Is Vernon Davis the NFL's best-ever athlete? Check the numbers


6'3" 253 4.38
Just so we're clear: this is a story about numbers. Maybe looking at the photo to the right is enough For you. Maybe that physique, massive and defined As it is, is all you need to see to be convinced that What you're looking at is truly a freak of nature. But for others, merely what the eye can see is not Nearly enough. Those guys holding the stopwatches At the nfl combine, all those coaches and scouts, The men who will be signing checks for millions of Dollars, they need numbers. Numbers are measurable, They're objective, they're tangible. Numbers don't lie.

Go ahead, look at each number individually. Six feet, three inches. Tall. Two hundred and fifty-three pounds. Big. Four percent bodyfat. Lean. But look what happens when you stack the numbers on top of each other. The 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds: faster than any 6'3", 253- pound tight end should ever think about running. A 480-pound bench press: much more than anyone who runs a sub-4.4 40 should be lifting. A 42-inch vertical leap: way higher than a 253-pounder should be jumping from a standstill.

And look what happens when you attribute all these numbers to one man: more numbers. Eighty-three catches for 1,371 yards in three seasons at the University of Maryland. Sixth overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers (even the team that drafted him is a number!). Twenty catches for 265 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie tight end in only 10 games because of an injury.

Take all these numbers, add them together, try to wrap your head around them and one answer emerges, dreadlocks, tattoos and all: Vernon Davis, No. 85.

Other than the dreadlocks, the first thing University of Maryland head strength coach Dwight Galt noticed about the lean 6'3", 220-pound 16-yearold was how small the number on the stopwatch was. The other coaches had just timed the sophomore from Washington, D.C.'s Dunbar High School in the 40-yard dash at Maryland's annual high school summer football camp in 2001. But that number, it was just too small for a kid this big: 4.45 seconds.

"That's not right," Galt said to himself. "No way this guy can be that fast."

Ten minutes later, the 16-year-old lined up to run the 40 again. This time Galt clocked the kid himself: 4.42. "And that was my very first introduction to Vernon Davis," Galt says six years later.

Maryland loved the kid right away. He immediately skyrocketed to the top of their recruiting list. What wasn't to love? In ninth and 10th grade, when his friends were staying out late at night, hanging out on the streets, Davis was busy working out in a gym the size of a classroom at Dunbar. "When I got to high school," Davis says, "I kind of treated it like college."

Here's another number, an even smaller one than that 4.42: zero. That's how many of Davis' parents were around as he was recording 20-some sacks his sophomore season at defensive end and "catching it over everybody" (his words) as a tight end, and running a 10.7-second 100-meter dash and high-jumping 6'5" on the track team, in addition to playing basketball. He was adopted at the age of 2 and, along with his six younger siblings (two brothers and four sisters), was raised by his grandmother Adaline Davis, as neither of his biological parents were deemed fit to raise children. "The thing that motivated me in sports was the simple fact that I didn't have my mom around and I didn't really have my dad around much either," Davis says. "I was just a little upset that they weren't around, and I used that as a tool to push me and make me do my very best."

All through high school, Davis kept lifting weights, getting bigger and stronger, and an interesting thing happened: He kept getting faster, too. "When I was 210 pounds, I was running faster than everybody on the track," Davis says. "And when I left high school, I was about 227 pounds and I was faster. And then I got up to 245, 250, and I got faster again. It just kept getting crazy."

You must excuse Davis. He's jumping ahead a bit. In the midst of all this getting bigger and faster craziness, he chose to attend the University of Maryland on a football scholarship, entering as one of the nation's top high school recruits of the class of 2003.

Now, one thing about Maryland coaches is that they're into numbers, too. Coach Galt loves numbers, as most strength coaches do. He even puts them on the wall of the weight room for everyone to see, a board full of numbers that signify weightlifting records for each position on the football team. Six different ones: bench press, squat, power clean (all one-rep max lifts), 40-yard dash time, vertical leap and, lastly, the strength index, a formula that combines the bench, squat and clean and factors in the player's bodyweight to determine pound-for-pound the strongest player on the team.

