FOR YEARS, VERNON DAVIS WAS A 2-D SKETCH OF A FOOTBALL PLAYER—ALL DETERMINATION, NO PERSPECTIVE. BUT HE'S ADDED A DIMENSION OR TWO: A TIGHT END WHO COULD BE A RECEIVER WHO'D JUST AS SOON BE PAINTING WHO ALSO HAS A PAISLEY OTTOMAN THAT HE'D REALLY LOVE TO SHOW YOU....
This is an article from the Oct. 7, 2013 issue
IN 2007, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis was introduced to Charlotte Kruk, a San Jose artist who specializes in "wearable sculpture" made from such sundry objects as plastic spoons and Good & Plenty boxes. Because Davis loves art, loves clothes and loves chocolate, he commissioned Kruk to create a blazer made of shiny gold, bronze and orange Godiva chocolate wrappers. Then, because Davis loves defying convention, he wore the artwork to a game. "You should have seen my teammates," he says, chuckling at the memory of the howls that greeted him at Candlestick Park. "They were going crazy, taking pictures."
Davis has since made the Godiva getup—now draped over a mannequin—a focal point of his living room, which is the focal point of the five-bedroom house on the southern edge of San Jose that he shares with his girlfriend, Janel Horne, and their two children: son Jianni, 6, and daughter Valleigh, 2. Davis also picked out the pillow-stacked, dark-green sofa with the extra-deep seat; the cupped-hands sculpture that rests on one tabletop; and the contemporary purple-and-green-paisley chairs in the nearby dining nook. Near the front door hangs a vibrant painting of a black woman holding a baby, against a gray-and-yellow geometric background. Davis didn't choose that piece. He painted it.
Beyond home decor, the 29-year-old Davis has parlayed his artistic sensibility into a business (the client list for his recently shuttered interior design firm, Modern Class Design, included his brother Vontae, a 25-year-old cornerback for the Colts, and 49ers teammates Ray McDonald and Aldon Smith), philanthropy (the proceeds from Gallery 85, his art outpost in San Jose's high-end Santana Row shopping district, benefit the Vernon Davis Foundation for the Arts), fashion notoriety (wrapper wrap aside, Davis is a clotheshorse of such GQ stylishness that Sarah Harbaugh, wife of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, often asks her husband, "Why can't you dress like Vernon?") and a philosophy of sorts. "Art has opened me up to trying new things," says Davis. "It allows me to think outside the box."
How's this for outside the box: The same man who can pull off a pink sport coat paired with a gold tie (as in the current Twitter avatar of @VernonDavis85, which has almost two million followers) or an ensemble of gold cashmere sweater, dusty orange pants and leopard-print hightops (one postgame outfit last season) is also one of the most dangerous pass catchers in the NFL. Possessing fullback strength and cornerback speed, the 6'3", 250-pound Davis is the rare tight end who can block linemen, outrun safeties and keep defensive coordinators up at night rethinking their game plans. "Dude's a freak," says Smith, a linebacker. "He can do anything."
Yet as opponents double-teamed Davis in the first half of 2012 and newly promoted starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick found a groove with receiver Michael Crabtree in the second, Davis became something of a forgotten man in San Francisco's offense. His 41 receptions and five touchdowns were his lowest regular-season totals in five years.
The postseason was a different story—and proof that the bad stretch was just a blip. In three games Davis had one TD and 12 receptions, including a team-high six catches for 104 yards in the 49ers' Super Bowl XLVII loss to the Ravens. Now that both Crabtree (torn Achilles tendon) and Mario Manningham (ACL) are out for the foreseeable future, and no other receiver besides Anquan Boldin has so far distinguished himself, Davis has emerged alongside Boldin as one of two primary targets for Kaepernick's blistering missiles. "Last year we struggled with our deep routes, and Colin overthrew me quite a bit," says Davis, "but now that we've had a chance to get our timing down, we've jelled."
In camp Davis studied and practiced wide receiver routes, warmed up with the wideouts and occasionally took snaps in their stead, an experience he found invaluable. "Practicing with those guys, I learned a lot about creating separation," says Davis, demonstrating his new moves by jerking his arms and shoulders back and forth as he sits in front of his locker. "And being in a new environment like that, it becomes competitive. You've got these quick little guys, and I've got to try to do what they do. If I see them running a route a certain way, then I'm going to do it a certain way. I'm going to challenge myself to be exact, just like them."
Boldin is regarded as one of the league's best route runners, but don't bet against Davis's eventually matching him. Of all the things the tight end has going for him—charisma, creativity, curiosity, radiant good looks, a sculpted physique with a mere 3% body fat (no, he doesn't eat much of the chocolate he loves so much) and off-the-charts athleticism—the trait that Horne hopes their children inherit from him is his determination. "He said he wanted to go to a D-I school. He said he wanted to go to the NFL. He said he wanted to be drafted top 10," says Horne, who started dating Davis at Dunbar High in Washington, D.C. "He sets a goal for himself, and he gets it done. He just might not get it done in the time he wants to get it done."
