Once upon a time, Vernon Davis was a young man who went by the nickname “Little Duke” growing up in the inner city of Washington, D.C. He could have ended up committing crimes or hanging out on the streets, but he credits his grandmother, Adaline, with teaching him the importance of respecting his elders, setting goals, and staying humble. While most of his friends were getting into trouble, Davis was bulking up in the small gym at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. By the time he started playing football for the University of Maryland Terrapins, he was a mountain of muscle, standing 6-foot-3 and weighing more than 250 pounds. “Little” was dropped from the tight end’s nickname, and Davis was simply called “The Duke.” In 2006, his hours in the gym paid off when his name was called sixth in the NFL draft, and he signed a five-year, $23-million contract with the San Francisco 49ers. But Davis’ proudest moment came last fall when his son, Jianni Lenon, was born. Not much else could come close to topping that emotional high, except perhaps for leading the 49ers to Super Bowl XLII next year.
1. Other than family, who were the most influential people in your life when you were growing up? Why? My teammates. They taught me how to adapt to adverse situations.
2. Who in your family were you closest to? Why? My grandma. I was close to my grandma not only because she basically raised my siblings and me, but also because she has been a friend and confidant while I was in high school and college.
3. When you were a child, what did you imagine your adult life would be like? I imagined myself playing in the NBA. But then when I got in the 10th grade, I started getting scholarship offers. I decided to play football and focus on that.
4. What was your first pet? Do you remember any funny stories about that pet? My first pet was an iguana. His name was Marlo. I named him Marlo because a cartoon I watched as a child had a character with that name. When I got him, it was the first name that came to mind. I remember once Marlo managed to escape from his tank in the basement. My aunt happened to be downstairs and noticed Marlo was not in his tank. She yelled and asked where he was. Then I heard her scream at the top of her lungs. Marlo was somehow hanging from the ceiling, and the sight scared her.
5. What was your favorite thing to do as a child? Ride my bike in the rain.
6. What was your most embarrassing moment in high school? I spilled mustard all over my clothes.
7. Were you voted “Most likely to…” do anything in high school? “Most likely to succeed.”
8. How did you stay out of trouble while other kids in your neighborhood were hanging out on the streets? I stayed away from the kids that were getting into trouble in my community. I did that by playing football, playing basketball, and running track—just doing things to keep myself active.
9. What was your first job, and how did you obtain it? I was a security aide for an elementary school in my neighborhood called Clark Elementary. The one thing I thought was funny about the job was that I was a security aide just to help out, but they gave me a flashlight for some reason—perhaps as my only protection or weapon.
10. What did you do with your first paycheck? I bought the hottest tennis shoes out at the time: a pair of red, black, and white Air Jordans.
11. Did you have a favorite outfit while growing up that, looking back on it now, you really regret? My favorite jersey—a Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant No. 8 jersey. I thought it was cool and unique because my number was at the bottom of the jersey, but I guess the manufacturer made it incorrectly.
12. Who was your first celebrity crush? Janet Jackson. I had a poster from her Control album. The title track still happens to be my favorite Janet Jackson song.
13. Who was your favorite superhero? Which of his or her characteristics did you most admire? Superman, because he could fly.
14. If you had a super power, what would it be? To run as fast as a horse.
15. Who knows you the best? My grandma.
16. Who makes you laugh the hardest? My son. This may sound crazy, but my son is always trying to look mean and make hard faces at people including me for no reason. Then just as he is trying to give you the hardest look, he will all of a sudden give this great big smile and have a happy face. It just cracks me up.
17. What is the most amazing place you’ve ever been? The Dominican Republic. It has all-inclusive resorts, gorgeous beaches, and interesting culture and people. I especially liked the people on the small motorbikes driving around on the streets going nowhere but always riding around looking cool. The most memorable thing there was going snorkeling in the beautiful ocean. That was amazing.
18. Where would you like to visit, if you could go anywhere in the world? Italy. As an art studio major during college, I studied a lot about the Renaissance period, which took place in Italy, and I just fell in love with the artwork. Michelangelo is my favorite artist.
19. Is there anything you have always wanted to do, but haven’t done yet? I want to go skydiving.
20. Which celebrity do you most identify with? Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams. Everyone thinks we look alike, and people get us confused when they see us out. When we call each other, we laugh about the people who always say they saw us in some city when it was the other person they saw.
21. What music is on your iPod now? Tha Carter III and T.I. vs. T.I.P. I get energized by listening to music; just sitting by myself and envisioning myself making plays. That gives me a drive so when I go out on the field I’m already energized and ready to go.
22. What was your favorite TV show while growing up? Martin. I’ve watched Martin Lawrence for so long. I just went to Best Buy and bought all of his DVDs. I enjoy watching comedy.
23. Describe the perfect day. What would you be doing? Where would you go? I would wake up in the morning and work out for two hours—not three hours. I would get some lunch. On my way home, I would stop by the spa and get a pedicure, manicure, and massage. I would get home, walk my dogs, and grab another snack—because I eat a lot. I would call up some of my teammates and go to the mall and grab some things wherever we may end up. After that, I would come back to the house, take a shower, grab some more food, and go to bed.
24. Describe your idea of heaven on earth? Living in a mansion directly on the beach with 10 cars and being married with kids.
25. When do you think you will get married? Ten years from now. That’s a big step.
26. What is your favorite restaurant? Morton’s, The Steakhouse. I am a big guy, so I love the porterhouse steak, especially with garlic mashed potatoes or a baked potato with some veggies.
27. If you could give your 15-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be? I would tell myself to keep working hard; stay out of trouble because it can hurt you in the long run; don’t be a follower, be a leader; and just work harder than anyone else year-round, year in and year out.
28. Who has been your greatest mentor? [Teammate] Brian Jennings. He taught me a lot ever since I got there. He taught me how to be a professional athlete in the NFL, especially in my position.
29. What other players in the NFL do you look up to? Shawn Mervin of the San Diego Chargers. He is a linebacker I played with in college. I look up to him because I know him, and I know the things that he did to get to where he is today. He is a hard worker just like myself. He always wants to be on top. It’s a good thing to try to be above everyone else.
30. What sacrifices have you made for your sport? Every season, I just try to work harder than other guys around me. I want to make myself better and keep that edge.
31. Over the course of your career what is the most difficult situation that you’ve experienced? Getting injured. I got injured my first year [a broken leg] and had a little injury my second year [a sprained ligament in his right knee]. It was the most difficult part of my career because I’d never been injured. It was a learning experience.
32. What has been the biggest personal obstacle you’ve faced? Not having my mother and father around. I was pretty much just raised by my grandparents.
33. What do you aspire to accomplish in your job in the next 10 years? I would expect to go into the Hall of Fame for my play on the field.
34. What is your greatest wish for your son? To be better than me at everything and to achieve more.
35. What is your greatest fear? Losing someone I am very close to.
36. What do you hope to be remembered for? My hard work and dedication.
37. Have you had any crazy experiences with fans? I have a lot of fans. Wherever I might be, I’ll run across someone who knows who I am. They run up to me saying, “Vernon, Vernon, Vernon, I’m a big 49ers fan.” I like that. I enjoy that. One of the things that shocked me happened last year when I was coming out of the mall, and this guy ran around the corner. He was running really fast, and he came right up to me and said, “You’re Vernon Davis. Can I have a hug?” I didn’t know what to say because I’d never run into anything like that where another guy wanted a hug from me. I gave the guy a one-handed hug around the back, and he said, “You just made my day.” That was probably one of the proudest moments of my life. To hear someone say that I made their day was just great.
38. What would people be most surprised to discover about you? That I am an artist and that I paint. When I tell people that I paint, they get all amazed.
39. When did you become interested in art? During my sophomore year of college. I had never done anything dealing with art in high school or junior high school. It kind of came out of nowhere. I had an academic counselor, and she saw me taking some lessons in college and told me, “Vernon, you’re pretty good at this. Maybe you should change your major or take more classes.” So I said, “I’ll think about it.” Before you know it, I changed my major, and art has been one of the things I’ve been doing regularly.”
40. Any other hidden talents? I play a little basketball once in a while. But I got strong, so I can’t really shoot like I used to. But I like to play table tennis a lot.
There is much more to learn about this tough tight end in this behind-the-scenes glimpse into Davis’ life on and off the field. Watch the Video »