When you throw out a name like Vernon Davis, several images come to mind. Most of them involve the tight end catching a ball over the middle for six points, undeterred by the defense hellbent on destroying him.
There’s another image you should consider, one of Davis walking down the hall of some studio with an easel tucked under his arms. It’s not the rock trying to get ripped away by a linebacker but a means to sate an unrelenting desire to create.
Davis is finally comfortable with that image. He’s finally embracing the artist that’s spent decades trying to break free.
The 38-year-old former NFL star is a bit of a Renaissance man. He’s an athlete, actor, producer, entrepreneur and something of a curling specialist.
Meeting Davis is a refreshing experience. His is a singular outlook. When so many of us are paralyzed by fear of acceptance, Davis just does.
His mantra is a simple one. Keep at what drives you. And don’t just try, but allow your endeavor to overtake every moment of your waking consciousness. And when that’s not enough, dream about it too.
“I think success is it all boils down to, how consistent can you be with this,” he tells me via Zoom. “Are you waking up in the morning? Are you dreaming about it? Are you tossing and rolling over? And your significant other is asking you, what's wrong with you?”
As he recalls, he went through this very thing with football, scratching a beautifully interminable itch that wouldn’t go away.
Through 15 seasons, Davis made the Pro Bowl twice and garnered over 590 receptions for 63 touchdowns and 7,562 receiving yards. And, in 2016, he helped the Denver Broncos capture a Super Bowl.
Along the way, something nagged at him. His love of the arts was always there but not something he could fully commit to with the demands of the NFL.
One thing has kept him going and kept him smiling. It’s his motto. Or, rather, it’s how he views life's journey.
“I know one thing for sure is that we all should do the things that we love and enjoy and things that are fun to us,” he said. For Davis, work is about wringing out every piece of his soul in the project. His one determining factor on his next gig is, “This is something that brings joy to your heart and soul.”
He’s a former superstar NFL player. An artist. An actor and producer. He’s also an ambassador for U.S. curling, someone who isn‘t out of his element in gliding down the ice as he screams for a teammate’s vigorous brushstrokes as the stone moves ever closer to shot rock territory.
Davis often finds himself like a kid discovering a new playground just around the corner, with endless possibilities for unyielding joy.
He had parts in shows like “The League” and “Inside Amy Schumer” before he retired from the NFL in 2019.
Since putting the cleats away, he has poured himself into his work, featuring in “A Day to Die” alongside Bruce Willis; playing David Reece in the John Malkovich movie “Chariot” coming out this Friday; and playing the villain in “Muti,” a film that also stars Morgan Freeman.
Acting alongside a legend like Freeman reinforced what Davis believed to be the secret to success.
“It was a great experience, especially working with Morgan Freeman, because he's such an inspiration,” Davis said of filming the George Gallo (“Bad Boys”) helmed film.
“I mean, everything that he stands for, he's 80-something years old, and yet he's the first guy on set and the last one to leave, because he wants to have a debate with the director about a specific scene. And I thought that was really phenomenal, man. Very inspiring to see him like that, so passionate about the craft.”
Adding to his growing list of accolades is producing “A Message from Brianna,” a movie that debuted at the American Black Film Festival.
It marked another avenue for Davis to stretch his comfort zone a bit and really discover the intricacies of the industry, peel things back and see how films are made throughout the process.
It doesn’t stop there, because he also shines on a bevy of shows such as “Dancing with the Stars, “Front Office,” “Cooking with the Stars” and “Domino Masters.”
It’s the latter that he credits with illustrating with stark clarity just how demanding a show can be.
“But being on that show (“Domino Masters”), I learned something about myself,” he said. “I learned that I can go 12 and 14 hours of work if I have to; I can go six days a week.”
Poring over the extent of Davis’s growing Hollywood resume is exhausting. Yet, he seems to gain energy with each passing project.
Doing It All
The adage that we just have one life to live is personified. Davis is going to be damned sure he gives it his all while he’s here.
Stretching the bounds of his repertoire is natural for someone who very early on found himself pigeonholed, culturally put in a box that characterized him as an athlete when his interests were so much more varied than that.
For “Muti,” Davis took on the role of Randoku, a killer who takes things several steps beyond sinister, using his victims’ limbs for his own medicinal witchcraft.
It’s, well, a departure to be sure.
“I was intrigued with being that bad guy, being a serial killer,” Davis tells En Fuego. “I'm just interested in those kinds of things because it's just…I don't want to be in a box, I just want to do it all. As a kid, I always wanted to do it all, I wanted to explore and just tap into different genres.”
Back in 2013, Davis was able to enrich his life with something he always loved. A studio art major at the University of Maryland, the then San Francisco 49er purchased a San Jose space and dubbed it Gallery 85, a hat tip to his football number—two passions coming together in tangible form.
It was at that time that he enrolled at San Francisco’s Shelton Theater of Art, immersing himself as best he could in acting.
He was smitten, but he was also torn by a football career that can be remarkably demanding for someone who pours his entire soul into each endeavor.
So, a full-time career as a thespian would have to wait just a bit longer. He would dabble, prepare and crave. All the while, the notion that his career outside of football meant something more than scratching an itch.
We chat a bit about his time with curling, a sport he discovered during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and a world that has welcomed him with open arms. He has since been named the honorary captain of Team USA’s squad. And his presence on the ice helps further not just the sport as a whole but widens its mission to grow its diversity.
But it’s in the very decision to go out and commit to curling that you find the best part of Davis. It’s the idea that we are happiest when we don’t let self-doubt or preconceived notions become the greatest obstacle to our goals.
“I think it takes more people like myself being the voice for that specific genre of sports,” he explained. “And just trying it. Because a lot of times, especially (with) African-American young men or young ladies, they might be afraid because it's not cool.”
We often discard our dreams on the side of the road simply because of how it might be considered by other people. Well, the only person you need to live with every single second of the day is yourself.
The Vernon Davis Foundation’s mission is precisely “to promote art education and art appreciation among youth from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Young men and women who wouldn’t normally see the arts as a viable avenue have a place to grow their own passions. They also have a sports star turned actor who is walking the walk.
“I created (the foundation) because in school I was afraid,” Davis explained. “I couldn't walk down the hallway with an easel in my hand or canvas because people will make fun of me, right?”
Growing up, Davis never heard of Michael Jordan rocking a canvas or Magic Johnson carrying an easel around. The notion that athletes are multi-dimensional people was foreign. It wasn’t publicized. It wasn’t shown.
“So, I don't know what that looks like. To me I'm afraid. So, we need more people who have power to show African Americans and other people of color that they can do this. They don't have to be afraid because I'm doing it too.”
Davis is the kid with the easel, head held high as he saunters down the hall to create another masterpiece.
However, the easel doesn’t define him, nor does the helmet, football or SAG card. What defines him is the walk, fully confident and with an unmistakable skip of someone who realized a long time ago that happiness is something you do. You just have to find the confidence to do it.