SANTA CLARA -- Anquan Boldin was slow when he was a 22-year-old draft pick in 2003, and the 49ers receiver is even slower now at age 35.
But don't expect the Lions defensive backs to underestimate him Sunday in Detroit. Their coaches will make sure of that.
"Maybe one of the great competitors of all time," said Lions head coach Jim Caldwell, who ran the Baltimore Ravens offense when Boldin was on that team. "... The kind of drive that he has, the way he takes care of his body, his work habits, his attention to detail, his drive to be not good, but great -- those guys seem to be able to play a lot longer and at a much higher level than most individuals... That's what makes him special."
Boldin, who missed two starts this year because of a hamstring injury, is on pace to finish with his smallest receiving total since 2004, his second year in the NFL. Still, he's also on pace to lead the 49ers in receiving yards for the third straight season. And he’s one catch away from becoming the 13th player in NFL history with 1,000 career receptions.
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Caldwell noted that Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin served as secondary coach on some of the Ravens teams on which Boldin played. Which means there won't be any young Lions defensive backs who dismiss their Sunday opponent as being too old and too slow.
"There's a special kind of respect for that guy," Caldwell said. "And we make sure our guys know exactly what they're up against when you line up across from him."
Caldwell and Austin, of course, were on the opposing sideline when the 49ers played the Ravens in the Super Bowl in New Orleans three years ago. Caldwell, like many players, said the most lasting memory may have been the power outage that occurred with the Ravens leading 28-6 early in the third quarter.
Former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has suggested that outage was done deliberately in order to make the game more competitive, and the 49ers indeed came roaring back in the second half.
Caldwell explained it as more of a "coincidence," but the discussion triggered a good story about legendary Tennessee State coach “Big John” Merritt who, in 1979, was hosting a Southern Illinois team on which Caldwell was the wide receivers coach.
Tennessee State was clinging to a lead late when the lights went out in the stadium. After 15 minutes, Caldwell recalled that Merritt strolled across the field, cigar in hand, and said he was worried about his players cooling down and getting hurt and wondered if the two sides should agree to end the game early.
The Illinois State coaches rejected that plan. In another 15 minutes, Merritt was back. "Big John strolls across the field again, they meet in the middle, they talk and he says, 'You might as well forfeit. We're seriously going to get somebody hurt here,'" Caldwell said.
Eventually the lights returned and Illinois State ended up winning 18-16.
"That's the first thing I thought about when the lights went out in the (Superdome) but I didn't think anyone there had anything to do with it," Caldwell said. "At Tennessee State, I think that John had something to do with that one."