Vernon Davis on Football, Acting, and Life Beyond the Gridiron

Vernon Davis is no longer just a retired NFL tight end. Now he’s an actor, a producer, an entrepreneur, and more. Davis tells all in a sprawling interview.

Vernon Davis never dreamed he would grow up to be an NFL player.

It’s not that Vernon didn’t dream big enough.

No, Davis did dream big. It’s just that 8-year-old Vernon dreamed he would one day star in another sport: the NBA.

And honestly, who could blame him?

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The kid from Washington, D.C., grew up doing a bit of everything. In high school, Davis lettered in football, basketball, and track and field. He was a high jump champion (6-foot-6!) and ran the 100 meters in 10.7 flat. Davis played tight end, safety, linebacker, wide receiver, and defensive end on the football team. He even returned four kicks for touchdowns in his spare time — and Davis was high school teammates with Josh Cribbs, who went on to tie an NFL record with eight kickoffs returned for a TD.

But basketball was always his first dream.

Davis is too young to have grown up watching D.C. legends Elgin Baylor and Adrian Dantley ball out, but in another timeline, he might’ve starred in the NBA next to other D.C.-area stars like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Victor Oladipo, and Michael Beasley.

Growing up, Vernon had a Vince Carter poster hanging on his wall. Like the rest of us, he was enamored by the Half Man Half Amazing dunk show. Davis would sneak out of the house and hit the basketball court to work on his game. He played head-to-head against Durant and Pat Ewing Jr.

Basketball was Vernon’s passion. If you wonder how that alternate NBA universe might have played out, Davis says he’s an athletic four all day. And when you close your eyes and picture Davis hurdling over another linebacker and beating a cornerback to the end zone, the story checks out.

Instead, Davis ended up following the footsteps of another former hooper: Tony Gonzalez.

Gonzalez played both football and basketball at the University of California before going on to a Hall of Fame NFL career at tight end. Antonio Gates and Jimmy Graham played college basketball, too. Davis didn’t play in college, but it turns out hyper-athletic basketball players make pretty good NFL tight ends.

There was little question Davis made the right career choice when he had one of the most memorable Combines in NFL history. Davis measured 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, with 32-inch arms. He ran the 40 in an absurd 4.39 seconds, still a Combine record for tight ends. He benched 33 reps at 225 pounds and ran the shuttle in 4.17 seconds. Davis’s vertical measured 42 inches, and his broad jump was nearly 11 feet. He hit every mark.

There’s a reason everyone’s been talking about Davis lately in reference to new Atlanta Falcons tight end, Kyle Pitts. It’s because there’s really no other tight end prospect elite enough to compare Pitts to.

Every one of those Davis measurements above rated in the 99th percentile among all tight ends ever measured at the NFL Combine. Translation: Vernon Davis was a freak, once-in-a-generation type athlete.

It’s no wonder Vernon grew up with Vince Carter on his wall. He probably dunked like him, too.

Vernon Davis actor.


Vernon grew up in a small house with six siblings and his grandparents, not far from Washington, D.C. His younger brother Vontae would go on to a 10-year NFL career of his own as a cornerback. Vernon claims he was the faster Davis, of course.

As a kid, Vernon was called Little Duke. His dad was nicknamed Duke after John Wayne, so the name was passed down.

In college, Davis played against Duke instead. He stayed local at the University of Maryland and played Terrapins football, and sure enough, his best college game ever came against his namesake. In his first conference game as a sophomore, Davis caught four balls for 101 yards against the rival Blue Devils. He took three of them to the house.

Davis was drafted sixth overall by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2006 NFL Draft. He was the highest tight end ever drafted in the modern football era until Kyle Pitts passed him a couple weeks ago at № 4 — but Pitts didn’t quite catch him in the 40.

Still, Davis doesn’t like to rank himself in the world of tight ends. He knows he can’t do what Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez did, just like they couldn’t match what he could do on the field. Every great tight end is different. For Vernon, it was always about his speed. He knew he could run right by anyone unlucky enough to be stuck trying to defend him.

Athletes like Davis, Gates, and Gonzo have opened up the field and changed the game. These days, NFL teams are drafting speedy linebackers just to defend tight ends, so now the best tight ends are splitting out wide to beat corners instead. San Francisco’s newest star tight end is George Kittle, another monster.

Tight end is no longer an afterthought. Thanks to players like Davis paving the way, today’s best tight ends are central to the game plan on both sides of the ball. An elite modern tight end is a cheat code. Any team can have a speedy receiver, a power back, or an extra blocker, but a stud tight end is all of that at once. He can deliver a crushing block on one play, make a key third down catch in traffic the next, then split out wide and burn the corner deep for a touchdown.

Davis ended up playing in two Super Bowls, one with San Francisco and the other with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. He talked about the crazy lead-up to the games, trying desperately to stay focused amidst all the distractions and trouble waiting just around the corner.

Winning that Broncos Super Bowl was the absolute peak for Vernon.

“That’s what we play for,” says Davis. “The only reason why you play this game is to make it to the Super Bowl… Nothing can really compare to winning the Super Bowl.”

As for which game stands out most? That one’s easy: the Catch III.

It came against the New Orleans Saints, and it was Davis’s first playoff game. He caught a 49-yard touchdown from Alex Smith in the first quarter as the 49ers jumped out to a 17–0 lead, but the Saints battled all the way back and took a 32–29 lead on a late TD by tight end Jimmy Graham, another former college basketball player.

