Vernon Davis contains multitudes; good luck containing him

August 15, 2019

Courtesy: "Hell on the Border"

Good luck keeping up with Vernon Davis.

The 35-year-old tight end may be nearing the end of his professional football career, but his life has always been defined by more than what he does on the field. The closer he gets to the end of his playing days, the more active he seems to be getting in every other aspect of his life.

It’s been a big year for Davis. He got engaged last summer and Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Council declared March 12 Vernon Davis Day to honor him for his community work. That event was held at Truesdell Education Campus, where Davis attended elementary school before matriculating to Dunbar High School and the University of Maryland.

But getting to where he is now wasn’t a breeze for Davis. His mother was a drug addict and his father was out of the picture. That left Davis, the oldest of seven — including fellow future NFL player Vontae — in the charge of his grandmother, Adaline, along with his siblings in her house just off Georgia Avenue in Petworth.

Adaline cleaned houses — big houses in the suburbs — for a living, and Vernon would tow along to help for much of his childhood, starting about age 7. He saw how much people loved her (one even gave her a car), and felt like it was his mission to make sure nothing bad happened to her, for the sake of his siblings.

“I would go with my grandma everywhere, because I felt like someone was going to take her,” he told WTOP recently in Richmond, during training camp. “Someone was going to harm her, or something was going to happen to her. I didn’t want to lose her, so I would go with her everywhere. She couldn’t go anywhere without me. I felt like I was there to protect her.”

But as he got older, he stopped helping out. Without somewhere to channel his energy, Davis was dangerously close to seeing his life derailed before it could ever get started. He was arrested twice — once for stealing a car, another time for breaking into a house with a friend to steal a couple dogs — and was on probation, all by the sixth grade. He still remembers his grandmother taking him on trips up to the probation office on Kalorama Road in Northwest D.C., as the reality of what his future held set in.

One friend stole and crashed a car, ending up in the hospital. Another lost an eye in a separate incident. By the seventh grade, Davis knew he needed to get it together, for himself and for his six younger siblings.

“I stayed away from my friends, because they were negative influences,” he said. “I became the kid I knew I could be.”

Part of that was discovering football, of course, which has given him the pathway to do everything else he wants to do with his life. But he’s always had a million things going on at once, seemingly pulled in every direction, all the time.

Long before a painting class convinced him to switch his college major from criminal justice to studio art, before he opened an art gallery in San Jose, before he started his own interior design company, before he learned (just a few years ago) that his biological grandfather was an artist, Davis was using finger paint to design his favorite comic book characters on his jeans in school.

His artistic channel changed to acting in 2013, when he enrolled in a class at the Shelton Theater of Art in San Francisco during the offseason.

“I’m always on the hunt for something. Whatever piques my interest, I’m always on the hunt for it.”

That impulse seems to be an intrinsic aspect of his makeup; he’s constantly looking for the next challenge.

“My grandmother made a valid point the other day, [that] I’ve always been the kind of kid who had a lot going on,” he said. “It’s just who I am, I guess.”

Davis has made a couple of cameos, appearing on “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and in a highly NSFW “Inside Amy Schumer” skit, alongside some fellow NFL players. He played himself in a short volleyball scene in the 2017 “Baywatch” movie as well. But he’s been eager to branch out into real, dramatic roles, something he finally had a chance to do this offseason.

While the attention of the pro football world was focused on Atlanta during Super Bowl week, Davis traveled to Bessemer, Alabama, outside of Birmingham, in late January for three days on the set of “Hell on the Border,” a gritty western starring Frank Grillo and Ron Perlman, due out in theaters this fall. Davis has a full monologue and even performed his own stunt as part of his role as Columbus Johnson, a former slave.

He’s finding the studious habits he’s learned from 14 years in the NFL are coming in handy in his acting pursuits as well.

“I think the work that goes into it, the work it takes to be good, your preparation is the biggest component there is when it comes to putting your work out there.”

Davis didn’t miss out on all the NFL festivities around the Super Bowl, though. He flew to Atlanta later in the week as his team’s nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, the NFL’s annual recognition for philanthropy and community impact (Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long took home the honors).

As if all of that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, he’s recently started his own supplement company called Timeless, and is working on starting the Vernon Davis Home Care Group, an in-home nursing care company based in Fairfax, Virginia.

For someone so constantly on the move, that last piece of business is, perhaps, a hint that Davis is content being back where he grew up.

“I do feel like I’m home, but it’s totally different,” he said of his native city. “Washington D.C. isn’t the same. It’s not the same D.C. I grew up in. It kind of feels like a different place, in a sense.”

Davis was gone 10 years, from 2006-15, playing and living almost entirely on the west coast. The District changed drastically in that time, but ultimately, it’s still home.

“I feel like this is a place I’ll stay,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot of opportunity here since I’ve been back, just from playing football.”

It wouldn’t happen for a couple years after he signed, but a return to Washington also meant reuniting with quarterback Alex Smith, with whom Davis played the bulk of his time in San Francisco. Together, they combined for one of the great moments in modern 49ers history, dubbed The Catch III, or The Grab.

With just 12 seconds left on the clock, trailing the New Orleans Saints by three points in the 2011 divisional round, Davis ran a post from the left slot, and reached the goal line the same time as the ball, and Saints defender Roman Harper. Davis held on through contact for the score, and the Niners won an absolutely bonkers football game that saw as many points scored in the fourth quarter (34) as the rest of the game combined.

Even with Smith injured, expected to miss this season, Davis appreciates having him back in the locker room.

“I was just elated about the opportunity to play with him again, because of how we started,” he said.

Davis doesn’t know how much longer he’ll play football, but at the suggestion of playing until he’s 45, as Tom Brady said he wants to, Davis is quick to interject: “Not gonna happen.” At this point, he’s content to reevaluate after each season to see if he’s ready for the next.

While he’s gotten some extended playing time when first string tight end Jordan Reed has been injured the past few seasons, Davis has no ambitions beyond what he’s asked to contribute at this point.

But what about that other athletic pursuit?

Perhaps you remember Davis’ turn as honorary captain of the US Curling team. For a man who has seemingly done everything else, of course he has a passion for the obscure ice sport that captures the world’s attention every four years. And with a group of retired NFL players gearing up to try to make the 2022 games, wouldn’t he be a perfect fit?

“Yeah, they reached out to me,” said Davis. “I think it’s good, if they’re into it, if they’re passionate about it … I love supporting the curling team, but it’s not anything I would want to take up as an actual job.”

That’s not just lip service — plenty of former players struggle to acclimate to life after football, and he’s genuinely happy to see them transition to something else where they can channel their competitive fire. But he doesn’t have the time to devote to it now, or even whenever he finally hangs up his cleats.

“Even if I retired, I still probably wouldn’t do it full-time,” said Davis. “I have so many other things I want to do.”

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