Commentary

Vernon Davis' turnaround pattern

Once deemed a bust-in-the-making, 49ers TE blooms under Singletary's watch

Originally Published: September 16, 2010
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Vernon DavisMichael Zagaris/Getty ImagesVernon Davis (85) "went from being a player who guys didn't know how to deal with -- and didn't really want to be around -- to being a player they respect and admire," his coach Mike Singletary said.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Vernon Davis had sat, stewed, waited and wondered.

The date was Oct. 27, 2008, and the San Francisco 49ers' star tight end had spent the previous afternoon trying to understand why coach Mike Singletary had banished him to the locker room with 10 minutes remaining in a 34-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Now Davis was tired of holding his tongue. As he entered Singletary's office at 49ers headquarters, he steadied himself for a clear-the-air conversation.

"I don't want to be here," Davis said to Singletary, who had punished the player for earning a senseless personal foul. When the coach asked for an explanation, Davis said he was tired of being misused in an offense that was asking him to do more blocking than pass catching.

It was the type of demand Davis figured would lead to a better result until Singletary shrugged his shoulders and calmly exhaled. "Vernon," Singletary said, "Once you put the team first and stop worrying about yourself, that's when everything will happen for you."

It's been nearly two years since that conversation, and Singletary no longer has to wonder whether Davis got the message. The coach could see that much on a sun-drenched afternoon in the Bay Area last week.

When Davis wasn't catching extra passes during breaks in practice, he was exhorting his teammates when team drills lacked the requisite intensity. Once the session ended, Davis was just as energized. As players headed for the locker room, he stuck around to catch at least 25 more passes on a nearby Jugs machine.

Now, the 26-year-old Davis isn't the only player in the NFL who does such things during the week. However, he still makes his coach beam when he makes those extra efforts, especially after that turbulent moment between them.

"I didn't really understand what Coach was saying that day but I figured it out later on," Davis said. "I was angry at the time, and what happened definitely didn't sit well. The thing is that I always knew I wanted to be the best. I just didn't know how to make that happen."

Money-earnin' Mount Vernon

[+] EnlargeVernon Davis and Mike Singletary
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesSingletary wants to point Davis in the right direction.

There's plenty of evidence to suggest Davis has found his way. The fifth-year tight end is coming off a breakout season in 2009, in which he caught a team-high 78 passes, scored 13 touchdowns (tying a league record for tight ends) and earned his first Pro Bowl nomination.

On top of that, Davis started this season with a huge reward for his sudden development. A day before the 49ers opened the 2010 season with a 31-6 loss at Seattle, the team made Davis the highest-paid tight end in league history by signing him to a reported five-year, $37 million extension that includes $23 million in guaranteed money. Davis recently downplayed the significance of that contract -- "It feels good deep down, but the money doesn't mean as much as who I've become as a person," he said -- but there's no doubting he might be considered a bargain some day.

Blessed with both ideal size (he's 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds) and electric speed (he once ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds), Davis is a mismatch for both linebackers and safeties. He caught eight passes for 73 yards despite facing constant double coverage from the Seahawks. As Seattle safety Lawyer Milloy said, "He's their go-to guy, and the quarterback relies on him to get open. So you have to know where he is at all times."

What's even more impressive about Davis is his newfound maturity.

For the first 2½ years of his career, he baffled teammates and coaches with his inability to utilize the skills that made him the sixth overall pick in the 2006 draft. Now he inspires them with his play and his presence.

"Vernon went from being a player who guys didn't know how to deal with -- and didn't really want to be around -- to being a player they respect and admire," Singletary said. "I've never seen a turnaround happen as fast as this one."

Davis deserves all the credit for learning how to harness the deep well of emotion that streams though him.

It's startling to see a player who can be so soft-spoken one moment and turn so bombastic the next. Davis can go from zero to crazed in record time. His teammates learned that immediately after he scored on a 31-yard touchdown reception in his first NFL game.

After reaching the sideline following the play, Davis threw off his helmet and yelled repeatedly that nobody on the Arizona Cardinals could cover him that day.

