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2012 Best of the Bay - Renaissance Man

Overcome with emotion after his play-off touchdown

 Davis at home

Interiors By Vernon

He paints, he cries, he scores legendary touchdowns. And for a modest fee, Vernon Davis, the 49ers’ $42.7 million tight end, will also redecorate your home.

The paisley-embossed chairs in Vernon Davis’s dining room are lollipop green, nearly the exact same shade as the walls. Against this sea of emerald shine other bright color accents—cardinal and teal uniforms popping from an oversize painting of Davis, 28, and his brother Vontae, a cornerback with the Miami Dolphins; a red glass chandelier the size and shape of a beach ball overhead—all of which Davis handpicked himself.

     “Design is kinda like painting,” says the San Francisco 49ers’ starting tight end, gesturing with his massive right arm—the same one he used to pull down one of the most dramatic touchdowns in Niners history, a play-off game-winner against the New Orleans Saints last January. “If you express your vision, there’s no way you can fail.”

     It’s an inspiring manifesto. But some more traditionalist decorators might quibble with Davis’s assessment, particularly after taking a tour of his two-story house. From the outside, the 4,500-square-foot spread seems like any other in his gated San Jose community—that is, if the Porsche isn’t parked out front and you ignore the stone lion standing guard in the doorway. Inside, Davis’s imprint is unmistakable. The tiles of his master bath are painted in 14-karat gold; spears and masks imported from the Congo and the Ivory Coast hang in the living room, as does a sports coat, designed to order and sewn entirely out of Godiva chocolate wrappers; and, carved into the base of the custom-built pool table just off the kitchen, where the more prosaic among us might have opted for a breakfast nook, sits yet another carved lion.

     As for what others might think of this alpha-baller display of design prowess, well, Davis didn’t get to where he is today by worrying about what others might think. Not his high school classmates in his run-down neighborhood in D.C., who were off roaming the streets while he woke up at sunrise each school day to run bleachers. Not his teammates at the University of Maryland, who laughed at him for choosing to major in studio art. And certainly not anyone who might question the manli- ness of his affinity for black hardwood floors and unexpected palettes in the common areas. “I’m not worried about what people have to say to me,” Davis says. “The only person who can judge me is God.”

     Number 85 is so comfortable with his passion for home decor that last winter he started a boutique design firm of his own: Modern Class Design. Cofounded with Antone Barnes, an old friend and former music executive who once worked with Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls, and Tupac Shakur, MCD is a full-service design studio that specializes in working with a clientele Davis knows extremely well: pro athletes. The company launched in December with an appropriately glamorous soiree at a Ferrari dealership in Mill Valley, and six months later, it already boasts half a dozen player clients, including Davis’s 49ers teammates Ray McDonald and Aldon Smith— as well as several strategically chosen pro bono projects, including a community center renovation in Richmond and a partnership with an arts camp in Atlanta. It is quite possibly the only interior design firm in America made by an athlete, for athletes, with an athlete’s unshakable certainty that anything—even a blazer made of chocolate wrappers—can be obtained if you want it badly enough.

     Granted, we might not be talking about any of this if it weren’t for that magnificent shoot-out in January, in which Davis finished with seven receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns, winning the game—and cementing his name in local sports lore—with the most climactic moment in recent memory. (Davis was quick to nickname the stunning play “the Grab,” a conscious reference to “the Catch,” the seminal Joe Montana–to– Dwight Clarke touchdown that sent the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 1982.) After a fourth quarter that included no fewer than four lead-changing touchdowns in as many minutes, and with less than nine seconds left in regulation, Davis caught Alex Smith’s 14-yard pass and crashed at full speed into Saints safety Roman Harper and the end zone. As if propelling his team into the NFC Championship Game (where they lost, heartbreakingly, in overtime to the eventual world champs, the New York Giants) wasn’t enough, the famously emotional Davis skipped to the sideline and fell, sobbing, into head coach Jim Harbaugh’s arms. Later, as if to remind fans just how far he’d come since his rookie days, he made sure that his first words to the press after the game were in praise not of himself but of his teammates.

     This was a far cry from the Vernon Davis of seven years ago. By most accounts, including his own, Davis had entered the league puffed up, self-centered, and fully unprepared for the ego management necessary to be a locker-room leader. After being picked sixth in the 2006 NFL draft, Davis spent almost half of his rookie year out with a fractured fibula and a good part of his second season struggling on the field and alienating fans and coaches.

     In practice and out of uniform, he didn’t fare much better—fighting with teammates, making an ill-advised investment in a casino, giving one too many interviews in which he was asked to name his all-time favorite football player and answered “Vernon Davis.” By 2009, the 49ers brass were starting to wonder if they’d bought themselves another Terrell Owens. The low point had come in October of the previous year, when then–head coach Mike Singletary benched the 24-year-old after he senselessly incurred a 15-yard penalty by snapping an opponent’s face mask. Singletary followed up that onair humiliation with a now-famous rant that was largely directed at his starting tight end.

     Where a lesser man might have either rebelled or wilted under that pressure, Davis turned it into a lesson. “When I thought about it,” he reflects today, “I knew [Singletary] was trying to help me; he saw something I didn’t. So I started listening to him.”

      Having hit all the requisite low points early on, and having recovered spectacularly from them, Davis is now well positioned to capture the respect of younger players. By extension, that means they come to him for advice: on how to deal with the demands of fame, the scrutiny of the media, and the complexities of newfound wealth. Many of MCD’s clients are in their second or third year as pro athletes, and so Davis and Barnes have carved out a niche for themselves working with young men in their early twenties who have had little or no exposure to the mysteries of floor finishes, color swatches, and managing those deceptively large early paychecks. For all his recent high-profile charity work, Davis’s most lasting contribution to society could be this: saving rookies from their own dumb selves.

