Anquan Boldin’s roots run deep

“They have better uniforms, newer cleats. They have twice as many kids on their team. They live in fancy homes, drive fancy cars. They’re going to college, and their rich parents will pay for it all.

“You? All you have is heart and hustle. You’re the sons of bean pickers. You’ve had to work for everything you’ve got. Everything they’ve got has been spoon-fed. And today you have a chance to take something from them ...”

Anquan Boldin, the 49ers’ veteran wide receiver, grew up hearing variations of that speech – after practices, before games, in the locker room before tearing into the humid Friday night air for the second half. It might as well be the anthem of his hometown of Pahokee, Fla., a town just shy of 6,000 residents that typically attracts media attention for two reasons: football and misfortune.

In 1928, Pahokee was struck by the second most deadly storm in U.S. history. The Okeechobee Hurricane killed at least 2,500 in south Florida, many of them poor field workers who now rest anonymously in a mass grave in another part of the county. In the 1980s, the region had the highest per-capita rate of AIDS in the world.

In recent years, the town has been staggered by a brutal one-two economic punch: the closure of a state correctional facility and mechanization of the area’s sugar mills. Official unemployment rates are at 20 percent, but town leaders say the actual numbers are closer to 40 percent. More than one in four Pahokee residents lives below the poverty line; nearly one in three adults has less than a ninth-grade education.

A visit to Pahokee can feel like a journey back in time. There are no grocery chains, no movie theaters, no restaurants, no downtown. Many live in labor housing projects built by the government for early generations of farmworkers. It’s common for families to live without electricity and running water because they can’t afford to pay their bills.

But as any NFL defensive back knows, Boldin is a force of nature in his own right. And he is pushing back.

As recently as four years ago, Pahokee’s pride – the Pahokee High School Blue Devils football team – was squeezing into the same shoulder pads that Pro Football Hall-of-Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson and his Pahokee teammates used in the 1970s. Boldin went on a shopping spree, outfitting the team from cleats to thigh pads to helmets to replace the outdated and unsafe equipment.

He’s done much more than that.

Boldin’s Q81 Foundation has awarded college scholarships – three this year in Palm Beach County, one in the Bay Area; handed out thousands of turkeys at Thanksgiving; and purchased thousands of toys at Christmas. Each spring the foundation sponsors a free, two-day festival in Pahokee. Last year, it distributed more than $113,000, and in March the NFL Players Association honored Boldin with its Byron “Whizzer” White award for community service.

The honor came two months after 49ers coaches named Boldin their MVP for 2013. In his first season in San Francisco, he propped up the team’s depleted wide-receiving corps, leading the 49ers in catches and receiving yards in the regular season. In the postseason, he became an even fiercer, more fiery version of himself.

When the Carolina Panthers’ celebrated defense tried to rough up and intimidate the 49ers’ receivers on Jan. 12, they discovered that covering Boldin was like covering a tempest. The receiver shoved, stiff-armed and stomped defenders on his way to eight catches for 136 yards.

After one of those receptions, he popped to his feet and mashed his helmet into that of the Panthers’ main aggressor, safety Mike Mitchell. The move prompted one of the Fox announcers that day, Joe Buck, to say the head butt would have made former pro wrestler Ric Flair proud, while his partner, Troy Aikman, moaned that he was “tired of watching” Boldin’s bellicose behavior.

A do-gooder who knocks heads? To understand what stirs inside Anquan Boldin, you have to understand where he grew up.

Muck City

“Pahokee pretty much has always been the stepchild of Palm Beach County,” Carl Boldin, Anquan’s father, says of their hometown.

Palm Beach has some of Florida’s wealthiest communities, its eastern edge dotted with gated neighborhoods, sandy ocean beaches and coconut palms. Drive 40 miles inland, to its western edge, and you’re in a different world.

Pahokee and the larger town of Belle Glade to the south are abutted by massive Lake Okeechobee, the United State’s seventh-largest freshwater lake. The cities sprung from the Everglades nearly 100 years ago when the marshes were drained and acres of rich, fertile, almost jet-black muck were revealed. The towns are collectively known as Muck City.

Plant anything in the muck, and it will flourish. It’s what first lured desperate people – many from Caribbean islands, others from the Deep South – to start their lives over in Pahokee.

Don Thompson, who coached Pahokee High’s football team from 1984 to 1992 was a child when his parents sold everything, bought a junker and drove from Arkansas to Pahokee because they’d heard there was steady work in the place touted as the “Winter Vegetable Capital of the World.”

“We were just cotton pickers, sharecroppers in Arkansas,” said Thompson, 73, who picked string beans and sweet corn alongside his parents in the winter months.

