a whiner. He has no fear. No regard for his body.
Boldin, 29, thrives on making tough catches between defenders, pulling the ball away from cornerbacks and delivering blocks.
His physical play was among the reasons the Ravens traded draft picks in the third and fourth rounds to the Arizona Cardinals for the three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver and a fifth-round pick.
Shortly after the trade, the Ravens anointed Boldin as their No. 1 receiver when they gave him a four-year, $28 million contract, with $10 million guaranteed.
"He's a good fit for the style of football that we want to play," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's at his best when the pads come on. He's at his best in real football, like when you got to get a clutch first down and he's going to break a tackle to get that yard you need to get."
Harbaugh said he didn't realize how big Boldin is until he stood next to the 6-foot-1, 217-pound wide receiver.
"There's a lot of guys with great bodies — even better than Anquan's — but they can't do that," Ravens wide receivers coach Jim Hostler said. "It's a trait that he's had. It's not learned. There is a mental and physical toughness. There is a no-fear factor that we can't coach. It comes with guys.
"I've been around a lot of big-body guys who can't do that," Hostler said. "He knows that he can hold up physically against anybody who is going to be around him."
'The numbers speak'
Boldin's never-flinching mindset was evident from the first time he stepped onto an NFL field.
In the 2003 season opener against the Detroit Lions, he caught 10 passes for 217yards, breaking a 56-year-old NFL record for receiving yards in a debut. Not bad for a second-round draft pick who had been labeled as too slow for the league.
"I never put limits on myself," Boldin said. "I can remember after going to minicamp, I went back home and told my coach that I would be starting soon."
A year later, the Cardinals drafted wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the first round. Some would contend that Boldin has been overshadowed by Fitzgerald recently, but Boldin would argue otherwise.
Over the past four seasons (2005-2009) with Fitzgerald as a teammate, Boldin averaged 86 catches per season and scored a total of 35 touchdowns.
"Honestly, when they needed a big play, they were looking for 81," Boldin said. "It was never a situation where I felt left out. I think the numbers speak for themselves."
In his seven-year career, Boldin has two 100-catch seasons (2003, 2005) and three seasons with more than 1,200 yards receiving (2003, 2005, 2006).
He has averaged 79.2 receiving yards per game — the highest of any wide receiver in NFL history.
'I'm supposed to win'
Boldin hates losing so much that he jokes about having a dual title with the Cardinals: receiver/recruiter.
In high school, he was Florida's Mr.Football and led his team to a state championship. At Florida State, he went to two NCAA championship games.
So after four straight losing seasons with the Cardinals, Boldin tried to persuade free agents during charity basketball games to help him win in Arizona. He was instrumental in the Cardinals' signing running back Edgerrin James.