The Niners started the next drive on their own 15, playing for their season. They picked up 18 yards on three plays but still needed at least 30 more for a tying field goal, and there were only 40 seconds left.

That’s when Davis took over.

He beat Malcolm Jenkins on a slant over the middle and raced 47 yards down field before finally getting pushed out of bounds, and suddenly the 49ers were in business. But now just 20 yards from pay dirt, Vernon wasn’t thinking about tying the game anymore. The 49ers gained six more yards, then spiked the ball with 20 seconds remaining.

And then… The Catch.

Smith dropped back as Davis broke for the endzone, fired one over the middle, and hit his tight end at the goal line. A Saints safety arrived at the exact same moment as the ball and crunched Davis as the ball hit his hands, but it didn’t matter. He held on for the winning TD and joined 49ers “The Catch” lore along with Dwight Clark and Terrell Owens.

That’s the game Vernon will remember for the rest of his life. It’s the winning shot he always dreamed of hitting when he was a kid. He remembers crying tears of joy and getting picked up and celebrated by his teammates as the crowd went wild around him.

That was the moment Davis had been waiting for.

Still, when I asked Vernon how he wants people to remember him as a football player, it’s not his Super Bowl ring or The Catch that comes to mind.


That’s how Davis wants to be remembered. As a humble player, a leader, who was all about winning. For Davis, humility is everything.


Davis isn’t playing football anymore these days, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find him on your TV screen.

That’s because Davis is an actor and a movie star now.

He did his first movie back in 2010, and he’s filmed five movies in the past year, with more to come soon. He’ll star next to Bruce Willis in 2022’s A Day to Die, and he played a bouncer in another Willis film, Gasoline Alley. He also acted in The Chariot, a sci-fi comedy starring John Malkovich, and in Red Winter, an action thriller set in the Colorado Rockies.

Drama, science fiction, comedy, action, thriller… just like in his football career, the versatile Davis is playing all over the field.

In many ways, Vernon says, acting is a lot like football. He has three acting coaches who help him, and just like in football, you have to prepare and get right before you go out and perform. He says it’s also important to make a good impression on your acting teammates. You want everyone else to say they enjoy working with you, just like in a football locker room.

Davis lists Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Paula Patton, and Halle Berry on his acting bucket list. And if you think that’s ambitious, you should hear his other goal — Davis wants to appear in 400 films. Gotta set the bar high so you have something to reach for, after all.

Vernon’s dream role is to someday play someone who is paralyzed. Lots of work, but plenty of guts and inspiration. Sounds like an Oscar-nominee role to me.

Bruce Willis and Vernon Davis
Vernon Davis on set of his new movie with Bruce Willis.

Davis majored in studio art at Maryland, but he fell in love with this new type of art in San Francisco when he took a class at the Shelton Theater of Arts. He’s founded multiple production companies and talks about starting an acting studio for athletes someday.

Maybe he and Peyton Manning will even make their own pizza line, he joked.

Davis does television, too. He’ll appear in six episodes of Urban Movie Channel’s “The Rich & the Ruthless” Season 4, and last week, he hosted the reunion show for MTV’s “The Challenge” Season 36.

Davis is a huge Challenge fan. He’s loved C.T. for years and enjoyed seeing fellow pro athlete Lolo Jones compete this season, and he thinks Fessy is an up-and-coming Challenge star. As for for which Kam hits harder, Kam Chancellor or Killa Kam? No hesitation on that one. Vernon still remembers that crushing hit by Chancellor like it was yesterday.

Still, Davis knows he can’t complain. He wakes up every morning feeling good. He took great care of his body, never had surgery, never had any severe football injuries. He knows he’s one of the lucky ones.

Maybe Davis will compete on “The Challenge” himself someday.

It feels like nothing is off the table for this football renaissance man.

Besides football, acting, and producing, Davis is also interested in real estate and investments. He practically glows about a sustainable coffee company called Riff that produces cold brew coffee but also uses the otherwise discarded coffee fruit to create a delicious energy drink rather than letting the toxic waste pollute the environment. He’s invested in companies like Pathwater and Fandex Sports too.

Vernon’s hunger for his next project is voracious and his passion is never-ending. His motivation today is the same as it’s always been: to be better today than he was yesterday. It’s the same mantra that’s motivated him throughout football, acting, or anything else in life.

“If you’re gonna be your best self, you gotta push yourself,” says Davis.

With the way Davis constantly pushes himself, you never really know where he’ll end up next. After all, basketball wasn’t the only other sport Vernon Davis considered.

Believe it or not, Davis also did some curling back in the day. Yes, curling… The one with the ice and the sweeping and the 44-pound stones.

Davis doesn’t like scrubbing, though — it’s too much work. He prefers to throw the stone. Curling is a strategic game, and Davis likes to set the tone, like he does everywhere else in life.

Despite his background in football, basketball, sprinting, and jumping, Davis thinks if he’d have been an Olympic athlete, it might have been in curling. Curling!!

And as much success as Vernon Davis has had everywhere else in life, it’s hard to imagine him not making it work.

Davis even claims he could’ve won the gold in Olympic curling.

You heard it here first.

Brandon Anderson
Brandon Anderson
Brandon Anderson is a senior writer and editor for Grandstand Central. As a lifelong Vikings and Cubs fan, he is perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. Brandon is the grandmaster czar of sports at Medium and you can find his thoughts on NBA, NFL, other non-hockey sports, and pop culture on Twitter.


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