INDIANAPOLIS -- Vernon Davis is jumping up and down, his baseball-mitt-sized hands waving in the air. It’s 2009, and he’s just months from leading the NFL in receiving touchdowns en route to his first Pro Bowl. But in this moment, none of that matters; his brother Vontae, a cornerback four years his junior, has just been drafted, 25th overall by the Miami Dolphins. Vontae is calm. Vernon is going bananas.
“You’d have probably thought I was getting drafted,” the tight end recalls.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., Vontae was Vernon’s little brother in every sense of the word. As a lanky, 5-foot-11 teen, Vontae reconciled himself to the fact that he’d always be smaller; Vernon, at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, is “a freak of nature,” the younger Davis says. Then Vernon went off to Maryland, then to the 49ers as 2006’s No. 6 pick, and by the time Vontae headed to Illinois for his freshman season, football knew him as Vernon’s brother.
That changed last December, when Vontae’s phone pinged with a message. “Welcome,” it read. Vontae had just made his first Pro Bowl, and Vontae’s brother couldn’t have been prouder.
For years, there was cause to wonder if Vernon would ever be able to send that text. Despite being a first-round pick, Vontae fell out of favor in Miami after seeing some early success; his focus on the game didn’t match his physical gifts. He’d been a wealthy 21-year-old in South Beach, after all, and the fallout was predictable. In 2012, though, the Colts saw something. They dealt a second-round pick to the Dolphins for Vontae, and since then, he’s become the consummate pro, according to coach Chuck Pagano.
This season, opposing quarterbacks targeted Vontae just 71 times; only nine cornerbacks who played more than 60 percent of their team’s defensive snaps had fewer targets, and as the season progressed, the throws came fewer. It didn’t take long to learn where the Colts’ strength on defense lies, and of the cornerbacks who didn’t allow a touchdown this season, Vontae had the most interceptions, with four.
“I always knew he had the potential to excel,” Vernon says of his brother, “and he knew it too. It was just a matter of time before it happened.”
On Sunday, a Davis brother will play in a conference championship for the fourth consecutive season, and in the biggest game of his career to date, Vontae will look back at the days with his older brother for inspiration. You see, the Colts cornerback may be assigned the duty of shadowing Patriots receiver Rob Gronkowski, and if Vernon is a freak, Gronkowski is the freakiest.
And so Vontae recalls years’ worth of workouts with his older sibling, which began when both were kids. The Davises have been training together since Vernon was in high school, but it was only when Vontae made it to the pros that Vernon permitted one-on-one drills. The coddling was over. Both brothers had made it to football’s highest level, and Vernon resolved never to let Vontae win.
“I never really got the best of him,” Vontae says. “He's so big, you know. He was more helping me. I was young. I was learning from him.”
Vernon, though, offers a correction: Vontae beat him. Once. In 2012. In a footrace.
By an inch.
Sunday, though, won’t be a footrace. Vontae has the speed and smarts to keep up with Gronkowski, so it’ll be technique and muscle that matter most. Great corners get separation on every play, Vontae says, and they finish on every route, as if they’re running their receivers’ paths for them. He’ll have to do all that and more to get the best of Gronkowski, who had 1,124 receiving yards this season, but he’s confident.
“My zero to 60 is like…” Vontae snaps his fingers. “I'm quick, too,” he continues. “My low center of gravity is good. I can move lateral in like a split-second.”
He adds: “When you play the top guys, they're very competitive. It's more about the competitiveness, the drive you have to have. These guys are nonstop. They 24/7, you know? That's what makes them so good.”
But his belief in himself is a quiet one. This fame thing is new, and with his hood scrunched over his head and a whisper-lisp of a voice, Vontae doesn’t quite fit the part of the boasting, bombastic corner. He speaks of Richard Sherman with a hint of awe despite posting a season on par with his, and despite his reliance on film to critique his own performances, it’s as if he hasn’t quite looked in the mirror.
“I think [Vernon] probably got the good side of the genetics,” Vontae says. “How'd he get this big and this strong and this fast?"
The same way you did, man. This isn’t about good genetics or bad. It’s about the DNA of a tight end versus the DNA of a cornerback, the tiny mutation that made Vernon so big and Vontae so fast, that allowed each to bring out the best in the other. On Sunday, Vontae has a chance to prove he’s just that -- the best -- and with all due respect to Vernon, he’d like to show the world he’s grown up.
"I'm my own man now," Vontae says. That’s all his brother ever wanted.