Pahokee, the small town on the banks of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, is considered one of the poorest in the country. Overrun by drugs, crime and poverty, Palm Beach County reports one-half of the between the ages of 18 and 25 had felony convictions. In Pahokee, the average family earns about $34,000 and the unofficial unemployment rate is 40 percent. It is a place where depression begets desperation. According to Bryan Mealer, author of the book Muck City, families resort to catching rainwater to survive because their utilities have been cut off.
“Growing up we were told, if you don’t make it as a football player you won’t make it out,” said Hikeem Banks. “Single family homes, poverty, no businesses in the town, it was either: I’m gonna play football or hang with the drug dealers.”
Banks was born and raised in Pahokee. The locals call him Bubba.
Teachers in Palm Beach County school district had seen Bubba’s type before and they assured him he would amount to nothing. He was on the fast track to prison, or worse, dead before he ever had a chance at life. By ninth grade he was expelled from Pahokee High School. His opportunity to get out was seemingly snuffed out; another victim of an environment that seemingly fostered failure.
The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts … The tongue is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire. – James 3
The next couple of years were a blur for Bubba. He drank, smoked, did his share of drugs and lived on the streets, as predicted. As his former classmates were busying creating high school memories, Banks stumbled through his teens. Surely, it was fate.
With football no longer an option, it was either work in the sugarcane fields– “the muck”– or get an education. Bubba pursued his GED through Job Corps, a free education and training program for low income people. But it was a means to an end for Bubba to support his vices.
“I heard you could get money for going to school at the community college,” he said. “My plan was to enroll in the community college, get my financial aid check and just stop. I wasn’t taking school serious at the time.”
Were the locals right? Is it really football or drugs for the people of Pahokee? History confirmed as much. Bubba watched friends and classmates swallowed up by the societal misconceptions and poisonous habits. He also witnessed Pahokee’s top athletes — Rickey Jackson, Fred Taylor, Andre Waters, and Anquan Boldin — sprinting toward the city limits, headed for a life of fame and fortune in the National Football League.
The situation called for a Hail Mary; a last second heave of desperation and prayer. A Staubach-to-Pearson style miracle was Bubba’s only hope; a route so unpredictable it just might work.
What happened next caught the naysayers off guard.
Anquan Boldin, an NFL veteran wide receiver, is a game-changer. Boldin, like Bubba, was born and raised in Pahokee. He is a tried-and-true Blue Devil. He is exactly the type of receiver you want running that Hail Mary route.
His high school basketball coach Joe Marx, now the athletic director at William T. Dwyer High School in West Palm Beach, encouraged Boldin to consider football. One afternoon after basketball practice, Boldin and Marx played a game of catch – with a football.
“My eight grade year I played junior varsity,” said Boldin. “I was moved up to varsity after my eighth grade year. The following year I was competing with the seniors for the starting quarterback job. I won the job.”
Marx mentored Boldin in sports and life. He saw potential in Boldin and encouraged him to work hard and stay out of trouble. A lesson easier said than done when you are a teenage boy from Pahokee. Marx invested in Boldin’s future, taking him to football camps and tours at Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan State.
“He [Marx] opened my eyes to a whole new world,” said Boldin. “Where I come from it is a predominantly low income, impoverished area. I don’t think he realizes the impact he’s had on my life but he is a big reason where I am today and why I do what I do.”
Today, Boldin is an NFL star. Since being selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft, Boldin has appeared in three Pro Bowls and two Super Bowls (including a championship with the 2009 Baltimore Ravens). But it’s what Boldin has done away from the game that defines his life.
In 2004, Boldin created a team of supporters and launched The Anquan Boldin Foundation. Over the last 10 years, the Foundation set out to change Pahokee’s fortunes through academics, enrichment and family and community engagement. In 2013, the Foundation generated $177,336 in combined program income, gifts and donations and distributed $113,323 to community programs.
“I feel obligated to give, but I think I get more out of it than the people that I help,” said Boldin. “To see the smiles on people’s faces, that alone brings me joy.”
In April, Boldin hosted the annual Q-Festival Weekend, which serves more than 3,000 people in Palm Beach County. Boldin and his NFL friends and teammates host events including a celebrity golf tournament, a celebrity basketball game, a week-long community basketball tournament for all ages, a fitness Walk and Wellness Seminar, and the signature “Fun Day in the Park” for the entire community.
