With a record-setting day and the winning touchdown in his playoff debut, Vernon Davis left no doubt he is indeed a winner.
A weeping Davis fell into the arms of coach Jim Harbaugh, who repeated over and over: “You did it! You did it! You did it!’’
It’s been more than three years since the young, volatile tight end got booted from the sideline and sent to the locker room early by coach Mike Singletary. Davis then became the focus of Singletary’s now infamous, “I want winners’’ rant following a 34-13 loss to Seattle.
These days, Davis is playing for a new coach, and playing for a Super Bowl berth. The 49ers have him - and quarterback Alex Smith, of course - to thank for getting them to tomorrow’s NFC Championship game against the visiting Giants.
“He’s a different man,’’ running back Frank Gore said. “He grew up.’’
Davis capped his spectacular game last Saturday with a leaping 14-yard touchdown catch under pressure with nine seconds remaining as San Francisco stunned Drew Brees and the Saints, 36-32.
“Little Duke,’’ as he was known growing up - his Dad, Vernon, was “Big Duke’’ - had done it on the NFL’s big stage at last. Davis wound up with seven catches for 180 yards - the most yards receiving by a tight end in a playoff game.
As Davis cried on the bench in an emotion-filled moment afterward, teammate Michael Crabtree approached with a one-word compliment: “Superman!’’
This is the same player who not so long ago was known for scuffling in practice and trash-talking opponents at every chance. Defenders would purposely try to bait him.
“He’s so much better about not getting kind of emotionally hijacked,’’ Smith said yesterday.
Before the start of the 2010 season, Davis let Crabtree have it in front of the entire team. He angrily confronted Crabtree, the 10th overall draft pick in 2009, during a practice and Singletary had to step between them before the three of them headed to the locker room to chat. Davis said later he was doing his job as a team captain - a title Singletary gave him after watching the tight end grow up before his eyes.
Davis, who will turn 28 on Jan. 31, didn’t always agree with the coach.
After that Seahawks game in October 2008, Singletary fumed: “I would rather play with 10 people and just get penalized all the way until we have to do something else rather than play with 11 . . . It is more about them than it is about the team. Cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them. Can’t do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win.’’
Davis looks back on that moment now with appreciation and realizes its importance in where he is today. He grew from that experience, changed his attitude, - and he appreciates Singletary for calling him out. Davis insists that’s what it took for him to get back on track.
“He was here at the right time,’’ Davis said. “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.’’
Harbaugh doesn’t care to discuss Davis’s past, or even recount the stories from those early days.
“The only Vernon Davis that I know is the team guy, is the study-hard guy, smart guy, willing to do whatever he needs to do for the team,’’ Harbaugh said. “Put his own statistics, his own accolades aside for the betterment of the team. That’s the only one that I know.’’
Davis is still the emotional player who cried on draft day nearly six years ago when the 49ers picked him sixth overall out of Maryland. The difference is Davis has found a way to better channel his excitement.
It hasn’t been an easy road to get to the point where he embraced being a leader.
“It was difficult. It started when coach Mike Singletary was here. He sent me to the locker room. From that point on, 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. “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. 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.’’
It worked. Davis’s performance on the field changed, too.
When Davis signed a five-year extension a day before the 2010 opener, he became the highest-paid tight end in NFL history. His $37 million deal with $23 million guaranteed was $3 million more in guaranteed money that Antonio Gates.
Davis had earned the hefty raise after a 2009 season in which he led the 49ers with 78 catches for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns. Davis made his first Pro Bowl in 2009 and tied for the league lead in touchdown catches.
“Vernon has certainly changed the way he was thinking,’’ linebacker Patrick Willis said. “He’s turned out to be the player we’ve always envisioned him being. I hope he continues to do that.’’
Jake Ballard’s right knee is bothering him a bit. Not enough, though, to keep him out of a game this big.
The Giants’ tight end was listed as questionable after having a “little procedure’’ on his right knee Thursday night and sitting out practice.
“I’m not concerned,’’ said Ballard, who experienced some swelling. “I just saw the doctor a little bit last night and they performed the procedure. I’ll be ready to go.’’
Travis Beckum said he’d be ready to start if Ballard can’t, but doesn’t anticipate that. In fact, Beckum made light of the procedure, trading his shoulder pads for a scalpel.
“I diagnosed him with a torn ACL, but he’ll be back,’’ Beckum said. “I gave him some stuff and he’ll be back tomorrow.’’
Ummm, Travis, what was your major in college? “Street pharmacy,’’ Beckum said with a smile. “I used a butter knife. He has really thin skin.’’
For the record, Beckum majored in human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin.
“Yeah, it was emergency surgery last night,’’ Ballard said, smiling. “If I was missing a leg, that’s probably what it would take to keep me off the field.’’