Two weeks ago, Vernon Davis stood at a lectern and delivered his sermon. The sinner had been reformed; the child was now grown.
“It’s not about me,” he said, the eye contact strong and his voice rising. “It’s definitely not.”
The San Francisco 49ers had just beaten the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game. Davis, the 49ers’ 29-year-old tight end, had perhaps his best game of the season, on what at the time was the year’s biggest stage.
“Everything that we dream of, like going to the Super Bowl, that’s what it’s about,” the Washington native continued after the 28-24 win. “And I understand that. It took me a few years, but now I understand.”
Years ago, Davis was seen as an immature, occasionally petulant player whose attitude held back his potential. Now, as he approaches 30 and prepares to play in America’s biggest game, Davis has emerged as an unexpected leader. More than four years after Davis’s former coach, Mike Singletary, benched and famously blasted the young tight end and said he “would rather play with 10 people” than have Davis on the field, he has taken on a reduced role but nonetheless represents the heart and soul of San Francisco’s magical season and playoff run.
“If I can block, pass protect — I’m extremely happy,” Davis kept saying in Atlanta. “Last week I had one catch, but it was the happiest moment of my life.”
This week, Davis sat at the site of the Super Bowl and reflected on an occasionally tumultuous, often impressive career. He smiled and talked about the slip-ups of a young player, and how those were similar to the lessons he learned at Washington’s Dunbar High School. Even in those days, Davis had to be shown the way, rather than being told about its path.
“There’s a time to step up to the plate and do what you’re supposed to do,” said Craig Jefferies, Davis’s football coach at Dunbar. “Or be gone.”
Back then, Jefferies tried often to pull the best out of this young star. Davis picked up football only in high school, but Jefferies saw what he could be — if only Davis would allow it. The coach remembered a talented and driven youngster who worked hard on football and weightlifting, but when it came time to show leadership, would hit a wall.
Jefferies made Davis a captain in hopes that the title would bring out a feeling of responsibility, but Jefferies’s expectations seemed a poor fit for a young man the coach described as an introvert. Still, Jefferies said, Davis cared about the team’s direction; the coach found that if he yelled at the team, it would be Davis who felt the burden to fix what was wrong.
“He was still learning,” said Jefferies, who now coaches at Oxon Hill High.
Still learning even at the University of Maryland, where he became a star under former coach Ralph Friedgen, still learning when he emerged as a potential first-round draft pick, and still learning as a young pro — after the 49ers drafted him sixth overall in 2006. He was a blend of size and quickness, with dependable hands that led to comparisons of Davis with the great ones.
It was around this time that Michael Irvin, the Hall-of-Fame former wide receiver, took an interest in Davis. Irvin said this week that he had dinner with Davis the night before the draft, and not for the only time that weekend, the young man cried about his blessings. Opportunities lay ahead for the young man, but Irvin recalled that he saw a player not quite ready for the demands of his new job.
For one, Irvin said, Davis hadn’t yet realized the occasionally complicated nature of being a team player. If Davis had a bad game, others knew about it. He fought with teammates during practices and bickered with coaches.
As Davis had possessed the talent but not the leadership at Dunbar, now he had the enthusiasm but not the necessary restraint.
“I understand that passion,” Irvin said, “and what he was trying to do was bring that passion on the football field and bring the team to where they are now. But he didn’t know how. It was good passion, just misguided.”
When Singletary was elevated to interim head coach of the 49ers in 2008, he immediately emphasized discipline. Unlike Jefferies, Singletary was willing to single out Davis, and he did so publicly during his first game with the whistle. After Davis committed a personal foul against the Seattle Seahawks, Singletary confronted the player on the sideline. Apparently sensing indifference from Davis, Singletary exploded, sending Davis to the locker room as television cameras followed the scene. Later, Singletary’s now-famous rant focused on Davis’s attitude.
“That person is not sold out to be a part of this team,” Singletary said. “It is more about them than it is about the team. I cannot play with them. Cannot win with them. Cannot coach with them. Can’t do it. I want winners. I want people who want to win.”
Jefferies said this week that he believed this was a humiliating but necessary move to reach Davis, who realized then that it was time to grow.
“That did wake Vernon up,” Jefferies said, “and it did open his eyes to put the team first and be more serious.”
A season later, Davis was a Pro Bowler and had the first of consecutive 900-yard receiving seasons. Singletary was fired in December 2010 and is now on the Minnesota Vikings’ coaching staff.
Davis was tested again this season when Singletary’s replacement, Jim Harbaugh, benched quarterback Alex Smith and named Colin Kaepernick as the 49ers’ starter, bringing on a commitment to the pistol offense with him. This meant fewer chances for Davis to catch passes, and perhaps his younger self would’ve been frustrated. Maybe he would’ve even made his frustrations public. Instead, Davis said, when catches were scarce, he redirected his attention toward improving as a blocker. In his first six seasons, he averaged 50 receptions; this year, even including the postseason, he has 41 and only 548 yards.
“I once read something that said: ‘In order to be great, you have to be a servant; you have to be a slave.’ ” Davis said this past week. “It’s a way of saying that you have to be humble, and that’s something that I’ve learned here.
“I’m not worried about statistics and things like that. When I was younger, I was. It was all about statistics. I had to get this number of catches, this number of yards. I don’t really care about that anymore.”
In the NFC championship game, the Falcons built a 17-0 lead. At halftime, with the 49ers trailing 24-14, Harbaugh addressed the team and told them to be calm and play smart. Then Davis stood in the locker room, shouting at players and telling them to embrace this opportunity. This was what Jefferies wanted out of Davis so many years ago, and it’s what the 49ers needed.
San Francisco came back to win, advancing to the Super Bowl, and with Kaepernick unable to break his usual runs, it was Davis who stepped forward, finishing with five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown.
Said Irvin: “Sometimes we step back to move forward.”
Sitting at Super Bowl media day, Davis laughed about the exchange with Singletary five years ago.
“Cannot win with them,” Davis said, mimicking his former coach, and he later said he was appreciative of Singletary’s guidance. Without it, he said, maybe he wouldn’t be sitting here.
“That’s one thing I appreciate about him,” Davis said. “He was always there for us, and he stayed on us no matter what.”
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