Football is a religion around these parts.
A lot of towns try to stake that claim, but Muck City is football. You’ve probably heard it shouted out on a Monday Night Football broadcast or when you’re Googling your Fantasy Football players.
That’s us. That’s Muck City.
Since the ’80s, Muck City has sent more than 60 players to the NFL. Andre Waters. Fred Taylor. Santonio Holmes. The list goes on.
When I was a kid, all we did down here was play football. How come, you ask?
Well, there isn’t much else to do. There wasn’t a Pop Warner league growing up, so it was only sandlot ball. It was my projects versus your projects, and to be honest, I probably didn’t put on full gear until I got to high school. There aren’t any shopping malls or places to go eat, unless we are talking little mom-and-pop diners. The closest Walmart is non-existent. I mean, there’s less than 10,000 people that live here. It’s the definition of a small, blue-collar town.
Down here, we place a heavy emphasis on football, because it’s the way out of the struggle.
But what’s “muck,” all about?
Well, everybody calls it “Muck City” because of the soil. The muck is black dirt. The soil is so rich that you can grow anything from fruits to vegetables. Growing up, I actually worked in the fields with my grandfather and understood the meaning of hard labor. In the summer, I would wake up early to beat the heat and get out to the field. They had this thing called the “mule train.” There were four parts, and it went like this: There is the person that runs the mule train, the person who makes the boxes, the person who packs the boxes and the person who picks the corn.
This was a way to make a living and keep your head above water. But now, the times have changed. A small town that was once thriving is going through problems. Many people are living under the poverty line and the mills are shutting down or turning to machines.
It might sound like the kind of place that you run away from and don’t come back. But this place made me.
Growing up, I never knew when my next meal was coming in. But you know what? If my mother saw someone starving, she would help them.
I still have family that is living in the struggle. Honestly, there are people living in my mom’s house to this day that are not family, but she is still providing for them, whether it’s a roof over their head or food on the table. That’s just in our blood. We live to give.
When I got to the NFL, I remember saying to myself, “How can I live the life I live while people that I’m close with are still struggling? What type of person does that make me?”
So I started my Anquan Boldin Foundation my second year in the league while I was in Arizona. I always had a heart to see kids succeed. I wanted to give kids that grew up in impoverished areas like I did the opportunities that I didn’t have growing up.
My foundation offers a scholarship program for kids that are serious about furthering their education. They have to have a certain GPA. Unfortunately, even though it’s Muck City, not every kid in those communities will be blessed to go on to play professional football. Football can’t be the only way out. It has to be education. Back in my day, it was okay for you to get a high school diploma and get a stable $40,000 job to put food on the table. But now, times are different. Most of those jobs are gone. You need a college degree to even compete in the job market. And these kids come from backgrounds where their parents don’t have the resources to send them to school. In turn, they get low paying jobs, and the cycle continues.
When you give a kid a scholarship, you are giving them the chance to be great and break the continuous cycle.
But here’s my thing: It’s not just about the people in my community. My mother taught me to open my heart to help everybody, no matter where they come from or what they look like.
So thanks to Oxfam International, I was able to help overseas. Getting out in the world and seeing how people struggle adds perspective to your own life.
A couple years ago, I took a trip to Ethiopia, and it opened my eyes to another kind of struggle. During that time, they were going through one of the worst droughts in the nation’s history. The people did not have clean water, and sometimes had electricity for only half the day (if that). Like, can you imagine not having the bare necessities of life like running water? Think about all the water you pour out every single day, and imagine what someone struggling to get clean water could have done with that.
It has to strike a chord with you. It hit me hard, because there were times when we had the water cut off growing up. So I got with Oxfam International to make a difference. When you hear about something like the water crisis in Ethiopia, it’s easy to block out the human side. It’s hard to even put a face to it. Just to see these people rejoice and appreciate everything was a blessing.
But let me tell you a funny story. When I traveled to Ethiopia, I took my fellow teammate Larry Fitzgerald with me so he could experience the trip overseas. Now Larry is a pretty big deal right?
Well, when we got there, the locals had no clue who we were. All they cared about was that we were building wells and helping out with these projects. Now get this: You want to know who the most popular person in our group was? The dude with the Polaroid camera.
Listen, I’m so serious. Not the NFL guys, but the guy carrying around a small Polaroid camera.
Think about it like this: A lot of these people have never seen a physical picture of themselves in their lives. A lot of them — from when they were kids all the way to their 70’s — grew up without mirrors. And they were all getting so much happiness from just a small photo of themselves and some running water. It added so much perspective, and it changed the way I look at life.
It took me all the way back to Pahokee, way on the other side of the world, where my mom shared this quote with me:
“If a person is in need, you help them. Who cares about the color, race or religion? If a person needs your help, you help them.”
Anquan Boldin is a finalist for the 2015 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. The winner will be announced during the 5th Annual NFL Honors awards show, a two-hour primetime special airing nationally on Feb. 6, the night before Super Bowl 50, from 9-11 p.m. ET on CBS. For more information, visit nfl.com/manoftheyear.