What the moment meant was apparent on Vernon Davis’s face, because when he caught that pass last Saturday — a franchise-changing, career-altering, season-sustaining play — the tears came and came quickly, running down his face for all to see. He rushed into the arms of his coach, Jim Harbaugh, as if — at 27, with the musculature of a fine sculpture — Davis needed a nurturing hug, a shoulder to cry on. He found Harbaugh’s shoulder, buried his head, and wept some more.
“It’s something I’ve been dreaming about my whole life,” he said days later, and that’s true. But it was not all.
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.”
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.
“All that showed me how powerful my grandmother was,” Vontae Davis said last week. “She never showed any expressions that raising us was hard. She always found a way to put food on the table. We were able to have clothes. I kind of question: How was she able to make all this happen?”
The answer, those around back then say, is easy.
“It’s structure and discipline,” said Craig Jefferies, who coached both Vernon and Vontae Davis at Dunbar High. “That’s the key. She provided that. She just really prayed for those guys, and instilled in them morals and values. Eventually, enough of it penetrated their hearts and minds that they turned out to be great kids.”
When Davis arrived at the University of Maryland, he was a wide receiver. Ralph Friedgen, then the coach, called him in and told him he thought it would be better for the Terrapins and for Davis’s long-term prospects if he moved to tight end. Davis responded: “You’re the coach. Play me where you want to play me.”
Three years later, when Davis contemplated entering the NFL draft after his junior season, Friedgen again called him into his office. Every report Friedgen had from his contacts in the NFL said Davis would be a top-10 pick in the draft. This time, Davis brought his grandmother to the meeting.
“The amount of money you’re going to be able to receive,” Friedgen remembered telling the Davises, “I don’t think you can pass this up.”
Adaline Davis sat there and said plainly: “We never made a decision in our life based on money. The good Lord will always provide.”
As Friedgen recalled last week: “I said, ‘Addie, maybe He is providing.’ ”
Davis walked out Friedgen’s door that day and said, “I’m going to be an all-pro next year.” In the spring of 2006, the 49ers made him the sixth pick in the draft. Then, the Davis people in the District and at Maryland knew — “Very much a team-oriented player,” Friedgen said — began to slip away.
“I got so much attention right away,” Davis said. “I was the sixth pick in the draft. Everybody was saying this, that, blah blah. I just had to find myself.
“And then, when you get in, and this game, when everything ain’t working out for you, you want to demand it. But you just don’t know how to demand it. To me it was: ‘Give me the ball. Give me the ball.’ That’s what it was about to me. I wasn’t thinking about the team. I wasn’t thinking about penalties. I didn’t think about how much it would hurt the guys.”
So came Oct. 26, 2008, when the 49ers hosted Seattle. In the fourth quarter of a game San Francisco was losing badly, Davis made a catch, then hit the face mask of a Seahawks player, drawing a 15-yard penalty. When he came to the sideline, he shrugged. Singletary booted him.
Afterward, in the classic rant of a linebacker-turned-coach, Singletary said: “I believe this: I would rather play with 10 people and just get penalized all the way until we got to do something else, rather than play with 11 when I know that right now that person is not sold out to be part of this team. Cannot play with them. Cannot win with them. Cannot coach with them. Can’t do it. I want winners.”
Singletary, now a defensive assistant with Minnesota, declined comment this week. But it was apparent to everyone in the stands, on the team, on the staff: At that moment, Vernon Davis could not call himself a winner.
Last spring, Davis boarded a flight from San Jose to Dallas, another from Dallas to London, a third from London to Entebbe, Uganda. “I’d never been to Africa,” he said. What he saw, on a charity trip for a group founded in part by Vikings running back Adrian Peterson called Pros for Africa, stunned him.
“The living conditions, they’re the worst,” he said “They live like animals.”
Along the way, Davis played ball with kids. He handed out T-shirts. He helped donate hearing aids, watched one small boy receive one, and gasped as the kid heard for the first time. He met girls who had been mutilated, raped, had their arms cut off — almost too much to absorb.
“You could see the emotions in Vernon,” said Bill Horn, one of the group’s co-founders. “He’s very compassionate.”
At a training center for girls who were victims of such crimes, Davis met Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a hero in her native Gulu, Uganda, for taking care of so many who have been tossed aside. He looked at Sister Rosemary, saw the work she was doing, and thought about his own grandmother.
“There you have a woman that, she’s doing all she can, and she’s sacrificing everything just for these kids,” Davis said. “She’s going out of her way to make sure that these kids get everything that they need. And that’s how my grandmother is.”
Adaline Davis’s house off Georgia Avenue has been completely remodeled now, overhauled by Vontae a few years ago. It is almost unrecognizable. Three of Davis’s younger sisters still live there, attending high school in the District. When Vernon Davis comes home — he still has a house in Silver Spring, and he made it back five times during the season — he always stops in at his grandmother’s.
“It makes me think of all the things I’ve been hit with,” Davis said, “especially in that neighborhood.”
Last Saturday, when Vernon “Duke” Davis sprinted past a linebacker and into the secondary, the seconds ticking away, Adaline Davis was at the mall. “Oh, no, I can’t watch the games,” she said.
But when she returned home, the kids were streaming through the neighborhood, people knocking on her door. They had seen Davis reach the goal line just as quarterback Alex Smith unloaded the ball. They had seen Saints safety Roman Harper arrive on Davis’s back just as the ball arrived in his gut. They had seen Davis muscle the ball away, hang on, score the touchdown, win the game. They had seen him cry, and they knew why.
“I didn’t grow up with much,” Davis said. “My dream — as a child, as a kid — was always just to make it, to become successful. I dreamed of having success all my life.”
They were tears of the moment. But they were tears, too, of the struggle — personal and professional, in Washington and in San Francisco. “I’m a different guy,” he said. He, and his team, are simultaneous successes, a development that was never guaranteed, enough to make a grown man cry.