Strutting around Redskins Park in black Crocs following Thursday’s practice, Vernon Davis once again wasn’t acting as if it’s his first season with the Washington Redskins. The veteran tight end’s charm is infectious. He’s engaging. “Comfortable” wouldn’t do justice to the bond between him and the players and staff members at the facility.
“Vernon for mayor,” practice-squad tackle Isaiah Williams said while walking past Davis in the hallway, one of many one-liners players directed at the D.C. native as he sat on the gingerbread-colored couches outside the locker room.
It’s been over 10 years since he left the Washington area as a standout college player at Maryland and became the sixth overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft. In the years since, the 32-year-old’s hairstyle isn’t the only thing that’s changed.
Sure, he’s kept himself in great shape to serve as a productive cog in the Redskins’ offense, when many questioned what he had left. With Jordan Reed sidelined for Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals because of a shoulder separation, Davis likely will be called upon to play an even bigger role.
But Davis’s success goes beyond the weight room and the playing field. Learning to express and channel his emotions despite a difficult childhood and expanding his understanding of his own masculinity through the years have likewise helped prolong his career. It’s shaped him into the well-rounded person he always had yearned to be — mature, religious, optimistic, with the aura of a political figure.
Had he not changed, Davis doesn’t think he would still be in the NFL.
“People who didn’t act in compliance to what the standard is supposed to be, like being a good person, doing things the right way, being in line and being in tune with the team — you look at the history, and they’re not around,” Davis said. “They only make it but so far.
“So if I kept going in that direction then, no, I probably wouldn’t be here right now. My career probably would’ve ended after five or six years. That’s why I say you have to look at the people before you, and you have to just be cognizant of all those things and take that into consideration and continue to be a good person.”
Davis always strove to be a good person, but he grew up in the District’s Petworth neighborhood with pain in his heart. The oldest of three brothers, Davis was raised by his grandmother, Adeline Davis, with his mother out of the picture and his father in and out of his life. Adeline, now 73, instilled in him peace, love, joy, patience and kindness.
“We all know the street life, which he wasn’t all in the streets, but he had friends in the streets,” his grandmother said. “He would see his friends in the streets. You knew he was going to sit, stand and talk with ’em. He would see these things.”
It shaped his understanding of manhood. Toughness reigned because Davis was taught growing up that men aren’t soft. He wanted to express his emotions, but men don’t cry. He had a desire to pursue art at Dunbar High, but that wasn’t what men do.
Men play sports. So Davis played football, basketball and track and field to channel some of his emotions, funneling the pain of not having his parents around into becoming an All-Met his senior season . But he also neglected other ambitions.
“I didn’t pursue it because of the environment I grew up in,” Davis said, “because as a kid growing up, in order to be cool, you had to play basketball, football, wear brand-new Jordans. I couldn’t do it because if I did, I knew people would laugh at me. I didn’t want people to laugh at me. I didn’t want to be criticized. I didn’t want to be the joker of the town, so I had to hide that. I just couldn’t come outside of my shell and be who I wanted to be because I was stuck in this place.”
One of Davis’s younger brothers, Vontae, is a cornerback with the Indianapolis Colts. His other brother, Michael, is awaiting trial for a series of 2012 hammer attacks that left one man dead.
Vernon Davis didn’t begin his personal growth until he moved eight miles up the road, to College Park. At the University of Maryland, Davis began to understand the world outside of the environment he knew in Petworth. The new surroundings allowed him to switch his major from criminal justice to what he desired all along: studio art.
“You’re a few miles away, and you’re in a totally different place,” Davis said. “It’s just different. Totally different environment.”
His curiosity continued after college as football took him to San Francisco, where he spent his first nine-plus NFL seasons. Despite signs of growth, Davis still didn’t know who he was as a person. Along came Mike Singletary, who in 2008 was promoted from linebackers coach to the interim coach after Scot McCloughan, then the 49ers’ general manager, fired Mike Nolan after seven games.
Davis “was a like a beautiful stallion that was running free and wild and had a great spirit about him, but you couldn’t put a saddle on him,” Singletary said in a telephone interview. “He was one of those guys that was bucking left and right and knew what he wanted and had his own style. I just think it came to a place where he really wanted to be a great person, he wanted to be a great player, but really didn’t know how to go about doing it.”
Before his first game as interim coach, Singletary told Davis he needed him to lead the team and to give his best effort against the Seattle Seahawks. Davis did the opposite, prompting Singletary to bench Davis and send him to the locker room during the game, an eventual 34-13 loss.
Afterward, Singletary aired out Davis’s selfishness on the field to the public.
Adeline Davis sided with the coach. She told her grandson to apologize and to thank Singletary. From there, the two sought solutions, not excuses, to resolve their differences.
Davis says the self-centeredness stemmed in part from idolizing future Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens. He emulated Owens on the field and, although Davis made it clear he didn’t believe Owens was a bad person, also wanted to be like Owens off of it.
“When I saw him on TV, he was in the parking lot doing the curls and just me, me, me attitude,” Davis said. “You kind of pick up on that, and I think at an early age that’s what I was kind of doing. I was like, ‘Hey, it’s about me.’ I was selfish, pretty much. I think over time, I started to figure out what life is supposed to be and started to change. I changed myself. I changed myself as a person and as a player.”
Singletary, named the 49ers’ full-time coach after the season, knew that the Davis he’d inherited wasn’t who Davis wanted to be. Davis always asked questions, and he kept asking questions after the Seahawks game. His career benefited from it: Davis recorded his best season in 2009, racking up 78 receptions for 965 yards, 13 touchdowns and the first of two Pro Bowl selections. He’s since played in two Super Bowls and won a ring last year with the Denver Broncos after getting traded during the season.
Off the field, he’s found other interests. Davis owns an art gallery, a few Jamba Juice franchises, co-owns an interior-design company and started the Vernon Davis Foundation for the Arts, which he will promote during Sunday’s contest in Arizona by wearing custom cleats as part of the NFL’s “My Cause My Cleats” initiative.
Although Davis’s statistics had declined during the previous two seasons, McCloughan — now the Redskins’ general manager — signed him to a one-year contract at a crowded position. McCloughan, whom the Redskins did not make available for this story, still felt Davis could play at the time of the signing; Davis believed he could be a good mentor in the locker room. Through 11 games, in his most productive season since 2013, with 450 receiving yards and two touchdowns, he’s done both.
His character is now a topic of praise, not criticism. This season will likely prolong Davis’s football career, and increase his price tag during the offseason.
As for a post-NFL career in politics? Davis says he isn’t considering it — at least for now.
“You never know,” he said. “People change all the time. I went from a tough guy to an artist. Things just change.”