The Ravens’ Unsung Badass Finally Gets His Due

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Football fans have become accustomed to a few certain types of elite wide receiver over the past 20 years. The Physical Freaks — Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and so forth — are too big to be that fast and too strong to be that agile. There are occasional Special Teams Slashers who pull double-duty (Percy Harvin, Devin Hester); sub-6-footers like DeSean Jackson and Steve Smith, who subside on equal parts speed and having a giant chip on their shoulder; and of course, the Prima Donnas, Terrell Owens and Chad “Ochocinco.”

Anquan Boldin of the Baltimore Ravens is none of these things. He is of average height (6-foot-1). His age, relative to other superstar wideouts, is on the older side (32). He has been a starter in the NFL throughout his 10-year career, but he has never been considered the Main Guy, just a solid No. 2. He has scored more than 10 touchdowns just once in a season. After a productive seven years in Arizona, he was traded to the Baltimore in 2010 for a couple of midlevel draft picks. He doesn’t do a lot of outrageous media appearances.

But Sunday night, Boldin earned a right that none of the aforementioned pass-catchers have earned heretofore: to hold a Super Bowl trophy in victory. Amid a Ravens team filled with personalities ranging from the offensively derpy to the gratingly melodramatic, it was hard not to feel good for Boldin. He’s not the kind of star we know much about — who knows what he’s like behind closed doors — but he’s the kind of guy whose play alone makes him easy to root for. A hard worker and dutiful teammate, but a bad, bad man all the same.

It’s been a looooooong and collision-filled road for Boldin. Let’s take a look back.

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Like almost everyone who eventually succeeds in the NFL, Boldin was an astounding football player in high school. Back then, he was a quarterback and was bestowed with Florida’s Mr. Football honor in 1998. When he made his way to Florida State, the team converted him to wide receiver so that he’d get playing time. In 23 games for the Seminoles, Boldin scored 21 TDs, parlaying his newfound positional fortitude into job with the Arizona Cardinals, who drafted him in the second round.

Boldin shined as a rookie, accumulating 1,377 receiving yards and nine TDs, making the Pro Bowl. Alas, the team finished 4-12 and scored the third pick in the draft, allowing them to select a larger, more gifted receiver in Larry Fitzgerald. Together, the two instantly became the NFL’s most lethal 1-2 receiving duo, though it was clear who was second-in-command. Fitzgerald, with his unmistakeable dreads falling beneath his helmet, was taller, younger, and more muscular.

Boldin’s transition — from prep superstar to Florida State B.M.O.C. to rookie phenom to sidekick — did not dilute his balls-out, 110% approach to the game. He didn’t make the impossible look effortless, but he was a pro, tough and relentless. And in 2008, a few months before the Cardinals made an improbable (and nearly successful) appearance at Super Bowl XLIII, Boldin was nearly concussed out of football. On the road and down 21 points to the New York Jets, Kurt Warner tried to hit Boldin in stride on a fairly typical slant pattern to center field, just inside the goal line. The game was no longer in question, but Boldin didn’t hesitate as he went up for the catch. Eyes on the ball, he didn’t see the two Jets defenders coming at his head.

Boldin was out cold, arms splayed and legs crossed while his brain took a few plays off. He was taken to the hospital. Jets safety Eric Smith, who was himself concussed on the play, was fined $50,000 by the league and suspended one game. Boldin was diagnosed with a fractured sinus membrane — let’s say that again, a fractured sinus membrane. Colloquially, people called it a “broken face.” He returned three weeks later. He caught two touchdowns in his first game back.

The amount of incredulity that even Boldin’s peers must have felt about what he did, one has to think, is why people still choose to play football. To show everyone else — to show yourself — that you are the most fearless. Anquan Boldin’s physical courage is unsettling just to talk about.

The Cardinals ended up one sensational Santonio Holmes catch away from bringing a championship to the Southwest, and a lingering contract dispute led to the team to trade Boldin a year later to the Ravens.

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Boldin’s three years in Baltimore were…fine. His 921 receiving yards this season was a year-on-year improvement but a noticeable dropoff from his time in Arizona. Fellow wideout Torrey Smith, playing the familiar role of Fitzgerald doppelgänger — with his long-flowing dreads, physical play, and propensity for timely scores — had twice as many TDs (eight) this season as Boldin and is consistently talked up as QB Joe Flacco’s main weapon against opposing secondaries.

But when the Ravens needed a critical third-and-inches conversion in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVII, it wasn’t Smith who caught Flacco’s eye. Actually, let’s go back: Boldin had opened the night’s scoring with a 13-yard TD less than five minutes into the game. On third-and-four, Boldin emerged from the right slot and was able to sneak in behind the Niners secondary with a subtle shimmy move. That ultimately led to what morphed into a 22-point lead for Baltimore just on the other side of halftime, after Jacoby Jones’ record-setting 108-yard kickoff return TD sent the entire Bay Area into depressive convulsions. However, the Great Superdome Blackout had irrevocably changed The Narrative and the Niners pulled to within two points. The game was, quite literally, up for grabs at that point.

With just over seven minutes left to play and the game’s Win Probability chart resembling an arrhythmia patient’s EKG, Boldin went up high for a Flacco pass near the sidelines. The Ravens only needed to advance the ball an arm’s length for a first down, but they sent Boldin on a longer route. With the ball arriving, cornerback Carlos Rogers’ hands were firmly in Boldin’s mug, but it didn’t matter. He corralled it with ease and landed in bounds, the catch’s legitimacy never in doubt. More time ticked off the clock and the Ravens drove for a field goal that ultimately saved them and their legacy — in the end, Baltimore did not blow the largest Super Bowl lead in history, and that result rested squarely on Boldin’s catch. Four years earlier, he watched in vain as the Steelers wrenched a championship from his team’s grasp. On Sunday night, he took one back himself.

Now, Boldin is a champion, his career having finally reached a moment of satisfaction after…all that. The constant overshadowing. The Injury. The acrimonious circumstances surrounding his trade to the Ravens. The unfulfilled promise — obviously, it’s tough to call a career that now stands at 27th all-time in catches (772), 37th in receiving yards (10,165), and 11th in receiving yards per game (72.2) unfulfilled, but the way Boldin burst into the league it seemed like he could be an all-time great. Though, with a couple more seasons of consistent, healthy play, Hall of Fame consideration won’t seem ludicrous the way it might have some years prior. It’ll be warranted.

In the biggest game of his career, Boldin pulled in six catches for 104 yards. Joe Flacco may have won himself MVP honors, but for a night that was 10 years in the making, Anquan Boldin was number one.

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