In a cavernous conference room in one of the countless convention centers here in Washington, D.C., a crowd of nearly 200 awaits Anquan Boldin's words. They've already watched a documentary, Walking While Black, about racial profiling. And they've just heard the film's director, A.J. Ali, ask Boldin why he decided to walk away from the NFL.
Since his retirement in August, Boldin has been armed with an answer everywhere he goes. And the truth is he'd prefer to be playing football. He's 37, but it was his heart, not his body, that kept him from stretching his NFL career into a 15th season.
When a police officer shot and killed his cousin two years ago, he knew he would one day refocus his football energy toward advocating for criminal justice reform. When Colin Kaepernick began sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem last year, Boldin knew demonstrations could only advance the issue so far. And when he saw the images from Charlottesville, Virginia, on his hotel television screen in August, he felt he no longer recognized his nation. He knew he couldn't wait any longer to get to work.
"Do I still love the game? Yes," he tells the crowd. "Do I still have a passion to play? Of course I do. But I feel like for me there is something more important than football at this point in my life."
Anquan Boldin never protested during the national anthem. He has privately and publicly expressed support for players who have, especially his former quarterback, Kaepernick. But he always feared that the true message of justice and equality would be distorted into a conversation about patriotism and etiquette in front of the flag.
Hours after the documentary panel hosted by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) ended, Boldin proved prescient. At a rally in Alabama, President Donald Trump implored NFL owners to fire any "son of a bitch'' player who dared demonstrate. He has since tweeted about the issue more than two dozen times. Boldin had already been booked for television appearances on ESPN and ABC on Saturday and Sunday. He knew when he saw the news that instead of talking about policing, he would spend most of his time answering questions about the president and the appropriateness of protests.
By the time he got home Monday, he was exhausted. Still, Tuesday morning, he woke up at 5 a.m., as he always does. He helped his wife, Dionne, get their sons ready for school. Then he drove 30 minutes from his home in Delray Beach, Florida, to a gym in Fort Lauderdale.
The day after he retired, he showed up for an early-morning session, and he's been doing two-a-days every day since he's been in town. On this morning, he's working out with several players who are trying to get back into the league, including longtime Jets corner Darrelle Revis. As they work their way through ladder drills and sprints, it's clear Boldin would have had no trouble continuing his career.
Boldin was six when he decided to dedicate his life to sports. But by 18, he realized that football alone couldn't fulfill him. He was a freshman in 1999 when his Florida State Seminoles went undefeated and won a national championship. Toward the end of the title game, against Virginia Tech in New Orleans, Boldin watched the clock count down toward victory but felt nothing. He heard the band blast the team's fight song, watched the camera flashes flicker like fireflies and put on his commemorative championship hat.
He walked around the field in a daze and wondered, "Is this it?"
He had skipped out on so many experiences in high school. He never drank. He never smoked. He never went to a party. He didn't even go to his prom. To him, those were sacrifices on the altar of athletics. Starting in his sophomore year, he rearranged his schedule to be able to attend after-school programs for local kids. He didn't know how to help yet, but he knew he wanted to be there for kids who grew up poor like he did.
He had picked Florida State in part because the school had one of the best criminal justice programs in the Southeast, but he didn't finish his degree before entering the NFL draft. Taken late in the second round, Boldin was a sensation from his first season in Arizona. He set an NFL rookie record with 217 receiving yards in his first game and became the fastest player to 300, 400 and 500 catches. "I kept setting records," Boldin says, "and I'm proud of those. But with everything happening so fast, it was hard to focus on anything other than football."
The financial windfall of being an NFL player meant Boldin was able to fulfill promises he made to his parents to buy them a home and spare them from spending the twilight of their lives in low-wage jobs. It also allowed him to expand his worldview in unexpected ways. With Dionne, then his girlfriend, he began traveling every offseason before training camp. They began with a romantic getaway to London and Paris but have since touched down in Western Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
It was those experiences in Africa that helped him understand the power of his platform. In the summer of 2011, he read a magazine article about a devastating drought in Ethiopia. The following spring, he and a former teammate, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, went there to raise awareness of the plight. A year later, after he reached his professional peak by helping Baltimore win Super Bowl XLVII, Boldin traveled to Senegal to learn about abusive mining practices. The group that accompanied him, Oxfam America, had been trying to get a congressional hearing about the issue for more than two years. With Boldin on board, they were able to get a hearing in a matter of months.
