"I'll tell you a story about Anquan," said quarterback Josh McCown, who has played 11 NFL seasons (including a brief preseason stint with the 49ers in 2011) and enjoyed a resurgence with the Bears this season.
McCown goes on to describe Boldin's first NFL game, in September 2003. They were teammates with the Cardinals when Boldin began his pro career with a 10-catch, 217-yard performance in a loss to Detroit.
"He had the greatest rookie debut in the history of the league," McCown said. "He also muffed a punt in that game. I don't think it lost the game or anything, but it was a big play. So after the game, everyone is crowding around Anquan's locker, and everyone is asking him about all the catches. And all he wanted to talk about is the punt. That sort of tells you what kind of player he is."
Boldin still seems uncomfortable talking about his own importance. But teammates are quick to praise his leadership, even on a team that had no shortage of leaders -#8212; think Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis -#8212; when he arrived.
"From his history, he's already got that instant credibility of being that guy, because of the way he approaches the game," said 49ers wide receivers coach John Morton, in his 16th year as an NFL assistant. "His preparation is by far, by all the guys I've been around, the best. Anywhere."
Morton gave Boldin the ultimate NFL compliment, noting that he prepares like a quarterback.
"A quarterback does their due diligence," Morton said. "They have a notebook, they put all the tips and reminders in there. He does the same thing. He's on top of stuff. I mean, there's times where maybe I forgot something, and he goes, 'Hey.' So he's always on top of everything."
"Every rep that he takes, you as a coach, you say, 'Don't go in, let somebody else take this rep,' " 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "You've got to pull him out of rep situations sometimes. So, any young receiver that's watching that, or any football player, or any coach would be impressed: 'That's the way I should practice, or approach every day.' "
Boldin might be obsessive in his work habits, but as anyone who has watched the 49ers this year can attest, he is no automaton. This is a man who plays with emotion. He can match even the most vocal defensive back syllable for syllable, and is never timid about punctuating a key reception with a flamboyant first-down signal.
"Anquan pretty much has the most energy on the team," said fellow wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
Some receivers shy away from contact, and current NFL rules make that pretty easy to do. Boldin, who was an excellent defensive player in high school, seems to seek it out. How hardy is this guy? He shattered bones in his face and suffered a concussion on a devastating helmet-to-helmet hit by the Jets' Eric Smith in 2008. He missed only two games.
"That's just my personality," Boldin said. "It's always been the way that I played the game. I was always told if you don't play the game all out, then you're cheating yourself."