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Hometown roots run deep for Anquan Boldin, 49ers’ fierce wide receiver

Stashed in: 49ers!, Awesome, Stories, Poverty, Florida!, Inspiration, 49ers, Extraordinary People

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One of the aspects of professional sports that is the most amazing to me is how many great players still come from deep poverty -- whether in the US or abroad. Despite the rise of extremely specialized coaching and equipment from an ever-earlier age, you still see kids like Anquan Boldin who are one generation removed from migrant farm labor or sharecropping, giving back to their communities once they make it in professional sports.

Wow, what an extraordinary person he is:

“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.

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