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'Tis Better to Give

If it weren’t for faith in Christ and a willingness to serve, the stories of Anquan Boldin and Hikeem “Bubba” Banks probably would never have intertwined. Sure, both grew up in Pahokee, Florida, but they were four years apart and even further separated on Pahokee’s “Most Likely to Succeed” scale.

Boldin, now a star wide receiver in the NFL, was a football prodigy by ninth grade in Pahokee, where the sport serves as—too often quite literally—your “Get Out of Jail Free” card. A few years later, also by ninth grade, Banks was on the other end of the spectrum, expelled from high school and seemingly doomed to a life of drinking, drugs and poverty.

In Pahokee, sadly, Banks’ narrative is far more common than Boldin’s. It’s a small town on the banks of Lake Okeechobee where football is seen as your ticket out. If you’re not one of those fortunate few, you grow up quickly in a town overrun by drugs, crime and poverty, a town so poor that—as author Bryan Mealer put it in his book Muck City—families often resort to catching rainwater to survive because they can’t afford utilities.

Palm Beach County reported that, in 2010, one-half of the male population between ages 18 and 25 had felony convictions. The average family earns about $34,000, and the unofficial unemployment rate is 40 percent.

In Pahokee, failure begets failure. Depression begets desperation.

“Growing up we were told that if you don’t make it as a football player, you won’t make it out,” Banks said. “Single-family homes, poverty, no businesses in the town. It was either: ‘I’m gonna play football or hang with the drug dealers.’”

• • •

Teachers in the Palm Beach County school district had seen Banks’ type before, and they assured him he would amount to nothing. He was on the fast track to prison (or death) before he ever had a true chance at life—another victim of an environment that fostered failure.

After his expulsion in ninth grade, Banks’ next couple years were a blur. He acted as predicted: drinking, smoking, doing his share of drugs, and living in poverty. While former class-mates were creating high school memories, Banks stumbled through his teens. With football no longer an option, it was either work in the sugarcane fields—the muck—or get an education. Bubba pursued his GED through Job Corps, a free education and training program for those with low incomes.

But Banks had ulterior motives.

“I heard you could get money for going to school at the community college,” he said. “My plan was to enroll in the community college, get my financial aid check and just stop. I wasn’t taking school seriously at the time.”

Banks watched fellow friends and classmates swallowed up by the same societal misconceptions and poisonous habits, but he also witnessed Pahokee’s top athletes—Rickey Jack-son, Fred Taylor, Andre Waters and, yes, Anquan Boldin—sprinting toward the city limits, headed for a life of fame and fortune in the NFL.

Like Banks, Boldin was born and raised in Pahokee, a tried-and-true Blue Devil. Joe Marx, Boldin’s high school basketball coach and now the athletic director at William T. Dwyer High School in West Palm Beach, encouraged Boldin to consider football. A simple game of catch after basketball practice led to Boldin trying out and playing for the junior varsity team during eighth grade. A year later, he was competing with seniors for the starting quarterback spot on the varsity team.

“I won the job,” Boldin said.

Marx saw such huge potential in Boldin, and not just on the gridiron. He mentored the young student-athlete, encouraging him to work hard and stay out of trouble, a lesson easier said than done for most teenage boys in Pahokee. But Marx invested in Boldin’s future, even taking him to football camps and tours at Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan State.

“He opened my eyes to a whole new world,” Boldin said. “I don’t think he realizes the impact he’s had on my life, but he is a big reason for where I am today and why I do what I do.”

After making the transition to wide receiver and starring at Florida State, Boldin was Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2003 with the Arizona Cardinals and has since appeared in three Pro Bowls and two Super Bowls, including a championship in 2013 with the Baltimore Ravens.

It would’ve been easy for Boldin to push his troubled hometown to the back of his mind, to soak up the fame and fortune, and forget about the hardships of those left back in Pahokee. But a year into his pro career in 2004, Boldin launched the Anquan Boldin Foundation, and over the past decade it has set out to change Pahokee’s fortunes through academics, en-richment and family and community engagement. In 2013, the foundation generated $177,336 in combined program income, gifts and donations, and distributed $113,323 to community programs.

