Folks in the area have likely heard of Vernon Davis.
The DC native was a standout football and basketball player at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and then at the University of Maryland. In the 2006 NFL draft, he was taken sixth overall by the San Francisco 49ers, where he became the all-time franchise leader for tight ends in receptions, yards and touchdowns.
Davis has accumulated accolades in the form of Pro Bowl berths, All-Pro selections and even a Super Bowl victory. At his best, Davis was an overwhelming athlete standing 6-foot-3 and weighing about 250 lbs.
Despite his abundantly successful career on the gridiron, athletics weren’t his first love. When he was a child, his grandmother often found him with his head down, focusing on a drawing of his favorite cartoon or painting his blue jeans. Davis was – and still is – infatuated with the arts.
“I was painting Donald Duck and the Tasmanian Devil, and I didn’t understand why I was intrigued,” Davis says. “Two years ago, I found out that my biological grandfather was an artist, so now it makes sense why I did what I did.”
Though the eventual athletic stalwart found solace in art, the community he grew up in was less enthusiastic about the subject. This is why Davis dropped his creative habits when football and basketball moved to the forefront of his priority list in high school.
“Growing up in DC, it was more hip-hop culture, and in that culture, people are excited about athletics, rap and R&B,” Davis says. “Being a football and basketball player, I felt that it was tough to pursue what I wanted to pursue. I was geared more toward athletics.”
And for good reason – Davis was exceptional at football, playing everything from tight end to safety to even kick returner for Dunbar. He earned a scholarship to the University of Maryland, and majored in criminal justice before shifting his focus to studio art.
“When I got into college, I was in an environment where I thought that I was free,” he says. “I wasn’t worried about people criticizing me, and I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. When I looked around, there was freedom, and everyone was expressing themselves in the ways they wanted. I picked up on the synergy and went for it.”
On Saturdays, Davis wowed Maryland fans with fascinating catches and crushing blocks. But at school, he was learning how to hone the interest sparked when he was a child. Even though art and football don’t have much in common on the surface, Davis says there are parallels between practicing the two.
“Just being patient,” he says. “When it comes to art, there’s something about once you get going, it’s hard to stop. You really want to perfect it, whether it’s today or tomorrow. Part of it is you want everyone to be amazed and fascinated by the piece you created. Football is like that, because I want to perfect it before I leave the field, whether it be a block, route or skill.”
Though Davis is adamant that his focus is entirely on football during the season, even he succumbs to bouts of sporadic inspiration, causing him to bust out the paintbrush at a moment’s notice.
“When I go places and see something that resonates with me, I’ll take note of it either in my mind or I’ll actually write it down. I try to implement those moments in my art, and it could be anything because art comes in so many different forms.”
Davis studies studio art, and is more of a painter than anything else. However, lately he’s been dabbling in acting, including a script based on his artistic interest as a child in DC.
“It’s called Vernon Don’t Play, and it’s about a kid into art who gets picked on a lot,” he says.
While Davis was a little shy about his art as a kid, he’s making efforts to assure that children like him don’t have the same trepidations through the work of the Vernon Davis Foundation. The nonprofit’s mission revolves around promoting art education and appreciation among youth from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“I feel like art is important because it allows us to think outside of the box. It opens up your mind to different opportunities and you start thinking. Opening your mind and being better than yesterday is what art allows people to do.”
Photo: Courtesy of Vernon Davis