Vernon Davis and Vontae Davis have competed their whole lives, only never against each other and certainly not on a professional football field. That ends this Sunday at Candlestick Park when the 49ers host the Indianapolis Colts. All eyes will be on the Davis brothers, especially when Vontae, the cornerback, has his first opportunity to tackle his elder sibling, the tight end.
Adaline Davis strolls through a mall in her hometown of Washington D.C. At the same time, her extended family gathers some 3,000 miles away in San Francisco. The Davis family is on the West Coast to watch Adaline’s grandsons, Vernon and Vontae, compete against each other for the first time in any sport. “That I don’t like,” Adaline says in her passionate tone. “I really don’t, but I know the game. I knew the Colts and the 49ers were going to play.”
Adaline has only been to a couple of their football games, the biggest being their homecoming games in high school. She simply doesn’t want to see her boys get hurt, so she’ll refrain from watching along on Sunday. No phone calls about the game either. The 70-year-old grandmother will undoubtedly learn the final outcome, but only after the fact, when a family member will share the end result of the 49ers-Colts Week 3 matchup.
The Davis family came a long way to support its NFL stars. Both Vernon and Vontae grew up just outside our nation’s capital, in the Petworth neighborhood of D.C. Vernon, 29, was the eldest of seven raised by his maternal grandmother. Vontae, 25, was the middle child of three boys in the bunch. Vernon made sure his siblings did their homework, and he was active in leading their bible studies. Davis’ parents were not heavily involved in their children’s lives, but it never changed Vernon’s outlook on being successful.
Adaline was the rock of the family. She would even be there to pick up the Davis brothers from their football practices. “She wanted to know how they were doing, just not on the field, but in terms of being at practice on time,” says Craig Jefferies, the Davis brothers' high school football coach.
One of your babies has to lose. That’s what the 49ers tight end told his grandmother. Vernon wanted to comfort Adaline, warning her of the reality that comes with facing Vontae in an NFL game. Adaline understood the situation, but revealed her true feelings. “Win or lose, I’m still going to love you both the same,” the caring grandmother told Vernon. To which he replied, “I know that.”
When Vernon was a three-sport start at Dunbar High School in Washington D.C., the 49ers tight end was developing the work ethic needed to be a future Pro Bowler. The brothers were always in the weight room at Dunbar. “We emphasized weight training and they took it to another level,” says Jefferies, 57, now the coach at Oxon Hill High School in the suburban D.C. area. “We almost had to lock them out of the weight room from trying to get in there. A couple times, they almost got locked in the weight room.”
With this kind of work ethic, Vernon became a first-team, high school All-American, but it wasn’t by accident. He was also setting an example for his younger brother. “He was keeping me in line, he stayed on me,” says Vontae. “He made sure I was doing good in school. He made sure I was doing well when I was playing football. He was just a huge role model in my life growing up. If I didn’t have him at the time, I don’t how committed I would’ve been to football.”
A little after five in the morning, there’s repetitive sounds from the rubber bottoms of sneakers smacking against the bleachers at Dunbar. One set of footsteps lands heavier than the other. The older brother, is setting the pace but going at a rate just fast enough to keep his younger brother nearby. It’s still dark out. You can hardly see a step ahead, going up and down the bleachers. But it’s not slowing the brothers down. They’re driven. They’re focused on getting in a workout while other teenage athletes are sleeping.
Adaline’s influence is all over these workouts that started in the late 1990s. She wanted her grandchildren to be passionate about pursuing their dreams. “I tell everyone that it was really their grandma who instilled that work ethic into them,” says Jefferies. “They had respect for her and the intelligence to listen to what she was saying about doing the right things and not expecting anything to be given to you.”
So when Vernon wanted to run up and down the bleachers before school, he would wake up Vontae, a junior high student at the time, and drag him out of bed. “He was a little lazy at first,” Vernon says. “He was really passive about it. So I had to influence him and motivate him to get out and I did that. Being the older brother, I felt like it was my job. It was my role to persuade him to go out and do it.”
The Davis brothers ran those steps together not knowing it would propel them to the fame and fortune they’ve attained in the NFL. In retrospect, Vontae swears it was the best thing for him. He saw first-hand Vernon’s dedication to the game of football. “There were times where he would wake up even before he had to go to school, like two hours early,” Vontae recalls. “He would wake me up like, ‘Come on, let’s go run the bleachers before we get ready for school. He was always like that, since we were younger kids doing the extra things that other kids weren’t doing at the time.”
No, Adaline wasn’t leading cheers at football games, but she was in attendance on a pivotal day in the lives of both Vernon and Vontae – the 2006 NFL Draft. After a stellar career at the University of Maryland where he became a first-team All-American and All-ACC selection, Vernon was poised to be a top-10 draft pick. Knowing that, the Davis clan was in full force on April 29 in New York City.
Vernon’s support team sat around him at a circular table in the green room of Radio City Music Hall, waiting to find out which city Vernon would call home. Adaline sat directly to Vernon’s left as he received a call from the 49ers. He was the No. 6 overall selection. The news on the other end of the phone struck Vernon immediately. He sobbed and tried to hide his reaction by covering his tears with a white handkerchief.
