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Anquan Boldin says events in Charlottesville helped prompt his surprise retirement

“My life’s purpose is bigger than football,” Anquan Boldin said in a statement Sunday night. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

Less than two weeks after signing a one-year contract with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent, 14-year NFL veteran and Super Bowl champion wide receiver Anquan Boldin announced he is retiring. The 36-year-old Boldin explained his decision in a statement to ESPN’s Jim Trotter, who first reported the news Sunday, saying he was “drawn to make the larger fight for human rights a priority,” and that “my life’s purpose is bigger than football.”

And Boldin expanded on those thoughts during a Monday morning appearance on SiriusXM NFL Radio with Ross Tucker and Vic Carucci, saying that while “it wasn’t a decision that I made all of a sudden,” the tumultuous national events of the past few days helped prompt his decision.

“Just seeing things that transpired over the last week or so, I think for me there’s something bigger than football at this point,” he said. “And it’s kind of shocking for me to say that because football has been something that I’ve dedicated my life towards. I can remember as a kid wanting to get to the NFL and watching to be a professional football player. I dedicated my life to that, and I never thought anything would take the place of that passion. But for me, it has.”

The Bills have been beset by pro football-style drama in recent days, with a pair of high-profile trades and some preseason offensive struggles, and so Tucker asked whether Boldin was referring to the nation’s drama or the team’s drama. Boldin said it was the former, adding that Buffalo’s struggles had nothing to do with his choice to step away. He said he’s been engaged with societal issues for the past couple of years, and suggested that the unrest in Charlottesville made him unable to wait through a season to resume his human rights work.

“I’m uncomfortable with how divided we are as a country,” Boldin said. “Is it something new to us? No. Is it something that we’re just starting to experience? No. But to see just how divided we are, I’m uncomfortable with that. Do I expect everybody to feel the same way that I do? Of course not. Different people have different passions about different things.”

“Humanitarian work is something that I’ve been working on for years,” he went on. “Advocating for equality, criminal justice reform, all of those things are something that I’ve been working on for years. So this is not just a fly-by-night decision for me. It’s something that I’ve been dealing with for years, and it’s something that I’m willing to dedicate my life towards. Do I think I can solve all the problems that we have in this country? Of course not. But I think I do have a duty to stand up and make my voice heard and be a voice for those that don’t have a voice.”

Boldin said he “was all-in” when he signed with the Bills earlier this summer, that his intention was “to help this team win a championship; nothing more, nothing less.” He said he feels sure he can still play, and he praised his Buffalo teammates, but he said he wouldn’t return even if a contender reaches out to him later this season.

“My passion for the advocacy work that I do outweighs my passion for football at this point,” he said. “So I’m not coming back to play for a contender or to do anything else. I’m done with the game of football. And I appreciate all the opportunities that I’ve been afforded because of football, but at this point I’m done.”

NFL players and the value — and potential cost — of political activism

Walking away wasn’t easy, he said, because he had always prided himself on not letting teammates down. He said knew his new teammates were looking forward to working with him, and he said the team’s front office members were “definitely disappointed” by his decision.

“I wouldn’t expect them to be anything less,” he said. “But as a man, they respected [the choice] and they wished me nothing but the best, and I appreciate that.”

Boldin, who played for the Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions before signing with the Bills on Aug. 7, finishes his career ninth on the all-time receptions list with 1,076 for 13,779 yards and 82 touchdowns. He won a Super Bowl with Baltimore following the 2012 season and was a three-time Pro Bowl selection. The former second-round pick out of Florida State in 2003 burst on the scene with 101 catches for 1,377 yards as a rookie, and despite that instant success learned early in his career that there was more to life than football.

“When I first got into the NFL nobody could tell me anything. I was living life,” Boldin said after winning the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for volunteer and charity work in February 2016. “I had achieved my dream of one day making it into the NFL, but I soon realized that’s not what life is all about. I realized my purpose in life was not to make it to the NFL and score touchdowns. God put me on this earth for something much bigger than that, and I realized and understand what my purpose is now. … It’s my prayer and my hope that I can live out the rest of my life honoring God and help as many people as possible.”

In addition to establishing the Anquan Boldin Foundation, which is dedicated to expanding the educational and life opportunities of underprivileged children, Boldin, along with Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, has spent time on Capitol Hill talking to Congress about criminal justice reform over the past two years. Boldin’s 31-year-old cousin, Corey Jones, was shot and killed by a plainclothes officer in Florida on Oct. 18, 2015.

“It’s amazing, I think, to see how many people will call us ‘athletes’ and will tell us we need to be in the communities and we need to serve in the different communities that we play in or live in,” Boldin told The Washington Post during a visit to Capitol Hill in March. “But as soon as you take a political stand, they tell you, ‘Stick to football.’ You can’t have it both ways. If you’re expecting me to be a role model for younger kids or for society in general, how is it wrong for me to speak out when I do see injustices?”

Boldin said then that he would continue to speak out against injustices.

“For me it’s not even about having a long career,” Boldin said. “It’s about doing what’s right.”

Boldin’s abrupt retirement leaves the Bills with another question mark at the wide receiver position. Buffalo acquired Jordan Matthews from the Eagles earlier this month in a trade on the same day that the Bills sent wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams, but Matthews fractured his sternum in practice last week. Boldin was expected to start in the slot alongside Matthews and second-round pick Zay Jones.

The Bills issued a statement from General Manager Brandon Beane.

“We respect Anquan’s decision to retire from the NFL,” the statement said. “We appreciate the time he gave us over the past two weeks. He is one of the best receivers to play this game and we wish him and his family all the best moving forward.”

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