A Man Of All Seasons

Vernon Davis might have been born and raised in Washington D.C. but he now calls San Francisco home. Prior to heading west for the professional gridiron of Candlestick Park, Davis began playing football in his native D.C. streets while he was still in elementary school. “I would go out everyday and play football or basketball, and my passion for the game grew on me,” says Davis. “The funny thing about it is that basketball was my dream. I was better at basketball.”

Although Davis might have been a better basketball player at the time, he would soon develop his football skills during high school, and earned recognition from college scouts for his dominant play. It was while attending the University of Maryland, however, that Davis made a curious discovery—he loved art. Davis explains his transformation: “I didn’t learn I could paint or draw until I went to college. I began studying Criminal Justice, and it wasn’t until I took an art course as an elective that I just fell in love with it. I met with my academic counselor and she advised me to switch my major to art if I loved it that much.” Davis did just that, and became somewhat of a rare combination of skillful athletic prowess, and intuitive visual artist.

Davis isn’t the only talent in his family. His younger brother Vontae plays professional football for the Miami Dolphins. “It’s amazing having a brother that plays professional football. I mentored him early while we were teenagers, showing him how to train properly and putting him through the paces and rigors that come with playing competitive football. I knew he was tough and could handle it.” Davis acknowledges himself as both teacher and student to his brother, however, describing Vontae as, “a little encyclopedia, always teaching me about NFL players, their positions, stats, etc. We both helped each other develop and grow within the game.” The Davis brothers also understand the value of off-field support, as both Vernon and Vontae look out for each other and make sure their family is taken care of, “As for our family, it’s great having him around to help step in and take care of the family when I can’t, so he can help fill that role if I’m not there,” explains Davis. Despite Davis’s hectic traveling schedule during the season, he knows his family is his top priority, and is sure to make time for them. “Every year after the season is over I go home to see my family in D.C. I also travel to Miami to spend time with my brother.”

Upon moving across the country to pursue his professional football career with the San Francisco 49ers, Davis immediately noted the differences from his east coast upbringing. Besides the changes in weather, Davis confided to me that what he noticed most about San Francisco was its diverse ethnic populations, “I like San Francisco because it’s so diverse out here.” Davis continues, “There are all types of people living here—they look different, smell different. It’s just crazy. Coming from D.C., I didn’t experience many different ethnic groups living together, but out here it’s mixed.” Though the adjustment to moving out west proved an engaging learning experience for Davis, he quickly found out his truest learning experience would take place during his first few seasons with the 49ers. It’s an understatement to say that we all encounter obstacles in our personal and professional lives, but in Davis’s case, he experienced a seemingly insurmountable sequence of setbacks that could have ended his career before it even had a chance to begin. Davis states that his arrival in San Francisco as a rookie tested his playing ability and emotional maturity, as he had to acclimate to new teammates and being the lowest on the totem pole, “I was young and had to adjust to a new team, and learn to play with my teammates. I devoted extra energy and focus to improving my overall skill set and the way I play the game by training harder, eating well, and improving every aspect of my playing.” If that weren’t enough to handle, injuries quickly became a problem for Davis, “I also cracked my fibula my rookie year, and then in my second year I sprained the MCL in my knee. I had to fight through a lot of adversity to get where I am today, but in everything you do—you have to learn to get through it. The most important thing of all is that I fought through it, kept my head up, and kept pushing. That’s why I was awarded the honor of team captain for two consecutive years.” Davis is living proof of the power of persistence and ambition overpowering adversity and achieving success.

Davis’s recognition for leadership and excellence in sportsmanship is not limited to the football field, however, as he was named an honorary captain of the Men’s U.S Olympic Curling team at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. “It looks a lot easier on TV than it actually is,” explains Davis. “I respect the curlers.” It was a dream come true for Davis to be in Vancouver. “All I could think about was being a kid and watching the Olympics on TV, feeling that same kind of excitement. Even when I was at the ice rink, I was thinking about athletes from the past, like Dominic Dawes, and current athletes like Shani Davis, and it was just amazing being there to share that experience.” With all of Davis’s prestige and recognition, he made a revealing statement by telling me his favorite moment of the entire trip was, “When I walked into this place they had every restaurant you could think of—McDonald’s, Subway—and it was called the USA Olympic Village. When I went inside, they said to me, ‘Everything in here, Vernon, is free.’ Just for the athletes, though. I went to McDonald’s and had two twenty-piece nuggets, all you can drink soda, cookies, and French fries. I ate so badly that day.” I guess even when you are at the pinnacle of your athletic career and surrounded by some of the finest athletes from around the world, even the temptations of comfort food can be too much to resist.