Thompson would call Pahokee home, but he’d only spend half the year there. Like many of their neighbors, he and his family worked as migrant laborers, driving to places such as Benton Harbor, Mich., to pick strawberries, blueberries and apples starting in late March, and then on to Arkansas to pick cotton in the fall. In some years, he wouldn’t return to Pahokee until November.

“There wasn’t much time for schooling,” he said.

Anquan Boldin’s grandparents were part of the same pattern, traveling to Maryland’s Eastern Shore and upstate New York in the spring and summer. The living conditions could be deplorable, and the locals in those far-off towns were sometimes vicious. The work bent backs and gnarled hands. But it fostered a sense of community among the Pahokee folks, who looked out for one another on the road as well as back at home.

Boldin’s grandmother on his mother’s side, Johnnie Mae Banks, made lunches and suppers – sometimes more than 100 at a time – while her husband, Robert, and the others were in the field. She took care of their children, too.

At that time, Banks said, she lived in a mobile home that had four rooms. There were plenty of times when each of those rooms was filled with children.

From young Anquan Boldin’s vantage point, good deeds weren’t something to be done occasionally. He saw them every day.

“My grandma – she raised kids that weren’t hers,” he said. “Anytime a parent would be going through something and wanted to take their kids to a safer environment, somewhere where they could be cared for – didn’t have to worry about them being fed, being loved – they ended up at my grandma’s house.”

Boldin’s paternal grandmother, Annie Boldin, watched out for the town’s elderly, serving meals at her house or sending her kids off with meals to deliver them on their bicycles.

“Before there was Meals on Wheels, we were the meals on wheels,” Boldin’s father said.

If compassion was handed down from his grandmothers, Boldin’s fight came from his grandfather. Robert Banks was a boxer as a young man in the 1960s, at one point racking up 19 straight wins, 17 of them by knockout.

“I was the champion of the Everglades,” he says proudly. “That was my love. I loved boxing.”

Banks, 76, briefly turned professional and trained in Syracuse, N.Y., with the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson. But before his career took off, he responded to a higher calling and came home to Pahokee to become a pastor. He’d prowl the pulpit with the same energy and purpose he had in the ring.

“It’s still his passion,” said Anquan’s younger brother, D.J. “He’s 70-something years old, close to 80, and he still thinks he can bob and weave, jab and all of that.”

D.J., who is serving as an offensive line assistant for the 49ers this year, sees his grandfather in Anquan.

“He’s very mild-mannered off the field, very cool, calm and collected, very articulate, well-rounded guy,” D.J. said. “But when you put him in that cage, which is the football field, he’s a totally different animal. It’s the only time he can let it all out.”

When the boys were young, their grandparents’ mobile home was adjacent to the tiny, stucco church where Banks preached. Boldin and his three siblings spent as much time in church listening to their grandfather deliver thunderous sermons about the importance of community and the necessity of giving back as they did in their own home.

“We had service on Sunday, service on Tuesday night, Bible study on Wednesday night, choir rehearsal Thursday and church on Friday,” Anquan Boldin said. “We joke about it now – ‘Man, we got more church than we wanted.’ That’s all we knew. It was a routine. It was embedded in us.”

Giant killers

Boldin grew up in a government-built housing project on the outskirts of town. Painted bright yellow, it juts out into the sea of deep green crops – celery here, lettuce there – that surround Pahokee.

By every American measure, he was poor. But he never considered himself so. He and his siblings – two brothers and a sister – rode bikes, played baseball, went to school and attended church. They were just like all their neighbors, just as happy as everyone around him.

His first glimpses of how kids from Pahokee stacked up came through football. If, 50 years ago, Pahokee’s most famous exports were beans and corn, over the last two decades, it’s been wide receivers and running backs.

Pahokee’s senior and middle schools are combined so that seventh- through 12th-graders share the same campus. Despite a senior class of about 120 students, the town’s high school has produced an all-star team of past and current greats, from Jackson to former Eagles safety Andre Waters to Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins. When the 49ers and Ravens met in the Super Bowl last year, five players called Muck City home, including current 49ers Boldin and Ray McDonald, who is from Belle Glade.

Pahokee High also has won six state titles, its first in 1989 when Don Thompson was the coach.

His son Blaze is the current head coach. Blaze Thompson noted that because of its limited roster, Pahokee’s boys play offense, defense and special teams. That is, amid the stifling heat and buzzing mosquitoes of interior Florida, a Pahokee player could be on the field for every snap. His opponent might play half that.

“We consider ourselves giant killers,” Blaze Thompson said. “That’s our mentality.”

