WASHINGTON, D.C. -- If there is one powerful lesson that has shaped San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis as a professional football player, it is this: Don't be like Terrell Owens.
It's an easy thing to say now that Owens, a former All-Pro wide receiver, is broke and battling to find another job in the NFL. It was a much harder choice to make when Davis came into the league in 2005.
"I used to look up to T.O.," Davis said. "I used to think that being successful meant behaving just like him."
Davis isn't the first player to make the mistake of thinking the stars who command the most attention define NFL success. He's just in a perfect position to highlight what can happen when a young man finally sees the light. Today, Davis seeks post-career advice from Magic Johnson, talks openly about building an interior design business and offers support to aspiring artists. He's proving that the real benefit of being a pro athlete is having the ability to impact the lives of countless others.
Davis is more than a star on a 49ers offense that should be as improved as any in the league with additions such as running back Brandon Jacobs and receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. He's become an unquestioned leader within that franchise. He proved as much with a huge postseason that brought the 49ers to within one win of the Super Bowl. He'll be looking to do even more now that San Francisco has rediscovered what it's like to be a championship contender.
Unfortunately for Davis, he didn't come about his enlightenment so easily. He had to gain it through trial and error, by using instincts instead of insights. When the 49ers made him a first-round draft pick, he envisioned a career that might end with him leaving a sizable footprint on the world of pro football. He wanted exactly what T.O. had in his prime -- the power to make everybody watch what he was doing.
We now know what T.O.'s endless appetite for attention did for his late-career job security. He'd still be working in the NFL today if he'd been a model citizen over his 15 seasons. Even at age 38, it's hard to say there are 32 teams with two starting receivers who are better than him. As destructive as he was, his talent and his conditioning were never in doubt.
But T.O. is in dire straits today and that's something Davis wisely can't dismiss. Davis started his career as a selfish player, a talented athlete concerned more with looking the part of a star instead of earning his way to success. It's not that he was a bad guy. It's that he was a misguided young man, one who didn't understand everything that went into being a pro.
When Davis looked at T.O. back then, he saw the money and the fame, the swagger and the success. T.O. didn't take anything from anybody, which made him even more appealing to some young people. Rebels always seem most appealing to those who are trying to form their own identities. They act as if real self-fulfillment comes down to a little bit of talent and a whole lot of nerve.
What Davis eventually learned is that it's not so hip to model yourself after a persona. It's more vital to discover who you really are. Davis gives former 49ers head coach Mike Singletary the credit for properly adjusting his attitude -- by banishing Davis to the locker room during a 2008 game against Seattle -- but Davis might not have embraced that message without an example like T.O. The more Owens' career spiraled downward, the more Davis saw what a bad mindset could do for a player.
Davis knew he wanted to be leader. He simply didn't know how to lead. He wanted to say and do the right things. He just didn't have the stage to make his presence known. What last season showed him is that players really don't have to try so hard to influence the world. They only have to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way. After that, everything else takes care of itself.
When Davis traveled around his hometown of Washington, D.C. for an E:60 story this summer, it was hard to think he didn't understand that. Hundreds of local kids turned out for his summer camp at a local high school, a project he started with his younger brother, Miami Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis. The Davis siblings never had such options when they were growing up. They felt it was critical to show the younger generation a little bit about football and even more about achieving goals.
Davis' offseason also included a trip to the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, a fundraiser in San Francisco to support local artists and thoughts about how he'll design a new wing for his alma mater, Dunbar High School.
"I'm always looking for ways to improve," Davis said. "I never want to just be satisfied with where I'm at."
There was a time when Davis would make such comments and it would sound like typical athlete-speak. In those days, he wanted to look the part, to impress people with his grandiose visions. Davis has learned that people respond most to actions. They remember you not for your success, but what you did with it.
In that sense, Davis should be grateful that there was a T.O. in the first place. Davis saw how quickly the world shut out his former idol once Owens was down on his luck. The kind of attention T.O. sought only lasts as long as a player can manipulate the spotlight. The kind that Davis quietly has earned will have a much longer shelf life.