Said 49ers quarterback Alex Smith: "We all looked at him like he was crazy because he hadn't really said anything before that point."

Dealing with abandonment, fear

Davis still is capable of such head-turning moments, although these days they happen for more logical reasons. A few weeks ago, he confronted second-year wide receiver Michael Crabtree during practice, and the ensuing argument became so heated that Singletary had to take both players into the locker room for a private chat.

Although Davis wouldn't discuss the details, he later indicated he was trying to help Crabtree. As proof, he made a point of playfully kissing Crabtree on the shoulder as local reporters interviewed the wideout last week.

"It wasn't really anything," Davis said. "I felt that I needed to say something to him, but those things happen when you're on a team. The important thing that I said to him was that I wouldn't replace him with anybody. So if he had any anger about what happened, he needed to let go of it because we're going to be together for a long time."

The people who have followed Davis' career can see the irony in that moment. He once was the kind of player who sorely needed somebody to jump in his face and set him on the right path. These days the only headlines Davis makes off the field involve his recent interest in the sport of curling -- "A local beat writer turned me onto it and I wound up really liking it," he said -- and his expanding bank account. He's still just two years removed from learning how to address the very demons that threatened to stifle his own career.

Davis admits he's been driven for most of his life by the same tumultuous experiences that inspire many pro athletes. He grew up in a rugged, inner-city environment (in this case, Washington, D.C.). His father (Vernon Buchanon) wasn't around, and his mother (Jacqueline) was a drug addict, according to accounts from both Vernon and his grandmother Adeline Davis. She raised Davis and his six siblings -- Davis' brother, Vontae Davis, is a second-year cornerback with the Miami Dolphins -- but Vernon Davis never forgot the pain of those early days with his mother. Davis says when he wasn't watching his mom pursuing that next hit, he was hearing about her running the streets with random men.

Davis family
Courtesy Ebony DavisVontae Davis (left) and Adeline Davis (white shirt) are part of Vernon Davis' (center) family fanbase.

Davis was so shaken by those early childhood moments that he slept with Adeline until he was 5 and then moved to a cot in her room at age 6; he finally shifted to his own bedroom after turning 8. He also perched himself right next to his grandmother whenever she drove him someplace.

"I wouldn't even want her to go to the grocery store when she needed something," Davis said. "I was afraid of losing her. I knew that if something happened to her, then all my brothers and sisters would be split up and sent to foster homes."

It was during those years that Davis developed a work ethic based on Adeline's preaching. She encouraged her grandchildren to set goals and make the most of their talents. For Davis, that meant finding a way out of poverty through football, even though Adeline hated the idea of him playing such a violent sport.

"I remember when he was going into high school [at Dunbar High in Washington, D.C.] and he asked me to sign the waiver," Adeline said. "He said he wasn't going to be playing a lot. The next thing I know, he's walking into school and the football coach is grabbing him and saying, 'You're exactly what I've been looking for.'"

It didn't take long for Davis to find success in high school or at Maryland, where he became a first-team All-American by his junior season.

However, his NFL experience was an entirely different matter.

Learning to channel anger

He quickly became known for injuries (he missed a total of eight games during his first two seasons, including six in his rookie season), stupid penalties and an inexplicable habit of fighting with teammates in practice. During Davis' second year, he scuffled with outside linebacker Parys Haralson because Davis had refused to stop blocking him after the whistle had blown during a drill.

"He was a hothead," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said. "He was very passionate but he would have those outbursts when he'd just lose control."

Davis I just had a lot of emotion stored up inside me that I had to get out. I felt like I had to kill whoever was in front of me when I stepped onto a football field because of that. I really had to learn how to practice.

-- 49ers TE Vernon Davis on learning how to mature

Said Davis: "I just had a lot of emotion stored up inside me that I had to get out. I felt like I had to kill whoever was in front of me when I stepped onto a football field because of that. I really had to learn how to practice."