“I get more out of giving than the people I help,” Boldin said. “To see the smiles on people’s faces, that alone brings me joy.”

Boldin and his NFL friends frequently host events like a celebrity golf tournament, a celebrity basketball game, a weeklong community basketball tournament for all ages, a fitness Walk and Wellness Seminar, and the signature “Fun Day in the Park” for the entire community. The foundation stresses the importance of education, offering a program every summer for kids who have fallen behind to “help them get back on track so they can graduate on time.”

Through the foundation Boldin has been able to help countless individuals “get back on track,” including Banks.

• • •

It’s present day, and “Bubba” Banks pulls out his smartphone, finds Anquan Boldin and taps out a text. It’s a simple “thank you” message.

“I didn’t have nothing,” Banks said. “I send him and his wife a text [every now and then] to tell them thank you for what they have done for me.”

Back in 2008, Banks—then in his mid-20s—entered an essay scholarship contest established by Boldin and the University of Phoenix. He let his raw honesty fill the pages. He con-fessed that he probably wasn’t ready for the responsibility (or the scholarship), but he poured out his heart, writing about life in Pahokee, his childhood struggles and growing up in poverty. He shared how the scholarship would change his future and the effect education would have on his life.

Banks’ words struck a nerve at the core of the foundation, which chose him as one of the four recipients of a four-year college scholarship.

The goodwill could have ended there for Boldin, and it still might have been life-changing for Banks. But Boldin makes it a point to ensure each of his scholars have the tools to succeed. He regularly checked in on Banks’ progress throughout the life of the scholarship, stepping in and offering encouragement.

Banks was taking full-time classes while working, commuting to and from school every day by bus. Sometimes conflicting bus schedules meant missed classes; other times Banks wait-ed for the bus on the side of the road in the pouring rain.

It was anything but a dream, and Banks was on the brink of giving up.

He was about to receive enough money from his financial aid to buy a car, but he needed help with the purchase process. He called on Boldin for that help. The next day, when Banks went in to buy the car, the dealer handed him the keys and told him to keep the check. The car was paid for in full.

“We are here to serve,” Boldin said. “As believers, that’s what we’re called to do. That’s why Jesus came to Earth, to serve others.”

Banks remembered Boldin and many others who encouraged him along the way.

“I had people who encouraged me, and that’s the difference,” he said. “When you have someone encouraging you and telling you that you can, that is the difference. I had Anquan saying I can do it, my mom saying I can do it, my pastor saying I can do it.

“That,” he repeated, “is the difference.”

While life was improving on the outside, Banks was still at war on the inside, continuing to struggle with drinking, smoking and drugs. The battle ended on Nov. 14, 2010. He dropped to his knees, closed his eyes and whispered a prayer: “God, if you’re as good as they say You are, I’m gonna give all these problems to You.”

“I realized I didn’t have to live like this,” he said. “He’s promised me everything if I give my life to Him. God put my life in order once I made that decision.”

Almost two years later, on Nov. 4, 2012, Bubba walked across the stage and accepted his degree in business administration, his “first time ever putting on a cap and gown.”

“I grew up a troubled kid,” Banks said. “To actually see my family see me achieve some-thing—not come to get me out of jail or trouble—was the best feeling since the day I gave my life to Christ.”

Banks, now 29, just celebrated his third wedding anniversary. He has two daughters, a college degree, and a full-time job. His future is promising.

“This is the funny thing about it; are you ready?” he said. “I now work for the Palm Beach school district. The same high school that expelled me, that kicked me out, now pays my bills. That was through the scholarship. Can you believe that?”

• • •

In 2014, Boldin enters his 12th NFL season, and he’s hungry for another championship on a team that’s been oh-so-close the past couple years.

San Francisco lost in the Super Bowl two years ago (to Boldin’s Ravens) and bowed out to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship last season. Boldin believes the bittersweet endings will be all the motivation needed to get the Niners back to the Super Bowl.

