After 14 years in the NFL, Anquan Boldin is ending one career to begin another. The 36-year-old Super Bowl champion and potential Hall of Famer is leaving football to focus on social activism and charity work full time.
Just last month, Boldin signed a one-year deal with the Buffalo Bills. But not even two weeks later, he quit.
"Football takes up a huge amount of your time," Boldin tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "I wanted to be able to spend as much time as I felt was needed to work on advocacy."
This isn't an unfamiliar field for the former wide receiver. In 2015, he was named the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year — an annual award that honors a player's volunteer and charity work.
Boldin's retirement comes amidst controversy surrounding his former San Francisco 49ers teammate, Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem before games during 2016 season in protest of the treatment of African-Americans and minorities in the U.S.
Kaepernick is currently a free agent, but players across the league have shown support him — most prominently, Green Bay Packers star, Aaron Rodgers. "I think he should be on a roster right now," Rodgers told ESPN. "I think because of his protests, he's not."
Boldin supports Kaepernick's activism, saying his protests have gained him more and more support from fans. "For those that really want change, I think they'll listen to [his] message and they'll take it to heart," he tells NPR.
Boldin says that while he's been troubled by the America of the last few months, the recent response to flood victims of Hurricane Harvey has given him hope.
"[W]ith the devastation that is going on in Houston, and the people that have stepped to the forefront to help people that they don't know — doesn't matter race, color, creed, religion, none of that matters," he says. "Only thing they can see is a brother or a sister in need of a helping hand, and they're willing to lend that hand to them."
On how the rally in Charlottesville, Va., sparked his decision to leave the NFL
Seeing the person lose their life because they were fighting for justice for someone else. You know, where you had guys walking down the street with flags with swastikas on it, screaming "Jews will not replace us." It's just so blatant at this point. It's no longer hidden. It's no longer, you know, turning a blind eye. It's right in front of you. And I think we as Americans have to stare this right in the face and deal with it.
On whether he could have made this decision earlier in his career
I would like to think so. Do I have the desire and the passion to play? Of course I do. But at this point in my life, I just feel like there's some things that are more important. And I feel like I couldn't just sit back and continue to let things be status quo. I had to use my voice and the platform that I've been afforded for change.
On the responsibility of athletes to speak up
Well for me, I don't think it's a battle for just athletes, period — black or white. I think it's a battle for all of us. I think it's a battle for owners. I think it's a battle for coaches. I think it's a battle for the players. I think it's a battle for fans. And that's the thing that I've been trying to tell people. Don't just look at the athletes and the protests that they're having, because it's not about them. They're doing this for those that don't have a voice. This is all of our America.
On his main focus going forward
Criminal justice reform as a whole is, I mean — it's a huge problem. But there's different parts to it. If you look at mandatory minimums for juveniles, we're looking at legislation that is on the floor now with our bills and legislation we can get behind to hopefully get passed in different states. One of the initiatives that we're pushing now is in the state of Pennsylvania for juvenile lifers — 'cause I think it's unconstitutional for a kid at a juvenile age to be serving a life sentence without parole at this point.
Note: Some parts of this interview were not included in the audio version.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Anquan Boldin was one of the NFL's most talented receivers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS COMMENTATING MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: Caught for the touchdown - Anquan Boldin.
UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: Throws his ball, he's completely covered. And Boldin just fights through and gets the ball.
UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #3: Put it in the hands of Anquan Boldin, and he's just made NFL history.
MARTIN: Last month, he signed a new contract with the Buffalo Bills. Then, not even two weeks later, he quit. Boldin was already known for his social activism and lobbying on issues like criminal justice reform. But he said events in Charlottesville - the swastikas, the white nationalist chants and the death of a counterprotester - made this country's injustices so blatant he decided to focus full time on social activism.
We reached Boldin on his cellphone to talk more, and I asked him about his former San Francisco 49ers teammate Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who made headlines for kneeling during the national anthem.
Do you support that kind of on-field activism?
ANQUAN BOLDIN: I think so. I think the more that people began to hear the message, I think that people realized exactly what he was doing. And I think he gained a lot of fans by doing exactly that. For those people that didn't want to hear his message, you know, they'll continue to scream how he disrespected the flag. And they'll continue to ignore the reason that he began the protest. But for those that really want change, I think they'll listen to the message, and they will take it to heart.
MARTIN: I want to ask you more broadly about the responsibility of all athletes. Recently, Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback from the Green Bay Packers, said that while he himself is not going to sit out the anthem, he's totally behind his teammates who choose to do so. And then he went on to say quote, "they have a battle for racial equality," referring to his black teammates.
How do those comments sit with you? I mean, is this a battle white players should be more aggressively fighting as well?
ANQUAN BOLDIN: Well, for me, I don't think it's a battle for just athletes, period - black or white. I think it's a battle for all of us. I think it's a battle for owners. I think it's a battle for coaches. I think it's a battle for the players. I think it's a battle for fans. And that's the thing that I've been trying to tell people. Don't just look at the athletes and the protests that they're having because it's not about them. They're doing this for those that don't have a voice. This is all of our America.
MARTIN: In some ways, was this a luxury that you have to make this choice now? I mean, you've been to the top of the mountain, so to speak. You've got a Super Bowl ring. You're financially secure. A lot of smart folks thinks you're going to end up in the Hall of Fame. Do you think you could have made this kind of decision earlier in your career?
ANQUAN BOLDIN: I would like to think so. Do I have a desire and a passion to play? Of course I do. But at this point in my life, I just feel like there's some things that are more important. And I feel like I couldn't just sit back and continue to let, you know, things be status quo. I had to use my voice as a platform that I've been afforded for change.
MARTIN: Anquan Boldin - he is a former wide receiver. He made a decision to retire from the NFL and pursue a full-time career in humanitarian assistance and human rights.
Thank you so much.
ANQUAN BOLDIN: No problem. Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF TERRACE MARTIN'S "NEVA HAFTA WURRY BOUT DAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.