“I think it’s important because we always stress education. We have a recovery program every summer for kids who have fallen behind. We help them get on track so they can graduate on time. Education is a big component of the foundation. It’s important to acknowledge those kids who excel in the classroom.”
In 2008, Bubba entered an essay scholarship contest established by Boldin and University of Phoenix. Bubba confessed, at the time, he was not ready for the responsibility – or the scholarship – but he poured out his heart, writing about life in Pahokee, childhood struggles and growing up in poverty. He shared what the scholarship would mean to his future. He presented the impact education would have on his life. The words were raw and honest. They had struck a nerve at the core of the Foundation. Four finalists received a four-year college scholarship in 2008, including Bubba.
“It wasn’t just a scholarship, it changed my life,” he said.
Boldin isn’t the kind of guy who throws money at a problem and moves on. He is fully immersed in each of his scholars lives to ensure they have the tools to succeed. He regularly checked up on Banks’ progress throughout the life of the scholarship and, when necessary, step in and offer encouragement.
Bubba was taking full-time classes, working and commuting to-and-from school by bus every day. Sometimes, Bubba would miss classes because of conflicting bus schedules. Other days he would wait for the bus on the side of road in the rain. He was on the brink of giving up.
“He didn’t just give me the scholarship and left me alone,” said Bubba. “He walked with me through the whole process. I spoke to Anquan and told him I was about to get some money from the school from my financial aid, would you help me get a car?” said Bubba. Boldin agreed to help.
The next day when Bubba went to buy the car, the dealer handed him the keys and told him to keep the check. The car was paid for in full.
“I had people who encouraged me, and that’s the difference,” Bubba said. “When you have someone encouraging you and telling you that you can, that is the difference. I had Anquan saying you can do it, my mom saying you can do it, my pastor saying you can do it, that is the difference.”
“We are here to serve,” said Boldin. “As a believer that’s what we’re called to do. That’s why Jesus came to Earth, to serve others.”
Life was improving on the outside but Bubba was still at war inside. He continued to struggle with drinking, smoking and drugs. The battle ended November 15, 2010. Bubba dropped to his knees, closed his eyes and whispered a prayer: God if you’re as good as they say you are, I’m gonna give all these problems to you.
“I realized I didn’t have to live like this,” he said. “He’s promised me everything if I give my life to him. God put my life in order once I made that decision.”
Two years later – on November 4, 2012 — Bubba walked across the stage and accepted his degree in business administration.
“That was my first time ever putting on a cap-and-gown,” he said. “I grew up a troubled kid. To actually see my family see me achieve something – not coming to get me out of jail or trouble – and earn my bachelor degree. It was best feeling since the day I gave my life to Christ.”
Banks, now 29, just celebrated his third wedding anniversary. He has two daughters, a full-time job, an apartment, a car, a college degree and he serves as the Glades Area Representative for Fellowship of Christian Athletes. His future is promising.
“This is the funny thing about, are you ready?” he said. “I now work for the Palm Beach school district. The same high school that expelled me, that kicked me out, they now pay my bills. That was through the scholarship. Can you believe that?”
As work continues off the field, Boldin is preparing for his 12th NFL season. Last spring he signed a two-year, $12 million contract extension with the San Francisco 49ers.
Last season didn’t end with a win for the 49ers. After playoff wins against Green Bay and Carolina, San Francisco lost to the Seattle Seahawks, who eventually went on to win the Super Bowl. Boldin believes the bittersweet end will be all the motivation needed to get the San Francisco 49ers back to the Super Bowl in 2015.
“Anytime you fall short of a goal it motivates you, especially as an athlete,” said Boldin. “When I was in Baltimore, the year before we won the Super Bowl we lost in the AFC Championship game to New England. That was our goal: to get back to that championship game against New England – and win it. It’s no different this year than when it was when I was in Baltimore. It’s win the division, win in the playoffs and win the Super Bowl.”
The 49ers open the 2014 regular season on the road against the Dallas Cowboys on September 7. During the off-season San Francisco traded for wide receiver Stevie Johnson (Buffalo Bills), signed free agent receiver Brandon Lloyd and drafted Bruce Ellington from South Carolina.
“My role will be a little different this year because I will have a lot more help than I did last year,” said Boldin. “My job is to help prepare them for their roles, and if I can help them be better players, it helps the team. We all win in the end.”
