Giving receivers

Two veteran wideouts take a life-changing mission to Africa

Updated: May 31, 2012, 8:11 PM ET
By Gary Belsky | ESPN The Magazine

Anquan Boldin and Larry FitzgeraldAudra Melton/Oxfam America"I wasn't put on this earth just to play football," Boldin (in red) says.

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VISITING WITH VILLAGERS in drought-ravaged Ethiopia, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald have a problem: They can't give away their money fast enough.

Actually, they can't give it away at all.

The wide receivers are under strict orders to avoid handouts. Andrew Blejwas, an official with the nonprofit international relief and development organization Oxfam America, is coordinating this late-March trip for the two NFL players and their significant others, and he insists they focus on the task at hand. At the moment, the wideouts are in the region of Tigray, helping about 50 locals move rocks in a ravine, part of the agency's effort to create small plots of farmable land. A day of hauling rocks earns each worker about 90 cents, paid out by an Oxfam America-supported organization. It's strenuous, monotonous labor, but it's pretty much the only job to be found. "I know what it's like to do without," Boldin says after working and talking to villagers, "but nothing like this."

[+] EnlargeAnquan Boldin
Audra Melton/Oxfam AmericaBoldin had never been accused of having stone hands, until now.

Ethiopia, a country of 93.8 million people, has a per capita annual GDP of $1,100 (compared with $48,100 in the U.S.), but Blejwas is adamant that Boldin and Fitzgerald refrain from slipping anyone cash. "You can't just give money to random people," he says. "It could change the social dynamic." He explains to the NFL stars that even a gift of 500 birr (about $30) could cause serious disruption in this community. If a few villagers were suddenly to become "rich," many neighbors could resent their good fortune, and some might shun them if not given a share of the windfall.

Last summer, after seeing news reports about Ethiopia's economic and humanitarian crisis, Boldin decided he needed to get involved. "I wasn't put on this earth just to play football," the Ravens receiver says. He eventually learned about Oxfam America and liked its approach, which emphasizes support for grassroots organizations. But Boldin didn't want to just write a check; he wanted to see for himself what was happening on the ground and raise awareness for the group. He asked Fitzgerald, his former teammate in Arizona, to join him, in part because he knew the good-natured Cardinal would endure the three-day scramble of short-hop flights and spine-jarring SUV rides to visit work sites and aid recipients. "I try to help with whatever cause I can," Fitzgerald says. "But if it's Q asking, I try harder."

Although he is arguably the best wide receiver of his generation, Fitzgerald routinely defers to Boldin, who may be the toughest. (Boldin's face was broken in a much-YouTubed 2008 helmet-to-helmet collision with the Jets' Eric Smith. He was back in action three weeks later, plates, pins and all.) Boldin, meanwhile, relishes any chance to tease his friend. On the final night of their visit, the two are slated for a series of fan chats on OxfamAmerica.org. Before the question and answer begins, Boldin reminisces about a time when Fitzgerald, feeling confident after a good workout, challenged his mentor to wrestle. As Boldin tells the story -- which ends with Fitzgerald in a headlock -- his former teammate corrects some details but otherwise nods in agreement. When Boldin finishes, Fitzgerald suggests an immediate rematch. Boldin's wife, Dionne, rolls her eyes. "They're like this all the time," she says.

They've been close since 2004, when Boldin, in his second season, mentored Fitzgerald, the third overall pick in that year's draft. Their friendship has survived Boldin's 2010 trade to the Ravens, not to mention polar-opposite personalities. Fitzgerald, 28, is everyone's best friend -- charming, gregarious and generous with smiles. The 31-year-old Boldin, meanwhile, is reserved, suspicious of strangers and gruff to the point of self-parody. "I've got too many friends," he says. "I'm trying to lose some."

[+] EnlargeAnquan Boldin
Audra Melton/Oxfam AmericaThe wide receivers were told to avoid monetary handouts. Instead, they helped move rocks in a ravine.

Boldin often rides Fitzgerald for his na´vetÚ and easy path to NFL stardom. Fitzgerald, the son of a Minneapolis sports writer, was a Vikings ball boy. Boldin, by contrast, grew up in Pahokee, Fla., a hole-in-the-swamp town known equally for the surprisingly large number of pro athletes it has produced and its otherwise poor career prospects. When Boldin was a child, his grandfather made him work Saturdays at a local sugarcane processor while repeatedly warning him, "This is what you don't want to be doing for the rest of your life."

Back in Tigray, knowing that he has more money than he ever imagined as a kid in Pahokee, Boldin continues to be frustrated with his inability to give cash directly to the villagers. "You just want to do something right now," he says.

Soon after, while visiting an agricultural school supported by Oxfam America, Boldin and Fitzgerald hear about a livestock sale under way just a short walk down the road. Sensing a path around the no-handout rule, Boldin asks Blejwas if he's allowed to buy the villagers a cow. The Oxfam rep consults with colleagues before giving the okay, adding that such a gift shows great respect for the community. Fitzgerald chimes in that he'll spring for a heifer as well, and less than an hour later, the two players are each proud owners of Ethiopian milking cows. As they leave the corral, each man wielding a stick to guide his $200 purchase, Fitzgerald assesses their bovine talent. "Nice looking animal you got there, Q," he says to his friend, who smirks suspiciously. "But I'll bet you right now mine produces more milk."

Boldin shakes his head but says nothing as they begin the walk back to the agricultural school.

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