49ers' Davis grows up from problem child to 'big-time player'
Saturday's game-winning catch wasn't the first significant moment Vernon Davis had in the south end zone of Candlestick Park.
Four seasons earlier, he trudged off the field at that same end of the stadium, in one of the most humiliating moments an athlete has endured. In front of 60,000 fans, in the middle of the game, he was sent into the locker room by then-coach Mike Singletary -- who beckoned him back to demand that he take his helmet with him -- like a naughty child.
The moment produced Singletary's infamous "I want winners" rant and could have produced a bitter and tuned-out tight end.
But Davis -- a first-round draft pick then in his third season -- used the moment to his advantage. He never showed any anger or defensiveness about it.
Instead he became one of the best tight ends in the league, a Pro Bowl player the next season and a player that his team would turn toward to win the game.
"Let's go to Vernon here," Jim Harbaugh told Alex Smith with 14 seconds on the clock Saturday. "It's either Vernon or nobody."
It was Vernon and he made the catch, with Roman Harper on him, which put the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. The 49ers will host the Giants on Sunday afternoon.
The moment seemed almost too big for Davis, who burst into tears as he ran off the field, in a scene almost identical to one that preceded it by 13 years. Terrell Owens caught a ball from Steve Young to eliminate Green Bay from the playoffs and collapsed, weeping, in Steve Mariucci's arms.
The difference was that Owens was at the beginning of his career back then. Davis is a six-year veteran who spent his career in a frustrating NFL outpost until this season.
"History was going through my mind," Davis said after the game. "It was us against history. Us against no. Us against can't. It was a very emotional game, like a roller coaster, very stressful for me."
Davis came into this season as the top receiver on his team, but his numbers were down in Harbaugh's run-centered offense. Reporters kept waiting for Davis to complain, but he didn't bite.
"It's not about me," he said after Saturday's game. "It's about the team, the team, the team. I just wait for my opportunities. I'm not worried about the Pro Bowl or the individual accolades. I'm here to help this team win...Everyone is waiting for me to complain this year about the opportunities, but I started telling myself that this game is bigger than you. This here is what matters most."
That's Singletary's most significant legacy with this team. Though he had virtually the same team that Harbaugh has and produced only a 6-10 record, he did help produce a mature young man in Davis. Davis has often credited Singletary's tough love with helping him emerge as a team leader.
And a player who would be ready in the big moment.
On Saturday, Davis moved into rarified air: his seven catches for 180 yards put him second on the 49ers postseason receiving list, just behind Jerry Rice's Super Bowl MVP-winning performance of 215 yards in Super Bowl XXIII.
Davis scored a touchdown in the first half. And when it came time to go for the win -- rather than kick a field goal to send the game to overtime -- the 49ers looked to Davis. They ran Vernon Post, a play that had been installed specifically for the Saints the Wednesday before.
Quarterback coach Geep Chryst drew up the play, based on what he saw in Harper's end zone tendencies. Every time the play was practiced, it was going right. On Saturday, the 49ers ran it left.
"I knew it was coming," Davis said. "We rehearsed it all week."
Davis' choice of words is interesting: rehearse, not practice. He's an artistic, theatrical guy, who plies his brutal trade with a flair for the dramatic. Davis was a studio art major at Maryland and has recently started an interior design firm.
He's eclectic. He spent last offseason traveling in Africa with his brother Vontae -- a cornerback for the Dolphins -- with the group Pros for Africa. The offseason before, he served as the honorary captain of the U.S. men's curling team at the Vancouver Olympics.
Vernon Post produced arguably the most significant catch in 49ers history since "The Catch." Davis said he'd been dreaming of such a big moment "Since 'The Catch.'"
That seems impossible, as Davis was born in 1984 and Dwight Clark made The Catch in January of 1982. But Davis understood the historical context of his achievement. And he offered up "The Grab" as the new reception's title.
Davis has always been the emotional center to the team, the one unafraid to get into a training camp spat with Michael Crabtree, as he did in 2010, or give a halftime speech. He did the latter on Saturday, when the 49ers had seen their 17-0 lead dwindle to 17-14.
"One shot, that was my message," he said. "We only have one shot and if we don't take advantage of it, we go home. There was a lot of fire within me at that moment."
And when he heard Vernon Post called his own halftime message resonated.
"Big-time players make big-time plays," he said. "I kept telling myself, 'Vernon you have to step up. The team needs you.'"
He stepped up, and then he fell into Harbaugh's arms, sobbing. Harbaugh spoke in his ear but Davis said he couldn't remember a thing Harbaugh was telling him.
The message was simple.
"I said he's a great football player," Harbaugh said. "There's a special place in your heart for players that play great in big games. You love them all. But the guy that plays great in the big game, boy, there's just a little extra space for them
"That's what I was telling him, that he's a great football player."