Vernon Davis stepped behind the podium and, with an air of confidence and self-awareness, prepared himself for whatever might follow.
He surely knew how this would go. Questions about how much he’d changed. About how much he’d grown. About how, exactly, he’d become the leader he is today — how he became the man who was more than the sum of his talent. Each question a compliment, yes, but each pointing toward a past that was far from complimentary.
“I changed my life around and I became more of a leader, because in the beginning it was all about me and that’s not right,” he said. “You don’t want it to be all about you. I find it that, when it’s more about the team and you put the team first, you have more success.”
This was Vernon Davis at his best: Comfortable in his own skin, having a few days earlier hauled in "The Catch Three" to power the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC Championship Game Sunday against the New York Giants. This was the highly-touted tight end having traversed the route from underperforming talent to fully-realized leader in a few short years — a journey made possible because instead of changing his game he changed his outlook.
Drafted in 2006 with the sixth overall pick, Davis was graced with a contract that at the time made him the highest-paid tight end in football. His first two seasons were a study in mediocrity, 265- and 589-receiving yard totals that quantified the shortcoming of a player many saw as selfish and underperforming.
Then came 2008.
Davis’ receiving yards for the season nosedived to 358, nearing his rookie season. He scored a career low two touchdowns — the same number he had this past Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
The turning point — the moment when fate, anger, shame and self-awareness combined to create the Davis who scored those two touchdowns against New Orleans and the 180 receiving yards that accompanied them — came after catching a pass for a long completion and then doing something stupid.
Davis turned, slapped a Seattle Seahawks defender and was subsequently flagged for the play — and then banished to the locker room by then head-coach Mike Singletary.
“From that point on, I was … I just kept my head up and just kept going down the straight path because I knew from there, from the talk that we had, I was going the wrong direction,” Davis said.
“(Singletary) said to me, I can’t remember what he said word for word, but it touched me,” Davis said. “It touched me. But I do remember him saying that, ‘Vernon, when you put the team first, then you’ll start to take off.’ So I did that, I did that. Since then, life has been really good.”
This is one of the funny things about football, and the fine line between excellence and an early exit. Singletary, by almost every account, was the wrong guy to lead the Niners back to respectability and perhaps glory — as much as head coach Jim Harbaugh appears today to be the right guy.
But it’s equally true that Singletary was the exact right guy for Vernon Davis at the exact right time. Singletary may have been a failed head coach in San Francisco, but he succeeded in reaching Davis. And that’s had a lasting impact.
“Very grateful, very grateful,” Davis said of his former coach. “He was here at the right time. He was here at the right time, and the timing was perfect, couldn’t have been better. I am very grateful that he was able to be here and help me make that transition.”
The transition worked. In 2009, Davis’ numbers jumped to 965 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns for the season. In 2010 and 2011 he had 914 and 792 receiving yards, respectfully, but also grew as a leader. He wasn’t just the talented tight end. He was the talented tight end working overtime to be the right kind of teammate.
He let his emotion run to the positive side, channeling it into speeches and a visceral showing that he cared about his team — that they, and not just him — mattered.
“His leadership has been through actions,” Harbaugh said. “It’s been through support of other teammates. It’s been through his willingness to contribute to the football team in ways that don’t show up on the stats sheet. All those things are noticed by everybody. Everybody’s antenna perceives that Vernon is a guy that’s about us and not about himself.”
Said Niners linebacker Patrick Willis: “The way Vernon has changed is, as any player would, the longer you play this game, the more you mature, the more you understand what things to do and what not to do. Vernon has certainly changed the way he was thinking. He’s turned out to be the player we’ve always envisioned him being. I hope he continues to do that.”
It’s fair to assume he will.
On Sunday, having just pulled in the touchdown that sealed the Niners’ jaw-dropping comeback against the Saints, a little glory was in order. A little self-congratulations. A little boasting.
Instead, asked to compare his moment to the one in 1982 in which Joe Montana connected with Dwight Clark in the NFC championship game, Davis made it about … what else?
About someone else.
“I don’t know, I just made the play,” he said of his own version of The Catch. “If it wasn’t for Alex I could not have been able to make it happen. Alex, you are the man.”
This is the new Vernon Davis, the one who in turn represents the new Niners: Selfless, together, unified and winning.
Asked to sum up his team in one or two words Thursday, Harbuagh said he would instead do it in six: “The team. The team. The team.”
Those same six words could apply to just whom Vernon Davis, a changed man, has committed himself — and just why he’s the emerging star who has helped his team to the verge of the Super Bowl.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.