The earnestness and sincerity of Davis’s fast food binge is telling of a down-to-earth character that does not presume an air of status or entitlement. Davis is a humble person who understands the rarity of his success, and wants to provide as many children who come from a similar background as he has with the options for their success. Two philanthropic organizations that Davis is heavily involved with are Pros For Africa and the Starkey Hearing Foundation. “It means a lot to give back. Anytime you can reach out to help people and change something in their life, that’s just huge for me,” Davis reveals. “I truly believe that because I grew up in a very humble home, and my grandmother worked very hard to support my six siblings and I. Her hard work shaped my spirit of gratitude as an NFL player, and to be able to give back to those who are not as fortunate means so much to me. It goes a long way.” With Pros For Africa, Davis hopes to extend his missionary zeal across the Atlantic where he feels there is much work to be done, “There is so much need in the world, especially with children in the Third World who do not have adequate access to basic things like food, medical care, and even shelter. Traveling to Africa on a mission of change is a great honor and a life changing moment for me. Hopefully we can make some positive changes.” Davis has an upcoming mission trip to Rwanda and Uganda in March.

But the charity doesn’t end there. Following his own personal passion in the arts, Davis recently inaugurated the Vernon Davis Visual Scholarship as a way to give urban students a chance to pursue their artistic passions and provide financial support for them to do so. To qualify for the scholarship, a college-bound San Francisco-based high school senior needs to submit a statement of purpose, portfolio of his or her work, and a letter of recommendation from a teacher or art mentor. Davis explains his own frustration growing up without artistic support to nurture the talent he wasn’t truly aware he had, “I was always creative, painting and cutting my jeans when I was younger, but I didn’t have the freedom to be creative in my community.” He continues, “Growing up in a tough urban neighborhood, myself and others like me were surrounded by so many social pressures that impacted us, like drugs and crime, but we didn’t have access to the resources that would have been inspirational for us. When I went to college, though, I was free to focus on my creative side and discovered my talent.” Right now Davis is in the process of narrowing down the applicants to make a final choice for the first award. “Hopefully, the scholarship will provide a young artist with the resources to pursue his or her passion.”

As if that weren’t enough, this summer Davis will be hosting a football and mentoring clinic in Washington D.C., called Sound Body, Sound Mind. It’s a two-day football academy being held at Howard University on June 23-24th. An exultant David explained the camp and his involvement, “Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have benefitted from positive role models, and now I want to make sure that kids who are just like I was will have the same opportunities. The camp is a great preparation and inspiration for about 200 young athletes to think about college and academic counseling while staying at Howard University, in addition to sports training.” Davis wants to empower the younger generation by giving them options for their future by emphasizing education and discipline, and not instilling delusions of fast-track success schemes.

Davis is notorious amongst his friends and teammates as having a certain flair for style and décor, so I couldn’t help but inquire about his home. When asked to describe how he would characterize the overall style of his home, Davis gave me a good laugh (or rather I gave him one) by suggesting if it was country, modern, or eclectic, “Oh, definitely not country. Oh, no, no no [laughs]. Classic and contemporary I would say—on the modern side.” Davis was fortunate enough to be introduced to his publicist’s (Sasha Taylor) mother, a well-known interior decorator in San Francisco. “Sasha introduced me to Laura, and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that’s convenient. Let me have her.’ She came to my house and all the ideas and samples she put in front of me were just what I was looking for. I saw some of the work she had previously done, and thought it was great.”

Of course, the home of an artist is only complete with his own paintings decorating the walls. One in particular that stands out to us is entitled “Mirror Image.” It was painted by Davis in 2005 right before he departed college to enter the NFL. “I brought it along with me when I moved to San Francisco. I had to revisit the painting about two years ago to finish it.”

When Davis has some down time, without a doubt we’ll find him in some of the most upscale shops and lounges San Francisco has to offer. Metro Park his favorite one-stop-shop for jeans (True Religion and Rock & Republic), watches and other accessories. To satiate his appetite we can find him at 5A5. Davis balances his time rather well; between training, practice, off-the-field endeavors and being an upstanding father to his three-year old son, Jianni. “It’s more challenging during the season, but I still get to spend a lot of time with my son and family. It’s a busy lifestyle of traveling and playing football, and it’s tough trying to balance everything, but I spend as much time with Jianni as I can. I had the chance to see him sing in his Christmas program this year, which was great, and he will be in a fashion show later this month, too.”

Don’t expect to see Vernon Davis stopping any time soon. When his days on the field eventually dwindle, he explains how he would like to dabble in a little bit of everything, including (but not limited to) both the small and big screen. “Football was always my dream, but I have many different interests, like fashion and acting, and the wheels are already in motion to make brings some of these aspirations to fruition. I have a cameo role in the upcoming film ‘I Fell In Love With A Church Girl’, recently completed an internship at Organic, Inc., and have several television shows in development.”

Even with Davis’s lengthy roster of accomplishments, there’s still one thing he’s dying to see, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. I sense a trip to Rome on the horizon.