Vernon Davis, star tight end for the San Francisco 49ers, D.C. native and former Dunbar High School standout, credits his drive, his motivation, his success — indeed, his life — to Adaline Davis, a tough-loving grandmother who raised seven children in a modest District home.
The same can be said for his brother Vontae, who plays cornerback for the Miami Dolphins.
They were raised to be humble, stay out of trouble and go to church on Sunday mornings.
The Davis brothers were back in town Friday morning, preaching their brand of responsibility to hundreds of high school football players at Howard University as they explained how success in life extends far beyond speed, ability and NFL contracts.
“We didn’t have the father to mentor us or to show us the ropes,” Vernon Davis said in an interview. “I had to be my own self-motivator. I used to get in trouble as a kid. I was on probation in sixth grade. All of the guys I hung out with, most of them, are dead now or in prison. I went to Dunbar so that I could get away from everyone I grew up with.”
His brother spoke of the same tough childhood. “My grandmother raised me to be humble and to not take anything for granted,” Vontae Davis said. “God blessed us to be in the position, and it is important to treat people with the utmost respect. Every day, I try to become a better person. We want to be the first persons in our families to be successful.”
The Davis brothers for years have partnered with a nonprofit organization, the Lifting as We Climb Foundation, to sponsor the two-day blend of football and life skills mentoring called the Sound Mind, Sound Body Football Academy. It is aimed at young men ages 13 to 18 from area high schools and middle schools. NFL players and college coaches serve as the teachers.
Siraaj Hassan, the foundation’s president, said a group of African-American men started the foundation in 1984 to help young athletes on and off the playing field. Since then, more than 5,000 high school students have gone through the academy and made it to college.
Beyond football coaching, the program offers academic classes, workshops and lots of tough love, a la Adaline Davis.
In addition to physical workouts Friday, a squad of big-time players and coaches conducted seminars on a variety of real-life issues, including conflict resolution.
“You have to rise above your enemies when you are faced with issues,” Hassan said in an interview. “You talk about being a man, but being a man is walking away from a fight. When the crowd is doing one thing, you do another.”
Syracuse University running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley, who played for the New York Giants and the Oakland Raiders in the NFL, talked to the youths about hard work and gauging success. “You all think that all great runs are long runs, but you have to get the short runs before you get the long ones,” he said.
William Dunn, executive director of Lifting as We Climb, served as the camp’s drill instructor. Before the drills began, Dunn bellowed, “Sound Mind, Sound Body.”
He practiced zero tolerance for slackers. When several young men nodded off during Wheatley’s “chalk talk,” Dunn screamed: “Wake up! It is not every day that you get an NFL veteran and college coach giving you instructions.”
Although it is important for the athletes to be in shape on the field, Dunn said, it is equally important for them to know how to conduct themselves on the streets, away from football. “We know that a sound mind and a sound body are needed to succeed,” he said. “If you come here and you’re not touched by 300 kids clapping at the same time, something is wrong.”
Those in attendance came from the District, Maryland and Virginia.
Davon McGill, 17, a wide receiver at Bladensburg High School, said the camp taught him that being a man is about “making decisions” and thinking before one acts. “You can make one mistake,” he said, “and your whole life can be over.”