NEW ORLEANS -- Kurt Warner still winces at the memory of the helmet-to-helmet shot that Anquan Boldin absorbed in a 2008 game against the New York Jets.
Then with the Arizona Cardinals, Boldin was attempting to grab a pass from Warner in the end zone when he was knocked unconscious in a nasty collision with Eric Smith.
"It was the most vicious hit I’ve ever seen, up close and personal," Warner recalled Tuesday. "It made me think about retirement."
Boldin missed only two weeks, a testament to his grit and fearlessness. But the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder wants to be known as more than simply a tough receiver.
"I look it as, I’m a football player," Boldin said. "Not so much a receiver."
Boldin has been a key figure in Baltimore’s charge to the Super Bowl. After leading the Ravens with 65 receptions and 921 yards receiving during the regular season, he’s got 16 catches for 276 yards and three touchdowns in the playoffs.
That’s why stopping Boldin is a huge part of San Francisco’s game plan in the Super Bowl.
"He’s very determined to bring his team his championship," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. "He’s going up high to catch footballs and running past people to catch footballs. Strong after the catch, fearless. We’ll have our hands full with him."
Boldin, 32, isn’t afraid to cut across the field or challenge a safety by going deep.
"It’s hard to put into words Anquan’s toughness," Warner said. "I’ve never been around a player that is as tough as he is. To be able to come back from what he went through in New York ... I’ve seen him many times being beat up, worn out, having nagging injuries, but he’s got extreme mental toughness, too."
If Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco needs a first down in a clutch situation this Sunday, he might want to do follow the path Warner took when he had Boldin at his disposal.
"When we needed a spark, the first guy I’d look for is 81. Where’s he at?" Warner said. "Cause he’ll make those plays for us. If you’re going into battle, that’s the first guy you’d pick on your team because you know he’s not going to shrink to the pressure, but is only going to rise up and get better in the most critical moments of the game."
In that injury-shortened 2008 season, Boldin finished with 89 catches for 1,038 yards in only 10 games. He had eight catches for 84 yards in the Super Bowl, but the Cardinals lost 27-23 to Pittsburgh.
Boldin is back in the big game, and he has no intention of losing again.
After comparing Boldin to Hall of Fame receiver Art Monk, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio rattled off a list of Boldin’s qualities.
"He’s a complete receiver. He’s physical and he’s got enough quickness to get open in the short areas," Fangio said. "He’s got the body and speed to get deep and out-battle you for the ball, which is a big part of his game. He’s a tough receiver to stop. You’ve got to be able to get up and into him and not let him run his routes, but that’s easier said than done."
Boldin grew up as part of a poor family in Florida, earned a scholarship to Florida State and starred for coach Bobby Bowden. He was drafted in the second round of the 2003 draft with Arizona and set a single-season record for receptions by a rookie (101) and made the Pro Bowl.
Soon after that, he created the Anquan Boldin Foundation, which is dedicated to expanding the educational and life opportunities of underprivileged children.
Last year, Boldin visited Ethiopia with former Cardinals teammate Larry Fitzgerald in an effort to help the drought-stricken country.
Boldin’s generosity is evident everywhere, even in the Baltimore locker room. A year ago, he began to mentor rookie Torrey Smith, who has grown into a solid NFL receiver.
"He is the definition of a pro," Smith said. "Faithful, religious, a great father. He has always been willing to help me in any way. And he is one of the great route runners of all time, so I have certainly benefited from that."
From Warner to Smith, Boldin has a knack for making a positive impression on his teammates.
"It means a lot, because at the end of the day that’s really what matters," Boldin said. "The people that you play with, those are the guys whose respect you’re really trying to earn. If you can do that, you’ve really done something."