Anquan Boldin grew up poor, something he learned only later in life.
"I didn't realize I was poor because everybody else around me was in the same situation," he said.
Now that he's making $6 million a year, the 49ers receiver has a belated understanding of what it means to struggle financially. He sees the hardship firsthand whenever he returns to the neighborhoods littered with boarded-up windows in his hometown of Pahokee, Fla., where the median household income is just over $20,000.
When Boldin goes back, he does so as the conquering hero: the Pahokee High kid who went on to win the Super Bowl and earn NFL riches.
Which is why he goes back.
"I try to make sure that I show my face around town," Boldin said. "People can get a sense that even if you make it out, you can still reach back and help others.
"That's my main focus. I'm not in this position just to live a life of luxury. I think I've been placed here to help others. That's my sole purpose."
Boldin, in his 11th season, has had the same priority at each of his NFL stops: to receive (he leads the 49ers with 38 catches for 551 yards) and to give (his charitable foundation, Q81, is in its 10th year).
He has already introduced himself to the Bay Area on the field. This Monday, Boldin will launch his first major fundraising event in San Jose by hosting a celebrity server dinner and silent auction at Morton's The Steakhouse. (Details at q81.org).
Over the years, Boldin also has provided college scholarships, taken kids on holiday shopping sprees and served Thanksgiving meals for thousands of families. He's flown to Ethiopia to study the drought problems and to Senegal to champion the rights of poor mining families.
Next up, Boldin said, is probably a trip to West Africa to work with a women's microfinance group.
"There was a lot that I lacked growing up," Boldin said. "And I hate to see others not have."
Because of so many phony baloney charity efforts among athletes, it's easy to get cynical. Write a check, show up at bowl-a-thon, and all of a sudden you're a heck of a guy.
Andrew Blejwas, who works with Oxfam America, remembers being on a street in Ethiopia when he got a call about Boldin and NFL pal Larry Fitzgerald being interested in traveling to the country to see how they could help.
He hung up the phone and thought: Yeah, right.
"You have your doubts about whether they are committed," Blejwas recalled.
It was soon obvious that this was no publicity stunt. They arrived well-read on the dire conditions in Africa and jumped right in by building fences for a community garden.
"You have to understand: Men in that community don't do that kind of work. It's extremely rare," Blejwas said. "And the women were beside themselves seeing them do the work.
"The community was super excited about it. They were happy and singing songs for them, and it was a pretty moving experience. And the husbands in the community started working on that project shortly thereafter."
Boldin, never known for his sound bites, prefers to have real conversations. In Ethiopia, he said, he spoke with a farmer who walked three hours to work and three hours back just to make 98 cents a day. It was the only way he could keep his six kids in school.
"It blew my mind just to hear the stories," Boldin said. "And at that point, you want to give everything that you have.
"As Americans, we couldn't even fathom the conditions that they were living in. It was crazy."
During his visit last March to Sabodala, a village in Eastern Senegal, Boldin saw the way the rural communities were being devastated by large-scale gold-mining operations. The land was rich -- but farmers were often forced off at a moment's notice while being offered scant compensation.
"These companies go in, they mine the land -- and they make billions of dollars doing so," Boldin said. "And once they leave the land, it's no longer of use. It's been stripped. So the locals can't go back and continue to farm and sustain their way of life."
On the spot, Boldin promised the people he would take their stories back to the United States. And then he did. When Boldin returned home, the three-time Pro Bowl selection used his star power to score meetings with influential lawmakers.
"We (at Oxfam America) don't get meetings with the senators and the representatives, ever. We get meetings with their staff," Blejwas said. "But going with Anquan, we got the meetings -- in their offices. And I think that's how he got things changed.
Among the meetings was a sit-down with Congressman Chris Smith (R-New Jersey), the chairman of the House International Relations Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations Subcommittee.
Smith asked Boldin if he would be willing to testify at a hearing. Boldin said to name the time.
So on July 18, Boldin stepped inside an office building on Capitol Hill to deliver a speech called "Is There an African Resource Curse?"
"As a direct result of his visit, legislation got rewritten to include people from Senegal. It's fantastic," Blejwas said. "That's not an easy thing to do, and I think what he is probably beginning to realize, if he hasn't already, is that he has quite a bit of power."
"We got the audience for two reasons. One, because he's a known name. But that doesn't get you anything unless you're widely respected. And every single person that we met with, every senator and every congressman, knew Anquan's character."
Because Boldin is famously tight-lipped during his day job -- he jokes that even his mom can't get a good quote out of him -- his off-field work remains unknown in his new Bay Area home.
But those back in Pahokee are hardly surprised. Joe Marx, his high school football coach, anointed Boldin as his quarterback largely because of his leadership skills. He first coached him on the basketball team and saw the way other players gravitated toward the no-nonsense point guard.
Now, Marx watches Boldin come back every year to deliver a few more assists.
"He does a charity basketball game where he just lets everybody in for free. And of course he spends the whole two hours before the game signing autographs and taking pictures with kids," Marx said.
"Then he has a golf outing where he raises money for the community -- and spends all the time with the kids.
"People see him. That's really important to him, I know it is. He's not a real verbal guy. He's never going to toot his own horn at those kinds of things. But he'll never forget Pahokee and he'll never leave those people behind."
Boldin may have grown up not knowing he was poor. But he seems well aware of what it means to live a rich life.
Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at twitter.com/mercbrownie.
For a look at how other Bay Area athletes
are reaching out into the community, go to www.mercurynews.com.
"It blew my mind just to hear the stories. And at that point, you want to give everything that you have.As Americans, we couldn't even fathom the conditions that they were living in. It was crazy."
-- 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin, on
his time in Ethiopia