That may be a good thing. It took time, but Davis has had to harness the naked ambition that worked to his detriment early in his 49ers career, when his drive for personal success—and his frustration when thwarted—rankled teammates and coaches, earning him a reputation as a punk. Today, says Harbaugh, "Vernon is team all the way."
Which isn't to say that he's abandoned his grand personal goals. He still wants to be the best tight end ever to play the game. "It's not about statistics," he says. "I want to be the most complete player at that position—blocking, pass protection and making plays on a high level. I've never had the statistics that other guys have had, but I always seem to make it to where I want to go."
RESTING IN ONE of the paisley-upholstered chairs in his dining nook on a sunny afternoon, Davis talks about all the things his work ethic has earned him—and one heartbreak it couldn't prevent. In May 2012 his youngest brother, Michael, then 19, was charged with one count of first-degree murder and two counts of assault with intent to kill in connection with a series of random attacks with a claw hammer in Petworth, the inner-city D.C. neighborhood where Vernon and his six younger siblings were raised by their maternal grandmother, Adaline Davis. Michael, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was declared competent to stand trial in May and is scheduled to be tried a year from now.
When Davis heard the news about his brother's arrest, he says, "I was in shock, because Michael ... is one of the nicest kids you'll ever meet, one of the best athletes in the family." Of the young man who threw balls to him when he worked out in D.C. in the off-season, Vernon says, "I strongly believed he would make it. I tried to push him, but it just wasn't ..."
Here Davis's voice trails off, pained. As the oldest sibling, he had set an example that worked wonders for middle brother Vontae, who followed Vernon's trail out of Petworth to college (Illinois, on scholarship) and the NFL (selected 25th, by Miami, in the 2009 draft and later traded to the Colts).
When the young Vernon had looked around for his own role models, he hadn't seen many aside from Adaline. His mother, Jacqueline Davis, struggled with drugs and couldn't raise her children. His father, Vernon Buchanan, was around but not active as a parent. (Davis still has a relationship with both parents.) Many of young Vernon's friends had dropped out of school; some were using drugs. He himself had a few brushes with the law in sixth and seventh grades, "riding in stolen cars, stealing dogs and things like that," he says. This kind of mischief sometimes required Adaline, who babysat neighborhood kids to support her grandchildren, to pick Vernon up at the police station. Eventually, he says, "I got tired of hurting her. I wanted to make her happy; I wanted to go further in life."
Yet the vehicle he chose for getting ahead, football, only worried Adaline more. When he asked her to sign the papers that would allow him to try out for Dunbar's team in 10th grade, she refused, afraid he'd get hurt. She relented only on the condition that he give maximum effort every day. (She still texts the message DO YOUR BEST to Vernon and Vontae before their games—none of which she watches live. When the 49ers play she sets her DVR to record and then goes to the mall; only when Vernon calls her after the game and tells her he's O.K. does she watch.)
Vernon has taken Adaline's directives on effort to heart. "I don't think he lost a sprint in three years here, he was so competitive," says Craig Jefferies, Dunbar's football coach at the time. "Once he committed to the weight room, he took his natural freakish ability to another level."
Soon Davis was so chiseled that Dunbar girls would throw water on him just so he'd take his shirt off. He didn't do that lightly—Vernon put a lot of thought into what he wore every day. "He loved clothes," says Vontae. "Every morning before school I'd throw on my school uniform and he'd stand in front of the mirror, trying on different outfits."
Otherwise Vernon limited his artistic expression to drawing superheroes and football players in his notebooks and painting cartoon characters on his shirts with fabric paint. Art classes were out of the question. "I was afraid people would make fun of me," he says. "Taking art when I was growing up was looked at as lame."
In college, at Maryland, just 20 minutes away from Petworth but a world apart, Davis felt no such constraints. After garnering positive reviews in a summer-school art class as a sophomore, he changed his major from criminal justice to studio art. He took painting classes and courses on Renaissance and African-American art history; in the latter he discovered the late Claude Clark, now his favorite painter. "Art made me feel free to express myself in new ways," says Davis, who still paints, usually with acrylics on canvas and rarely with an eye toward technical mastery. (Horne says that the painting by the front door depicts her and Jianni—but she didn't recognize herself at first.) "I paint whatever my imagination tells me to," Davis says.
ON THE FOOTBALL field Davis has always been more bent on perfection. In his freshman year at Maryland he had a vision of himself being invited to the NFL draft in New York City. If coaches asked players to do one conditioning workout a day, Davis did two. He caught 200 to 300 balls every afternoon, ran the stadium stairs at night and haunted the weight room. In his first year at College Park he broke all six weight-room records for tight ends, some of which had stood for 20 years. He broke them twice more before graduating.