“Anytime you fall short of a goal it motivates you, especially as an athlete,” Boldin said. “When I was in Baltimore, the year before we won the Super Bowl we lost in the AFC Championship Game to New England. That was our goal: to get back to that championship game against New England and win it. It’s no different this year than it was when I was in Baltimore. It’s win the division, win in the playoffs and win the Super Bowl.”

During the offseason, San Francisco traded for wide receiver Stevie Johnson, signed free agent receiver Brandon Lloyd and drafted Bruce Ellington from South Carolina.

“My role will be a little different this year because I will have a lot more help than I did last year,” Boldin said. “My job is to help prepare them for their roles, and if I can help them be better players, it helps the team. We all win in the end.”

Boldin was raised in the church. His grandfather was a pastor. His uncle is a pastor. His mother led him to Christ. He was 12 years old when he was lying on his mother’s bed on New Year’s Eve and made the personal decision to commit his life to Christ.

“My mom thinks she can change the world,” he said. “She has one of those hearts. Some-one comes to her with a need, and she’s always trying to meet it. I’ve been able to see firsthand that being put into action.”

Boldin has been a spiritual leader at all of his NFL stops. When athletes are bold in their faith, the potential is there to transform leadership into discipleship.

“I’ve seen when you have a locker room like we had in Baltimore and guys become bold and encouraging in their faith—they read more, they pray more, they ask more questions,” Boldin said.

Growing up in Pahokee was a challenge, and maintaining a Christian lifestyle in the midst of an NFL locker room carries its own set of unique challenges. Outspoken Christian athletes invite a microscope into their personal lives. The moment they share their faith, teammates, fans and media stop, stare and listen. They want to hear if your heart is beating in rhythm with your actions.

“The things I say to guys, I also live it out,” Boldin said. “Right or wrong, they’re going to critique every little thing. They’re going to watch and see if what you’re saying is really consistent with how you are living. I have always been conscious of that. By no means am I saying I am perfect, but I try to be a man of my word. I try to be a man of integrity. When guys see that you’re firm in what you believe and how you live, they start to respect who you are as a person.”

That kind of integrity can only come from a personal discipline and commitment to Scripture. Professional sports are extremely demanding for athletes. Games, practices, workouts, appearances and interviews push and pull them through each day.

“I’ve always been taught the first thing you do when you get up in the morning is you talk to God; you ask for direction and you seek Him,” Boldin said. “The longer you wait, the more is going to fill your plate. I don’t have an agenda at 6 a.m., so I get up and talk to God and pray. By 8 a.m., we have meetings and from there it’s just a rat race. I also try to take time during our lunch break to read the Bible, and I lead a study on Fridays with the team.”

• • •

Back in Florida, Banks knows that the opportunities he’s been given come with a tremendous amount of responsibility. When he’s working at the church, he can see how God has en-trusted him with His people.

“When I received my degree, I was put in charge of the alternative learning center, a pro-gram for kids like I was,” Banks said. “I minister to kids who are in trouble just like me. I am comfortable talking with underprivileged kids, being a mentor, and letting them know that they don’t have to take the road I took.”

Through the Anquan Boldin Foundation’s summer enrichment program, Banks is seeing the impact within the community.

“We are showing these kids they have a supporting cast,” he said. “Now they see more opportunity, and you’re starting to see lawyers, doctors, teachers.

“I love the work Anquan does for the community. People value that. It was why I took ad-vantage of it and began taking school seriously.”

Banks stops and thinks about the essay he wrote six years ago. What would it say now? If he could write it again, he’d pen the letter with a new message, a new sense of hope.

“It would be a lot different,” Banks said. “If you give God a chance, He won’t fail you. When I felt like giving up, when times were tough, Christ was right there. If I had to write it over I would say, ‘With God all things are possible. Just don’t give up.’”

Boldin echoes Banks’ sentiment.

“That’s why we do it,” he said. “You want to see people’s lives changed.”

As it turns out, football wasn’t Boldin’s way out of Pahokee. It was his way back in.

By John Strubel | FCA.ORG