     In practical terms, this translates to counseling moderation: Don’t install that stripper pole in the bedroom; don’t commission a Scarface mural for the dining room. For those who come to Davis and Barnes as clients, there’s a guarantee that the duo will deliver under budget, shop around for bargains, and drop some hard-earned wisdom to boot. “You know, it’s just you,” says Barnes, who handles the day-today operations of the firm. “Why are you gonna get a 10,000-square-foot house and then you can’t even afford to put anything in it? That’s not sexy. Not sexy at all.”

     Barnes is the person who got Davis into the interior design game, and like Davis, he didn’t come to it through traditional channels. In 2006 he was still working in the music industry, depressed by its post-Napster collapse, and looking for a change. He put all his energy into decorating his own house in D.C., blanketing its white walls with his collection of paintings.

     When Davis showed up at Barnes’s place to watch a boxing match, he was blown away by what he saw. “At first he was mad,” says Barnes of his future business partner. “He was like, ‘Dammit, I just got my house done, and I overpaid for everything!’’’

     But Davis was impressed enough to insist, four years later, that the music executive take on his baby brother, 22-year-old Vontae, newly signed by the Dolphins, as his first interior design client. Barnes suddenly found himself with a quarter-million-dollar budget and a chance, for the first time in his life, to decorate a house that wasn’t his own.

     “After I saw the job he did on Vontae’s house,” says Davis, “that’s when it hit me that this could be a business.” He kept on badgering a reluctant Barnes, and by 2011, the pair were ready to launch.

     Today, sitting placidly amid the deep white cushions of his living room sofa, Davis looks far older than his 28 years. Not physically—he is in the best condition of his life (“I’ve gotten him to start eating more healthy,” boasts Barnes, a 20-year vegan), and his face is unlined and permanently camera- ready. But despite the dimples and cheekbones, his eyes betray a distinct weariness. You can see it in early photos of Davis as a child, but even more so in the self-portrait hanging in his house, one he painted as a sophomore in college. Low on technique but high on raw passion and bold red and black brushstrokes, it captures many of the same emotions—solemnity, wariness, a buried but still burning anger—that you can see in his face today.

     Davis knows exactly where that anger came from. “Just my mom not being around,” he says, sighing and leaning back on the sofa. “Her being on drugs, my father not being around, my grandma having to raise me and six siblings, and other little things that happened along the way.”

     Those other “little things” most recently include the ordeal of watching his 19-year-old brother Michael get arrested for murder after a string of violent assaults in D.C. (The teen was declared unfit for trial and is now incarcerated in a psychiatric facility.) But the strain stretches much further back, to Davis’s earliest memories of childhood, when he became aware that his overworked grandmother was all that stood between him and his siblings and child protective services. His father, Duke—Vernon was known as Little Duke—cut grass in the neighborhood, but though they had a cordial relationship, it was really not that of a father and son. As for his mother, it was a different story. He ran into her frequently on the street when she was high on crack.

     “People would be like, ‘Vernon, is that your mom?’ And at the same time, they were the ones selling her the drugs! I caught ’em plenty of times, comin’ out of the alley with my mom behind ’em.”

     “I just kept movin’,” he remembers, shaking his head. “Didn’t say nothing.”

     It was his grandmother, Adaline Davis, who provided the young Vernon with love and stability. He slept in her bed until he was five years old and the nightmares finally started to fade, and he still calls her almost every day for advice and encouragement. One thing she told him, over and over again as he grew up, was, “You have to be a follower before you can be a leader.”

     She might have added: And you have to know whom to follow. Davis has had close relationships with all of his coaches, even Singletary, who gave him his first lesson in professional humility. Since then, he’s also looked to Barnes and Teddy Palmer, a publicist who handles all aspects of the “Vernon Davis brand,” as models of professionalism and ambition.

     But even more than those men— both successful black businessmen in their forties—or his coaches, Davis wants to model himself after Magic Johnson, the Los Angeles Laker turned entrepreneur who is now listed as one of the 20 wealthiest black men in America. Johnson is perhaps the only athlete on that list whose wealth derives more from canny investments than from endorsements, and whose dealings culminated this March in a minority ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

     The two came together for the first time in April, in a meeting arranged by Palmer. Johnson approved heartily of Davis’s business plan for MCD, and he volunteered to continue providing guidance to the young player. “He helped me see that there is more out there after football,” says Davis. “There’s more out there, but you have to plan.”

     And where does he see MCD in 10 years? “I should probably be getting ready to sell it. Build it up and then sell it. Go on to the next thing.”

     “That’s what Magic said,” he adds. “When I asked him, ‘What happens after the Dodgers?’ he said, ‘Move on to the next thing.’”

     Launching MCD is the most visible way in which Davis is taking the Magic approach to life after football. But it’s just the start. He recently introduced Barack Obama at a local fundraiser and, in addition to MCD’s pro bono work, he’s been appearing periodically in public to paint murals with schoolchildren. Through all of this Davis has gradually reinvented himself as a prototypical Bay Area celebrity—a mix of star power, physical talent, and social conscience all wrapped up in one telegenic 250-pound package. He came here as a volatile and arrogant young man, but his legacy is more likely to be that of a team leader, a role model, and a savvy businessman with a clear vision for his post-gridiron future. Say what you want about his taste in wall colors or curtain fabric; the best argument for his latest venture is the success of his earlier, headier project: the redesign of Vernon Davis.