SANTA CLARA, Calif. — 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 Mike Singletary. Davis then became the focus of the coach's now infamous "I want winners" rant following a 34-13 loss to Seattle.
"I was looking at him like he's crazy," Davis recalled this week. "How could you send your first-round draft pick to the locker room? I understood, I understood the reason why, because I was hurting the team. Penalties and missed assignments, things like that. It will kill the team."
These days, Davis is playing for a new coach, and playing for a Super Bowl berth. The 49ers (14-3) have him — and quarterback Alex Smith, of course — to thank for getting them to Sunday's NFC championship game against the New York Giants (11-7) at Candlestick Park.
"He's a different man," running back Frank Gore said. "He grew up."
Davis capped his spectacular afternoon last Saturday with a leaping 14-yard touchdown catch under pressure with 9 seconds remaining as San Francisco stunned Drew Brees and the favored New Orleans 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! 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 Friday.
Before the start of the 2010 season, Davis let Crabtree have it in front of the entire team.
He angrily confronted the 2009 10th overall draft pick 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 turns 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 when I know that right now that person is not sold out to be a part of this team. 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' past, or even recount the stories from those early days.
"I try to be around people to make my own antenna to come up with, 'Is he about us or is he about himself?'" Harbaugh said. "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. Put his own statistics, his own accolades aside for the betterment of the team. That's the only one that I know. The evidence is there. It's showered on him. It's been all year for us. What a great feeling, emotional feeling, for a guy that does that for your team. To have a heroic day like he had in this ball game, we don't win it without plays that Vernon Davis makes."
Still, it's understandable that when center Jonathan Goodwin saw Davis jawing with some Saints last weekend, he briefly moved to step in.
"There was one instance in the game where I pulled him away from the DBs. He said, 'Nah, I'm alright, Goody, I'm just messing with them,'" Goodwin said. "That right there shows he's definitely matured."
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' performance on the field changed, too.
When Davis signed a five-year extension with San Francisco 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, which matched Gates' NFL record for TDs by a tight end. Davis made his first Pro Bowl in 2009 and tied for the league lead in touchdown catches with Randy Moss and Larry Fitzgerald.
"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," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "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."
Harbaugh appreciates how Davis has so willingly done the little things this season that sometimes go unnoticed, becoming a reliable run blocker and publicly or privately standing up for teammates who might need a boost. Davis had 67 catches for 792 yards and six TDs during the regular season.Comment on this story
At halftime against the Saints, San Francisco ahead only 17-14 after taking an early 17-0 lead, Davis delivered a spontaneous speech.
"It's weird because I don't prepare messages," he said when asked about any plans to do the same for Sunday's game. "They just come from the heart. And at that moment, it was something that I was feeling. I went to the board and I wrote on it, 'One shot.' One shot because that's all we had. Just to get guys thinking about it. Thinking about what we have here and that's just what it is. It just comes from the heart."
And no one will question that anymore.