Football allowed Boldin and his teammates to see beyond Pahokee, even if it was just one Friday night at a time.

Blaze Thompson recalled a 1996 playoff matchup that drew reporters from Florida’s biggest newspapers and recruiters from the top universities. They were there to see two of the state’s most exciting players, Tampa Catholic quarterback Kenny Kelly and Darrell Jackson, a receiver who would go on to play for the Seahawks and 49ers.

The attention – even if it was focused on the opponent – was embraced by Pahokee coaches, who told their players that prestigious Tampa Catholic, where tuition is more than $11,000 a year, was their ticket to a better life.

“This is how you win scholarships,” Blaze Thompson said. “You take away theirs. This is how you get out of here – shining on someone else’s dime.”

Boldin and the Blue Devils did just that.

Kelly, who had thrown only one interception all season, completed just five of 19 passes for 103 yards with two interceptions.

Boldin, a sophomore at the time, was part of the suffocating secondary as the team’s starting safety. He also was the starting quarterback, finishing with 23 carries for 184 yards and three touchdowns.

“He just jumped out in that game – outplayed, outhustled, out-everythinged in that game,” Thompson said.

Chasing rabbits

In 2008, ESPN ran a segment called “Legend of the Rabbits” that took place in Muck City’s cane fields. When the fields are burned in late fall, it sends the marsh hares – 2½ pounds of fur and floppy ears– that live amid the tangle of stalks darting into the open.

The footage showed shirtless boys chasing the rabbits, capturing them with their hands, and at the end of the day, walking home with dozens of rabbits as if they were stringers of trout. The message: The football players from Pahokee get their speed and agility from running down rodents in the muck.

While some in Pahokee were happy to see themselves on television, others seethed.

“The myth is that everyone around here grew up chasing rabbits,” Carl Boldin said while shaking his head. “I never chased a rabbit in my life.”

Carl Boldin was once a defensive lineman on the high school team. He no longer lives in town but is active with the foundation. One of the notions he and his son are battling is that Pahokee is only good at producing athletes and that the only way to escape poverty is through a football scholarship.

“There was anger with certain people. I think the people that understand the bigger picture didn’t like it,” Anquan Boldin said of the ESPN piece. “They see what Pahokee has to offer. And they don’t like just that view of Pahokee.”

The foundation’s latest project, and the biggest one to date, is to build a 25,000-square-foot community center that would serve as an after-school spot for students. Boldin already has purchased 10 acres adjacent to the housing complex where he lived as a child. The foundation figures the total cost will be $5 million, and it will begin seeking corporate and private donations at the end of this year.

The foundation already partners with sugar giant Florida Crystals in a summer enrichment program. The aim is to raise students’ grades so they can matriculate or graduate. It also brings in guest lecturers and takes field trips to places like beauty salons, auto body shops and culinary institutes in an effort to show students the opportunities available to them.

There is plenty pulling students in the opposite direction. Drug use is a problem and gang life – a growing issue in Pahokee – can be seductive to a teenager who has never had enough money to buy new shoes.

The high school’s graduation rate has improved recently – 74 percent for the last school year – but standardized test scores remain low. Only 26 percent of 10th-graders received passing marks for reading skills on this year’s 2014 state achievement test. The overall rate for the county was 56 percent. In the most recent school accountability report handed out by the Florida Department of Education, Pahokee High School was given a D.

Another challenge is Muck City’s success in producing pro football players.

The foundation’s Judie Gibson said that in recent years, on the first day of the summer enrichment session, the students are asked what they want to do for a living. About a third of the boys say they want to be an NFL star. During the summer, the program brings in a banker who calculates just how daunting those odds are.

“About one in a million,” Gibson says.

Even Boldin – who returns to Pahokee in the spring and early summer – tells students an NFL job is unrealistic.

“I feel like when you talk about Pahokee, it’s always football – football, football, football,” he said. “But there’s so much talent there. Singing, dancing, poetry. You name it. Kids there are extremely talented, and they need an outlet there to express themselves. To me, I’m all for sports and things like that. But there’s so much else that is going on there. And kids just don’t have that outlet. And that’s what I want to provide for them.”

For the last 100 years, Pahokee’s most valuable commodity was thought to be its soil. Boldin believes its people will be its salvation. And the hope is that the kids who escape Pahokee and its poverty don’t leave forever but, like him, return to help lift it from the muck.

“The thing that hasn’t changed is the resiliency in the people,” he said. “There’s still a lot of pride in that town. There’s still that us-against-the-world attitude. And you see it everywhere you go, everyone you talk to. It’s a small town, but people are proud of being from Pahokee.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee