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, the 49ers coach at the time.
Davis then became the focus of the coach’s now infamous “I want winners” rant after 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.
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.