He didn't know then that he'd one day have to harness that same power in the wake of tragedy.
After his workout, Boldin showers and changes for a noon appearance on MSNBC. As he strides into the satellite studio, he shakes every hand and memorizes every name. As he's waiting for his time slot, a woman working in the studio thanks him for all that he's done in the community. As she listens to Boldin answer the final question, about his cousin, her face turns ashen. "Corey Jones was your cousin?" she asks. "I'm so sorry. That was just awful."
Two years ago, during Boldin's third season in San Francisco, his cousin Corey Jones, a musician in Florida, was shot and killed by a police officer in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. During the following weeks, details of the shooting emerged, and they puzzled Boldin. He remembered his cousin being non-confrontational to a fault. He didn't like playing football or basketball with the rest of the boys, and he never got involved in wrestling matches. "I just remember him for the big smile he always had," Boldin says. "He was the gentlest soul ever."
Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja painted a different picture. Raja, who was in an unmarked car and wearing plain clothes, initially told investigators that he approached Jones' car because he believed it to be empty. When Jones jumped out, Raja said he identified himself as a police officer, and when he did, Jones drew a gun on him. He claimed to have fired only in self-defense. What he did not know when he gave his statements to investigators was that Jones had been on the phone with AT&T roadside assistance, and that their deadly interaction was being recorded.
For months, Boldin tried to bring the story of his cousin's death to the spotlight. He gave interview after interview, but he couldn't garner any national attention. Meanwhile, a year later when he landed on the Lions, he was asked incessantly about Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem. And he watched as that devolved into a debate about patriotism rather than criminal justice.
This January, the Florida State Attorney's office released a 60-page report that dubbed officer Raja a "liar." William Daniel Libby, a police training consultant working for the prosecution, found that Raja had violated at least three departmental procedures. The chilling AT&T call reveals that Raja never identified himself as police, that his offer to help was "sarcastic" and that he placed a frantic 911 call accusing Jones of pulling a gun on him after he had already fired the fatal shots. (Jones had recently acquired a gun and a license to carry, but it was not fired that night and was found 80 feet from his body.) Boldin only could bear listening to the recording once. "I got angry all over again," he says. "And I got sad all over again. And I wanted justice all over again."
Raja has been fired from the police department, and a grand jury indicted him on attempted first-degree murder and manslaughter charges last year. He awaits trial on house arrest.
"Corey's death focused me," Boldin says. "In a weird way, I felt prepared for this—like what I'd been doing before prepared me for what I'm doing now. I'd mostly been focused on poverty, but in principle it's the same activity. We're speaking for those who don't have a voice. Who don't have a jump shot. Who can't run a 4.3 in the 40. Where's justice for them? My cousin is dead. Where's justice for him?"
Rather than protesting during the anthem, Boldin reached out to a few other socially conscious players—Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, Lions safety Glover Quin, Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins (who has since retired) and Browns quarterback Josh McCown (who now plays for the Jets)—and formed what would come to be known as the "Players Coalition."
In November, days after Trump's election, the group traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as several other representatives and the staff of House Speaker Paul Ryan. Boldin hoped they'd be able to begin a conversation about the "deep mistrust" between police and black communities. He believes there are a number of bipartisan criminal justice reforms that could and should happen in the next decade—from body cameras to bail reform to the end of mandatory minimum sentencing.
In some offices on Capitol Hill, it felt like they were on the same page as lawmakers. In others, it felt like nothing more than a photo op. "We left there feeling like we really had our work cut out for us," Boldin says.
Even though Boldin founded the Players Coalition, he does not consider himself its leader. Instead, the group arrives at decisions jointly through text messages, a conference call or an in-person meeting if possible. Perhaps the most challenging decision for the coalition came on the Saturday before February's Falcons-Patriots Super Bowl. "We actually got invited to the White House," Boldin says.
Over lunch at a barbecue spot in Houston, Boldin, Hawkins, McCown and Jenkins went back and forth for three agonizing hours about whether to attend. The group felt that Trump, through his old-school speeches on law and order and his appointment of staunch conservative Jeff Sessions as attorney general, had already made his positions on police reform quite clear. They decided to decline the invitation, Boldin says.
