Vernon Davis comes of age for San Francisco 49ers

The tight end has learned from an embarrassing start in San Francisco and is standing on the cusp of playing in the Super Bowl.

San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis (85) runs from New Orleans Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) and strong safety Roman Harper (41) during the fourth quarter of an NFL divisional playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, in San Francisco.  (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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Three seasons ago, few could have foreseen the San Francisco 49ers on the doorstep of the Super Bowl as they prepare to take on the New York Giants today in the NFC Championship game.

Fewer still could have envisioned Vernon Davis as a 49er still.

The tight end, whose game-winning touchdown last weekend against the New Orleans Saints already has found a place in 49ers lore, was banished to the locker room during Mike Singletary's first game as interim coach, in 2008. His sin: committing a retaliatory personal foul that Singletary deemed a display of selfishness.

"I told him he would do a better job for us to take a shower and watch the game on the sidelines rather than take the field," an angry Singletary said that day.

"I want winners."

The calling-out could not have been more humiliating for Davis; millions viewed the game on TV and millions more watched the subsequent wrap-up programs. Davis's career in San Francisco seemed doomed.

Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker, was the new sheriff in town, and Davis appeared to have been singled out as an example to bring other players in line.

Only one of the 2008 combatants remains, and it is Davis; Singletary was fired following the 2010 season. By then, the pair had reconciled, the player having recognised that the coach was practicing an extreme version of tough love.

"I actually learnt a lot from coach Singletary," said Davis, who claims to have been unduly influenced by me-first players such as the former 49er Terrell Owens. "I learnt so much from him, and not just about football, but about life, about team, being a part of a team."

Davis also overcame a distaste for what he considered a demanding offence, and one year after the most public of repudiations enjoyed a breakout season as the 49ers went 8-8.

That was no cause for celebration anywhere other than San Francisco, which had been beaten down by seven consecutive losing seasons. When the team backtracked to 6-10 in 2010, Singletary was dismissed.

Davis even came to miss him. Jim Harbaugh, the new coach, commissioned a run-first offence, in part to protect the limited quarterback Alex Smith. The change curbed the amount of passes aimed at Davis, a 2006 first-round draft pick.

"It's not about me," said Davis, who still reeled in 67 passes on Harbaugh's watch.

"Everyone is waiting for me to complain this year about the opportunities, but I started telling myself that this game is bigger than you."

In the game against the Saints last Sunday, Davis already had a half-dozen receptions for 166 yards when the 49ers lined up at the New Orleans 14-yard line, trailing by three points with 14 seconds remaining.

Harbaugh signed off on a play dubbed "Vernon post", which had entered the playbook only three days earlier.

"History was going through my mind. It was us against history," said Davis, suggesting that his idea of 49ers history is limited to the past decade rather than their high times as five-time champions in the 1980s and 1990s.

Yet Davis maintained he was aware of The Catch. San Francisco history lovers still reminisce over Dwight Clark's classic touchdown reception in the 1981 NFC Championship game that made possible the first of their five Super Bowl victories. Thirty years later, it remains the franchise's signature moment.

Of more recent vintage was The Catch II, an Owens touchdown in a 1999 wild-card game that rescued the 49ers.

Before his starring role in The Catch III, or The Grab, as some fans have subsequently labelled it, Davis said he told himself, "Vernon, you have to step up. The team needs you."

The Grab so overwhelmed him that he broke into tears. If there should be no crying in football, well, Davis is no typical football player.

A studio-art major at the University of Maryland, Davis owns an interior-design firm and operates a foundation that provides financial aid for art students. The charity also offers housing for troubled women.

On the lighter side, he served as honorary captain of the US curling team at the 2010 Winter Olympics. His gruff old coach might cringe at the notion of a player so overcome by joy that he is reduced to blubbering.

But Davis' productivity and sense of team has been so striking since his career nadir that it might even bring a tear to Mike Singletary's eye.