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.
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