After former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced the pick on live television, Vernon popped up out of his chair and gave Adaline a big hug with both of his arms. She squeezed him and patted him on the back repeatedly with her left hand. Vernon being drafted to a team on the other side of the country wasn’t a problem. “It was more about reaching your dream,” says Vontae, who was right by his brother’s side. “All the hard work paid off, doing things like the bleachers, the times where you didn’t feel like practicing and keep going, but it showed how much work he put in.”
Vernon’s emotion that day had an impact on his younger brother. “It was just touching to me,” says Vontae. “I wanted to make it that far as well. It gave me the drive to keep working hard so I could eventually hear my name called on draft day.” The draft-day moment also moved Vontae to follow his brother’s footsteps by continuing to train hard back at Dunbar. When Vontae ran sprints against teammates, he never wanted to lose, just like his brother did years prior.
While Vernon carved out his NFL career with the 49ers, Vontae starred at the University of Illinois and became a second-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2009. After three seasons in the AFC East division, Vontae was traded last season to the Colts, setting the stage for the non-conference matchup scheduled Sunday at Candlestick Park. It’s a long time in the making from the 2006 draft to now. Vernon said he thought his example would keep Vontae motivated, just like the early wakeup calls did in the past. “From that day, I knew Vontae would move forward and work as hard as he possibly could and he did that,” says the 49ers playmaker. “When he was in Illinois he worked, he put the time in. He continued to stay on the grind. If you look at where he is now, it all has to do with the time and the work that be put in to get to this point.”
Y’all boys got each other’s backs… Take care of your brother, don’t hurt him.
Vernon’s voice changes drastically as he impersonates Adaline. Sitting on a stool in front of his locker at team headquarters, Vernon’s eyes squint slightly while sitting up straight to mimic his grandmother. Vernon says her words slower and with more conviction than his own. The relationship with his grandmother is as important to him now as it ever was before.
The superstar in this Vernon-versus-Vontae equation is their grandmother. Anyone who knows the two football difference-makers will confirm that fact.
Each Davis brother credits her leadership in helping them become the men they are today. They also understand and respect her decision for staying away from their first game as opponents. “I think she’ll handle it well,” says Vernon. “She’s been talking about it for a long time. She’s been talking about it since training camp.”
The Davis brothers are likely going to hit each other at some point on Sunday. It brings their story to a whole different level. Sure, brothers have faced each other in various capacities in NFL history; some 350 sets of siblings have competed against one another in professional football. But can you recall a brother playing one side of the ball and having to tackle his sibling? Brotherly competitions in the NFL are common, just not with household names. Perhaps the most high-profile instance was in 1997, when Tiki and Ronde Barber clashed for the first of five times in their regular season careers. Although Vernon suffered a hamstring injury in San Francisco’s Week 2 defeat, it’ll be tough to imagine him sitting on Sunday. Jim Harbaugh said the 49ers tight end would be examined on Monday.
Vernon and Vontae aren’t dwelling on potential collisions. It’s just part of the game. Vontae, the fifth-year pro, takes a long pause to choose his words when asked about the thought of tackling his brother for the first time. It’s not an easy question to answer. “Yeah, I mean, it’s going to be one of those things that’s going to be hard to compete,” the Colts cornerback says. “That’s my brother. Of course I want to make it out of the game safely, but at the same time, it’s football, it’s a game we both love. It’s going to be competitive during that day.”
Vernon’s scouting report on Vontae is honest, but it’s not complete. He's been watching most of Vontae’s games on the football field since his Pop Warner career, but these days, Vernon is preoccupied with his duties for the 49ers. He’ll always watch Vontae’s games if they don’t conflict with his own, but there are times when he’s only able to track Vontae’s games through box scores and game stories.
He’s well aware of the talented cornerback he’ll face on Sunday. As for the scouting report, Vernon notes that his younger brother is known for his speed but also his willingness to play physical football. It’s very much like the book on Vernon. Vontae’s background as a wide receiver in high school also helps him play defense, Vernon said. Because the 49ers tight end is now lining up out wide more than any other time of his NFL career, the chances of the younger brother having to stop his older brother short of making a first-down increase greatly.
Vernon, however, is more concentrated on the aspect of brothers competing against each other for the first time. “It’s something I definitely don’t take for granted,” he says. “There aren’t many times in life where you get this opportunity, an opportunity to play along with your brother. It is a special thing; two brothers who achieved their goals.”
If Adaline had her way, Vernon and Vontae would be on the same team. That just isn’t the case. The brothers say they openly root for each other. Jefferies, their high school coach at Dunbar, shares the same stance. His support will be split 50-50. “If I could be there,” says the long time football coach, “I’d be on the 50-yard line with one foot on the 49ers side and the other foot on the Colts side.”
Adaline will hear about the game when it’s all said and done. She won’t be tracking the play-by-play by any means. “She’s not a sports fan so to speak, but she’s a fan of her kids,” says Jefferies, who has coaches eight NFL players. “She supports them in other ways.”
It’s more likely Adaline will walk through the shopping center this weekend and reflect on the journey of Vernon and Vontae. Her grandsons remain close and are active in supporting each other’s charitable causes, including their free football clinics in their D.C. neighborhood. They vacation together in the offseason. And, yes, they still train together. They might have moved on from the bleachers, but they’ll never forget where they came from. It’s the same way for their grandmother. “I’m so proud of them, I really am,” Adaline says. “They worked so hard growing up. It’s hard-work paying off. Getting up in the morning, doing the school work, they worked very hard… And they’re still working hard.”