Despite those issues, the 49ers saw plenty of redeeming value in Davis. First off, he wasn't afraid to work hard. He studied film when he was hurt, listened attentively in meetings and respected his coaches. Even when Singletary tossed him out of that game -- a contest that also happened to be Singletary's debut as interim head coach after the team had fired Mike Nolan -- Davis didn't talk back. He'd made a boneheaded error by slapping the helmet of Seahawks safety Brian Russell after a play, and he didn't want to make matters worse by barking at his coach.

What Davis couldn't have known at the time was how much that day would change the course of his career.

"It was a wake-up call for him," Singletary said. "But I also told Vernon I would've done that to anybody. When we're on the field, I want everybody focused on what we're trying to do. If you're not, then you're taking away from us."

From that point on, Davis wasn't just somebody Singletary made an example of at an opportune moment. Davis basically became the coach's personal project. In fact, shortly after Singletary became coach, he made a point of criticizing Davis for catching passes with his body (and dropping too many as a result). The next day Davis practiced, he was working on his hands on that Jugs machine. Before long, he was quoting Singletary's advice to other teammates and, as Vontae Davis said, "telling me that coach Singletary isn't like any coach [Vernon's] ever had."

From problem child to captain

"Singletary saw Vernon like a son," 49ers tight end Delanie Walker said. "If Vernon dropped a pass in practice, Singletary would yell it out. If Vernon made a mistake, Singletary would yell it out. And when practice ended or we were in meetings, Singletary would make it clear that Vernon was f---ing up. He knew that Vernon could be better than what he was."

[+] EnlargeVernon Davis and Michael Crabtree
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesDavis wants to lead his teammate Crabtree down the right path.

Said Davis: "When I first got here, I did think it was all about me. You grow up watching guys like Terrell Owens and Keyshawn Johnson, and you look up to them. But Coach Singletary taught me differently. He broke me down to get me to believe in that."

Those efforts paid off quickly. When Davis was frustrated by his limited role in the offense run by former coordinator Mike Martz in 2008 -- a system that too often required him to help with pass protection -- Davis asked tight ends coach Pete Hoener how he could get recognition with so few opportunities to catch the ball.

Once Hoener suggested that Davis block his way into people's minds, Davis earned Pro Bowl alternate status despite catching just 31 passes. When Hoener informed him of the honor, Davis cried in his car on the way home from practice.

Davis' maturity off the field also caught the eyes of everyone around him. When Singletary announced his choices for team captains heading into last season, Davis was one of the first people he mentioned.

Linebacker Takeo Spikes happened to be standing near Davis at the time, and he told the tight end that a lot of people would be looking at him. Davis' response: "I know I have a lot more responsibility now, and I'm going to be ready for it."

What Davis knew was that he finally was prepared to lead by both example and through his words. He realized that the offense installed by new coordinator Jimmy Raye had helped star tight ends like Tony Gonzalez produce huge numbers on other teams.

He also had become a more precise route runner with heightened confidence.

"I remember we played Minnesota [in a Week 3 loss last season] and he made three or four big plays on the ball," QB Smith said of a game in which Davis caught seven passes and scored twice.

"You could see that he really trusted his hands. You could tell he felt like a difference-maker, and I don't know if that was always the case."

Davis actually might disagree with that.

"I knew I was ready to have the kind of year I had [in 2009]," he said. "I was ready for that when I first came here. It's just that there's a lot of things you have to learn in this league."

Added Singletary: "All the credit goes to Vernon. You can be the greatest motivator in the world, but it won't matter if you're dealing with somebody who doesn't want to be motivated. One thing I know about Vernon is that he wants to be special."

These days, Davis is prepared to elevate his game even more. Raye would like to split him out wide at times to increase the pressure on defenses. Davis also wants to help his younger teammates grow up fast enough to make the 49ers a postseason participant after a humbling, season-opening loss. The 49ers will try to rebound on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" at home Sept. 20 against the New Orleans Saints.

Most importantly, Davis wants to continue proving what has become obvious to those around him: that he truly is at peace.

"The anger is probably still in the back of my mind, but it doesn't control me any longer," he said. "I've learned how to use it in the right ways."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

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