Boldin was raised in the church. His grandfather was a pastor. His uncle is a pastor. His mother led him to Christ. He was 12 years old and he was lying on his mother’s bed on New Year’s Eve when he made the personal decision to commit his life to Christ, a life-changing moment for Boldin.
“My mom thinks she can change the world,” he said. “She has one of those hearts. Someone comes to her with a need and she’s always trying to meet it. I’ve been able to see firsthand that being put into action.”
“I think faith has a tremendous way of shaping the locker room. Definitely when you look at how guys respond to different things and how they act on and off the field. I think if all you have is football, you will go crazy. At the end of the day with this game, we’ll be judged by wins and losses. But when we look at the bigger picture, we’ll be judged on how effective we were in the locker room. How many lives did we change? How many people did we influence?” – Anquan Boldin
Boldin has been a spiritual leader in Arizona, Baltimore and now in San Francisco. When athletes are bold in their faith, on an off the field, the potential to transform leadership into discipleship is palpable. An athlete’s relationship with God informs their approach to performance and leadership. It shapes a sense of integrity about how people deal with one another and it shapes a passion for excellence.
“I’ve seen where, when you have a locker room like we had in Baltimore and guys become bold in their faith, encouraged in their faith, they read more, they pray more, they ask more questions,” said Boldin. “When you have that strong presence in the locker room, you have the type of environment that allows guys to be bold in their faith and they become encouraged.”
Make no mistake, being a Christian in a NFL locker room comes with its own set of unique challenges. The outspoken Christian professional athlete is always under the microscope. The moment a professional athlete shares his/her faith, teammates, fans and media stop, stare and listen. They want to hear if your heart is beating in rhythm with your actions.
“The things I said to guys, I also live it out,” said Boldin. “Right or wrong they’re going to critique every little thing. They are going to watch and they’re going to see if what you’re really saying is consistent with how you are living your life. I have always been conscious of that. By no means am I saying I am perfect, but I try to be a man of my word. I try to be a man of integrity. When guys see that your firm in what you believe and how you live, guys start to respect who you are as a person.”
Boldin’s role as a leader in the 49ers locker room also requires personal discipline and commitment to studying the Bible. Professional sports are extremely demanding for athletes. Games, practices, workouts, appearances and interviews push and pull you through each day.
“I’ve always been taught the first thing you do when you get up in the morning is you talk to God; you ask for direction and you seek Him,” said Boldin. “The longer you wait, the more that’s going to fill your plate. I do not have an agenda at 6 a.m. So I get up and talk to God and pray. By 8 a.m. we have meetings and from there it’s just a rat race. I also try to take time during our lunch break to read the Bible. I also lead a study on Friday with the team.”
Bubba pulls out his smartphone, finds Boldin’s address and taps out a text message. It’s a simple thank you message.
“I didn’t have nothing,” Banks said. “I send him and his wife a text to tell them thank you for what you have done for me.”
Bubba says, “When I am working at the church I see now that God has entrusted me with His people.”
The opportunity comes with a tremendous about of responsibility.
“When I received my degree I was put in charge of the alternative learning center, a program for kids like I was,” said Bubba. “Now what I do at work is minister to kids who were in trouble just like me. I am comfortable talking with underprivileged kids and being a mentor and letting them know the road I took and that they don’t have to take those roads.”
Bubba is seeing the impact he and others like Boldin are having on the community. “Through the summer enrichment program that Anquan hosts we are showing these kids they have a supporting cast,” he said. “Now the kids see more opportunity and you’re seeing lawyers, doctors, teachers, Anquan is a football player.
I love the work that Anquan does for the community. People value that. That was why I took advantage of it and began taking school seriously because it was awarded from Anquan.”
Bubba stops and thinks about the letter he wrote six years ago. What would it say now? If he could write it again, Bubba said he would pen the letter with a new message, a new sense of hope.
“It would be a lot different,” Bubba said. “If you give God a chance, he won’t fail you. When I felt like giving up, when times were tough, Christ was right there. If I had to write it over (essay), I would say, “With God all things are possible.’ Just don’t give up.”
“That’s why we do it,” said Boldin. “You want to see people’s lives changed.”
Football was not Boldin’s way out of Pahokee but the opportunity to radically change a community.