After his junior season, in 2005, when his 51 catches for 871 yards and six TDs earned him All-America honors, Davis decided to go pro. His combine numbers—4.38 in the 40, and 33 reps benching 225 pounds—again set records for tight ends. More important, they dazzled scouts. When Davis got the call inviting him to be one of the six players to attend the '06 draft, he cried. When San Francisco took him with the sixth pick, he cried again.
If only he'd known what was coming. As the rare tight end to be selected in the top 10, Davis was greeted in the Bay Area with enormous expectations. And for three years he failed to meet them. Beset by injuries (a cracked fibula one year, an MCL tear the next), subject to a changing cast of offensive coordinators (four in his first four seasons) and prone to dropping passes, he averaged just 35 receptions, 377 yards and three TDs between 2006 and '08. Moreover, the player whom Jefferies remembers as "a peacemaker" was getting into fights at practice. For all his otherworldly athleticism, Davis looked like a bust.
"I had a lot of anger from my past, and I really wanted to be successful in the NFL," says Davis. "I didn't let anything get in my way. In practice I went at it hard, always finishing plays. Guys would get mad [at that], so I always got into fights. It was all about me. I didn't think about the team. I was selfish, I was young."
Even Niners running back Frank Gore, a good friend, found Davis's single-minded drive exasperating. "When he was younger, Vernon always wanted to be the best, always wanted success," says Gore. "If he didn't get the ball, he might make a scene on the sideline or not play as hard."
Davis's attitude problem reached a flash point during a home game against Seattle on Oct. 26, 2008. After a seven-yard reception in the third quarter, when San Francisco was down 27--6, Davis slapped Seahawks safety Brian Russell's face mask, incurring a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness. Coach Mike Singletary, offended by Davis's nonchalant attitude about the infraction, sent the tight end to the showers with a quarter to play. Embarrassed, Davis trotted away from the field, his dreadlocks bouncing and his mind spinning. "I thought, Wow, what's he thinking, sending his first-round draft pick to the locker room?" Davis recalls. "That woke me up."
Following the game Singletary blistered Davis in his now famous "I want winners" speech. After that, however, the coach and player spoke often. "I learned a lot from him," says Davis. "If I dropped a pass in practice, he'd call a meeting and say, 'How is it that Vernon Davis drops a pass? Got to focus, son!' He helped me see that it was more about the team than about me."
A year later, in 2009, Davis finally had his breakout, tying a single-season NFL record for touchdown catches by a tight end with 13. When he got the news that he'd made the Pro Bowl, Davis cried, another vision realized. Then, in January '12, a further catharsis: In a divisional playoff against New Orleans he set a league playoff record for tight ends with 180 receiving yards, and he scored two TDs, including a 14-yard stunner with nine seconds left that completed the upset. The latter, on an Alex Smith bullet as Davis got crushed by New Orleans safety Roman Harper, has been cemented in Niners lore as the Catch III. Again, tears streamed down Davis's face. He trotted to the sideline into Harbaugh's waiting embrace. "All the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears that me and my teammates put in throughout the years, and all the things I had been through in my life, hit me at that moment," Davis says.
That evening Adaline returned home from wandering the mall to find friends excitedly milling around inside. "When I heard Vernon scored the winning touchdown," she says, "I was so proud, so overjoyed." Make no mistake, Adaline would still rather see her grandson in a different line of work. "Maybe Secretary of State," she says. "President would be too stressful."
Even though Davis attended two Barack Obama fund-raisers in 2012, making a speech at one, and even though his Twitter avatar for much of last fall showed him beaming from a podium with an American flag backdrop, he says a future in politics has never crossed his mind. Of course, neither had the sport of curling—not until a Bay Area reporter suggested that Davis give it a try, back in 2009. He liked it, the U.S. men's team got wind of it, and in February '10, Davis jetted off to the Vancouver Olympics to serve as the squad's honorary captain. Today his framed blue team jacket, davis printed on the back, hangs at the top of the stairs at his house.
Well-appointed though it already is, Davis's spacious dwelling has room for more clothing-as-art. As he sits at his locker before a practice, he's asked what he imagines for himself down the road. In one vision, he says, he's a successful entrepreneur. (He recently opened a Jamba Juice store in San Jose.) "I can also see myself wearing a ring—a Super Bowl ring," he says. He squints and sees something else: He's donning another jacket, the yellow blazer worn by Hall of Fame inductees. "It is yellow, right?" he asks in a rare moment of sartorial uncertainty.
Yellow. Gold. Whatever. If Davis earns the jacket, no matter its color, he'll find a space for it worthy of a masterpiece.
BE ALL, END ALL
Among tight ends, Vernon Davis is on a collision course with Canton. He'll have a tough time catching the ageless Tony Gonzalez in any stat category (toughest among them, tenure: Gonzo's in year 17), but if Davis can string together 15 seasons, he projects to be up there among the alltime greats: