TEMPE, Ariz. -- This season's defining moment for Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin wasn't his heated argument with offensive coordinator Todd Haley in Arizona's 32-25 win over Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. It actually came in late September, when Boldin casually strolled into his team's locker room a couple days after New York Jets safety Eric Smith knocked him cold in a blowout loss on the road.
Boldin didn't show any pain after undergoing surgery on a fractured facial bone. He didn't say much about spending the night in the hospital after being carted off the field in that game. He just wanted to get back to work as soon as possible, even though he'd be sidelined for two more weeks.
"It was something that was really minute," Boldin said. "But [the media] got a hold of it and tried to blow it up."
Look, there are plenty of times when athletes try to downplay negative moments in ways that ring hollow. Grudges can still fester. Hard feelings usually linger. This, however, doesn't sound like one of those situations. As much material as Boldin gave the viewing public to work with Sunday -- and we also can't forget that he was the one who left the stadium in a hurry, supposedly so he could avoid the inevitable questions about the argument -- he's too well-respected in that locker room for anybody not to believe his words.
It simply doesn't make sense that a player who cares so much about helping his team would suddenly turn petulant during the franchise's biggest moment. There's no question that Boldin was angry after being left on the sideline during the game-winning fourth-quarter drive. But he also has been through too much in Arizona for us to think he has turned selfish now. As Boldin said during a Thursday news conference, "I was mad because they took me out of the game. Any competitor would have the same reaction."
You really can't blame the man for his eruption. For one thing, Boldin has been with the Cardinals longer than most players on the roster. He has led with his pride, his toughness and a work ethic that still blows away teammates to this day. He also earned his third Pro Bowl nomination after spending a good share of the summer complaining about the lack of change in his current contract while fellow Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald received a four-year, $40 million extension.
This is what true professionals do. They produce, regardless of the circumstances they face.
"I'm sure this season has been bittersweet for Anquan," Cardinals defensive end Bert Berry said. "I'm sure he felt like he deserved the kind of money that Fitz got, but Anquan always has been a team guy. We've seen the way he's responded to challenges, and we also know we're a better team whenever he's on the field."
That's the part that can't be overlooked in all the recent talk about Boldin: This team needs him to be at his best when they meet the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. The Cardinals have been able to advance through the playoffs largely because Fitzgerald has turned into an unstoppable force on offense. He came up big before Boldin strained a hamstring in Arizona's wild-card win over the Atlanta Falcons, and he came up even bigger in the two victories that followed that one. But this much you can count on: The Steelers won't let one receiver beat them.
You get the sense that Boldin now has found added incentive in a game that already offers plenty of motivation for any football player with a pulse. If he hasn't heard everything that has been said about him this week, he has heard enough to know some critics have ripped his actions. Boldin actually joked that his cousin called him earlier this week after nationally syndicated talk show host Jim Rome blasted Boldin. Regardless of what Boldin has said, he can't like the idea that his reputation is suddenly in question.
So you can assume he'll be less willing to let this whole issue linger any longer. If he's savvy enough to evade reporters after the NFC Championship Game, then he's smart enough to realize he'll face more questions about this subject when the Cardinals reach Tampa on Monday. That's how we do it in the media. We love to wear out a story, especially during Super Bowl week.
Said Boldin: "There are only two teams left now, so all the attention is on those two teams. In Week 1, we didn't have this many [media members] out here. The attention has grown. Do you have to be careful? I guess so. But at the same time, you can't alter who you are. You can only be you and let the rest take care of itself."
That sounds like Boldin's way of saying he can deal with whatever is coming next. Remember, this is a six-year veteran who's playing on his first winning team in the NFL. He has spent a career playing through injuries, battling the frustration that comes with working for a formerly inept franchise, and he still has no idea how the team will deal with his unhappiness over a contract that has two years remaining. All Boldin knows is that he's approaching the most important game of his life and he doesn't need any more distractions.
That's probably why Boldin's teammates are so confident that he has put this controversy behind him.
"You see the character he's displayed all season long," Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said. "And for one situation to be his defining moment is crazy."
That is the final point to be made here. For as much as the public learned about Boldin last Sunday, they'll probably learn more about how he responds to adversity in the coming week.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.