Davis is not one of those athletes who have been through what amount to trials and tribulations for millionaires — benched, sent to the locker room, the subject of a coach’s tirade — and say, “I was misunderstood.” Rather, his self-assessment is this: I was who I appeared to be — petulant and self-centered and everything you thought.
“When I first got here, it was all about what Vernon wanted,” Davis said here Thursday, three days before his San Francisco 49ers were set to host the New York Giants for the right to go to Super Bowl XLVI, an opportunity Davis provided with his game-winning touchdown catch against New Orleans last weekend. “It was all about me, what I wanted, achieving my goals instead of worrying about what the team wanted. And today, as we sit here, to me it’s all about the team. It’s all about the team.”
So he cried for the 49ers, who return to the NFC title game for the first time since the 1997 season in no small part because Davis caught seven balls for 180 yards and two scores in that wild 36-32 NFC divisional playoff win over the Saints. He cried for Harbaugh, the first-year coach who helped get them there. He cried for his grandmother, Adaline, who raised him and his six siblings in a small house off Georgia Avenue NW in the District, one woman doing the work of many.
But he cried, too, for Mike Singletary, because the YouTube moment that has defined Davis’s career to this point actually was the one that turned it around. The public humiliation of that scene — when Singletary, then in his first game as San Francisco’s head coach, yanked Davis from the game after a penalty, sent him to the locker room, and publicly upbraided him afterward — went into those tears last week.
“He helped me,” Davis said. “It made me open my eyes. When it happened, I was like: ‘Maybe it’s not all about me. Maybe it’s not about what I want.’ ”
What Davis wanted, growing up in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest Washington, was the moment he had against the Saints. With 14 seconds left, the 49ers trailed by three, but had the ball at the New Orleans 14-yard line. Davis charged off the line of scrimmage.
“All the friends here, we talked about it,” Adaline Davis said last week, invoking Davis’s childhood nickname. “We said, ‘If Duke wins that game, he’s going to cry.’ ”
“It touched his heart,” said his brother Vontae, a cornerback for the Miami Dolphins. “It was meant to be.”
‘The good Lord will always provide’
When Vernon Davis used to head out into the streets as a kid, up to Truesdale Elementary School for a game they called “throwback” — essentially hurling a football into the air, then trying to tackle the kid who came up with it — his situation was different, Petworth was different. He never really had a relationship with his mother; his relationship with his father to this day consists of occasional visits in Washington, but not much more. Adaline Davis — left to raise Davis and his siblings as their mother battled a drug problem — provided what she could, cleaning houses.