SOCHI, Russia — USA Curling’s most recognizable face grew up in Northwest Washington — Petworth, actually. He went to Dunbar High and the University of Maryland, and he stood Monday afternoon in a dark suit and an orange tie at the Ice Cube Curling Center here, high above the U.S. men’s team. And here came his promotional pitch.
“You’re just anticipating seeing where it’s going to go,” Vernon Davis said. “You have that belief and that feeling that you’re going to make it. Right before it gets there, it’s just a comfort. It’s just a good feeling inside your soul.”
It is a bit of a strange route that brings Davis to curling, and for curling to bring Davis to Sochi. He is a Pro Bowl tight end for the San Francisco 49ers. He is less than a month removed from a heart-wrenching loss to Seattle in the NFC championship game. And Monday, he stood at a television broadcast position at the Winter Olympics and helped provide color analysis for the sixth end of the U.S. match against Switzerland, because he now knows the lingo.
“I like to help people, and just bring people awareness,” Davis said. “Let people know that, ‘Hey, this is the game of curling. You should try it. You should do it. You should love it, because you never know what you can make of it.’ ”
The story goes like this: Janie McCauley, a writer with the Associated Press who covers Bay Area sports, pitched to Davis a story on whether athletes from other sports could just walk onto the ice and become good curlers, as the sport’s detractors would have people believe. This was entering the Vancouver Olympics, and when Davis bit on the idea, he ended up on the ice for more than two hours at a curling center in San Jose.
“Not only did I feel comfortable, but it just felt good,” Davis said. “It was just a good feeling, kind of like shooting a three-pointer. You just leave your form up there a while, and it was the same kind of thing, just watching it.”
He spoke convincingly, and with some passion. When USA Curling officials read McCauley’s piece, they asked whether Davis would like to be the team’s honorary captain. He went to Vancouver, paying his own way, and cheered on the Americans. He then reprised the role here, not to mention taking in the U.S.-Russia hockey game.
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This is not, though, some sort of story in which an NFL star single-handedly and suddenly lifts an entire sport. That is just not possible. The U.S. men’s curling team lost to Switzerland on Monday, a 6-3 decision in which the Americans never led. It closed their Olympics with a record of 2-7. The women were worse, finishing last at 1-8.
“We play the sport because we love it, and nobody’s having very much fun out there the last couple games,” said John Shuster, the U.S. skip. “And that’s too bad.”
Shuster is 31, a father and husband, and the manager of Pickwick Restaurant and Pub in his home town of Duluth, Minn. His team consists of Jeff Isaacson, a junior high school science teacher; John Landsteiner, who works for an engineering consultant company; and Jared Zezel, a student at Bemidji State University.
Davis may have enjoyed throwing those rocks in San Jose, may have been taken by the sport and enjoyed his trips to Canada and Russia. These guys have lived it: jobs, practice after work, traveling on the weekends, winning five straight games in an Olympic qualifying tournament just to be here on their own time.
“It’d be nice if we could get bigger sponsors where we could pump some money to the athletes and say, ‘Here’s your salary for the year. Go, curl, play in the big events,’ where you don’t have to try to balance so much,” Isaacson said. “. . . I think we’re a little bit behind in that in the U.S., personally.”
In 2010, Davis, 30, signed a six-year contract that guaranteed him $23 million and could be worth as much as $42.7 million. Those numbers would stagger the clientele at Pickwick, where the 5 for 5 Happy Hour specials include a sausage sampler (one Polish and one brat) and Pickwick poppers (jalapeno peppers stuffed with “cheese and our pepperburger mix, then hand breaded and fried to perfection”). Shuster and his teammates have chatted with Davis and enjoyed his presence, comparing the pain from losses. But they walk in distinctly different worlds.
“Personally, if I had a chance to be a full-time curler and let curling be my job, I’d jump at the opportunity,” Shuster said. “As of right now, it’s not a reality. But at the same time, seeing the people that are watching curling at the Olympics, hopefully our sport can build and — [may] not be in my lifetime, but in somebody’s lifetime — that that’ll be the case, because it’s a great sport that we really do love.”
For his part, Davis was due to fly back to California on Tuesday. “It’s a great experience,” he said. Yet Monday, when the final end was over — and other matches still raged on around them — the U.S. men shook the hands of their Swiss counterparts. A chant of “USA! USA!” briefly broke out from the small cluster of red-white-and-blue supporters. And the curling competition for the Americans ended, another Olympics over, with no real idea of what lies ahead.