"All the work that we had done up to that point would have gone down the drain had we took what they called a meeting but would have been just a photo opportunity," Boldin says. "We didn't feel like he was willing to address the issues we wanted to. It would have been pointless for us to go." (White House communications director Hope Hicks says she was not aware of the invitation.)
Instead, in August, Boldin and three other players—Jenkins, Seattle's Michael Bennett and Philadelphia's Torrey Smith—sent a letter to the NFL asking the league for overt support for players' activism.
Early in his career, Boldin had been one of the first players to wear pink gloves for breast cancer awareness. (His mother-in-law is a survivor.) He says he was fined for a uniform violation, but he watched as over the course of his career, the NFL got behind the issue and it garnered national attention. Although he has issues with how the NFL has profited from breast cancer awareness, he and the Players Coalition saw an opportunity for an activism awareness month, where players could advocate for their issues openly and proudly. "We have so much untapped power to create positive change," he says.
Back in the studio, Boldin finishes his MSNBC interview by defending the widespread protests that Trump sparked with his Alabama comments. Off camera, on the way home, he thinks aloud about how he can move the conversation forward.
"I like the way the NFL came together," he says. "But what I'd really like to see are owners and players locked arm in arm and walking into the halls of Congress. Any owner that donated to Trump can get a meeting with him anytime they want. And he will really listen to them. If the owners really are behind this issue, they can do something beyond the symbolism."
Around 3 p.m., after watching an episode of Fixer Upper, Boldin and his wife part ways to pick up their boys from school. Dionne drives to get their seven-year-old, Ashton, while Boldin collects 13-year-old A.J. to take him to training. Boldin won't let his son play football yet, out of fear for his health, but he may reconsider when A.J. reaches high school next year.
Together, they play catch, with Boldin flaunting one-handed and behind-the-back catches and using his former quarterbacking skills to hurl the ball at his boy. They move onto a makeshift half-court hoop next, and Boldin has A.J. doubled over laughing with his relentless trash talk. Near the end of the game, he lets A.J. steal a couple of buckets and congratulates him. He didn't retire specifically to spend more time with his family, but it was his boys who sealed his decision.
On Thursday, Aug. 10, Boldin stood on the sidelines, inactive, for his first preseason game with the Bills, against the Vikings. That weekend he returned to his hotel and watched in horror as white men with tiki torches marched in Charlottesville on Friday night and then as neo-Nazis, white nationalists and white supremacists clashed with protesters Saturday.
He watched a car allegedly driven by a suspected Nazi sympathizer crash into a crowd. "I wasn't proud to be an American," he says, "because that's not the America I want to leave to my two sons, where people are being hated because of the color of their skin or of the way they choose to live their lives."
He spent most of Sunday on the phone with friends and his wife, trying to make sense of the situation, but he couldn't. He tried to keep up a normal schedule, too, but struggled. He still went to early-morning workouts, and he still got in extra routes with quarterback Tyrod Taylor, but he felt burdened. On August 17, he slipped on his NFL pads for the final time, catching one pass for five yards in the Bills' second preseason game, against the Eagles. By Sunday he had informed the team he would retire.
"How do I give enough time to this cause and not shortchange my teammates?" he says. "That's something that I didn't want to do. I felt like the only way that I would be able to do it the right way was to step away. If I could have done it any other way, I probably would have."
Boldin tries to be honest with his boys, but it's a struggle: How do you warn them about the world without making them cynical? Last Halloween, A.J. wanted to go trick-or-treating as Ghostface from Scream. The Boldins live in a gated suburb, and most of his son's friends are white, so it was hard for A.J. to understand when his parents told him he could wear the costume but couldn't carry the toy knife. "We had to say no," Boldin says. "I mean, we watched, my wife and I watched what happened to Tamir Rice."
After training with A.J., Boldin returns home to shower and change for his final TV appearance of the day, a late evening spot with CNN’s OutFront. Much of his life these days resembles a three-and-out. He waits for his moment on the sidelines, often getting to satellite studios 30 minutes before scheduled appearances. Then he gets on the field, is asked three questions and is out within minutes. It's not the most enthralling work, but he'll take almost any opportunity to refocus the conversation on criminal justice reform.
He drives home for the final time and reads to his younger son, which he does now for at least 20 minutes each night. Together with his wife, they put their sons to bed by 10 p.m. Boldin doesn't last much longer himself. By 11 p.m. each night, he's asleep, exhausted from the work of the day and dreaming of ways to make a better tomorrow.