It's a really prestigious thing to make it up there on that wall. If you're lucky, by your junior or senior year you might just break one or two of those lifting records, just like Craig Fitzgerald did his senior year as a tight end in 1996. That 405-pound bench press up there, that belonged to Fitzgerald. At least it did for eight glorious years, until March 2004, the spring testing period. Davis had been in the program all of eight months. The previous fall, at the beginning of his freshman season, he benched 335. Not bad, but not 405, either. So Fitz, then an assistant strength coach at his alma mater (he's currently the head strength coach at Harvard), bet Davis he couldn't break his record. Davis won the bet with a 425-pound bench, then jumped 11 feet in the air and removed Fitz's name from the board.

Wait, did we forget to tell you? This is a story about stories, too. Everyone has one about Davis. Coach Galt has a bunch of them. Like the one about how Davis not only broke Fitz's bench press record that testing period, but all five others, too. A 585-pound squat, a 355- pound power clean, 4.44 seconds in the 40 and a 38-inch vertical at a bodyweight of 242 pounds. His strength index was the highest on the team, earning him the title of "Iron Terp" (short for Terrapins, Maryland's mascot). Davis owned every tight end record as a true freshman.

As a sophomore, Davis broke all six of the records he'd set the year before. Then, as a junior, he broke all of his records again, with a 460-pound bench, 685-pound squat, 355-pound clean, 4.41 40-yard dash and a 40-inch vertical leap at 256 pounds. His strength index was now 824. That's what happens when you lift 48 weeks out of the year and focus on heavy core lifts like Coach Galt preaches.

"Just to give you some background," Galt says, "a strength index of 600 or above is very elite in our program; if I can get a guy to 600 I'm doing pretty good. Then there's maybe five or six guys in a given year who get 700, and that's really the cream of the crop. Most of these guys are excellent football players, and a lot of them go to the NFL. But 800 is just the true freaks of nature. Vernon is one of only six guys in the history of our program to have an index over 800. Most of those guys are smaller, real compact guys who are getting a high strength index because they have less bodyweight. For Vernon to do that at 256 pounds is pretty phenomenal."

Davis wasn't just a number, though. He was a leader. He led on the field, cracking the starting lineup as a sophomore and hauling in 27 receptions for 441 yards and a team-leading three touchdown catches. Elevating his game even further his junior year, he had 51 receptions, 871 yards and six touchdowns, and earned first-team All-America honors.

Davis led in the gym, too. When he was working out, he pretty much kept to himself, but sometimes he'd get excited, like when he was getting ready to attempt a big lift — whether it was 405 pounds for six reps on bench, 355 for three on cleans or 525 for 10 reps on squats. It was quite a scene: chalk all over his face, dreadlocks flying everywhere, 40 or so football players gathering around to watch the feat of strength. The once-noisy weight room was now quietly anticipating one set. The once-quiet kid was now the loudest guy in the gym, yelling, screaming, whatever he had to do to hype the place up. "As a strength coach, I'm always trying to set an atmosphere," Galt says, "and any time I had Vernon's lifting group in here I felt like, 'Okay, I've got an ace up my sleeve now. I'm gonna have a good workout here.'"

Here's another number: 28. That's the number of months Davis had been in the football program at Maryland when he declared for the NFL draft after his junior year in 2005. There was nothing more he had to prove in college. He'd put up all the numbers he could, both in the gym and on the field. Pro scouts were salivating. NFL coaches were licking their chops at the thought of having a player with the size of a linebacker and the speed and hands of a wide receiver. All they asked is that he show them just a few more numbers at the NFL combine, professional sports' ultimate numbers game, in February 2006 leading up to the draft the following April. Davis showed them, and the scouts and coaches liked what they saw: 6'3", 253 pounds, 4.45% bodyfat. He bench-pressed 225 pounds for 33 reps and ran the 40 in 4.38 seconds, both marks better than any tight end at the combine ever. He vertical-leaped 42 inches and broad-jumped 10'8" from a standstill, both bests for tight ends in 2006.

All those numbers added up to one more number: six. As in the sixth pick of the 2006 NFL draft to the San Francisco 49ers.

"Vernon adds insult to injury," Galt says. "Because not only is he the most gifted athlete we've ever had at Maryland, but he's also one of the hardestworking athletes we've ever had. You get a kid who has those kinds of gifts and he still works the way he does, you just don't see that, and that's one of the reasons you end up being the sixth pick in the draft. Vernon's really an anomaly. Most of the kids who are gifted like him don't have to put in the effort to achieve things, and he did anyway."

But sometimes numbers can be misleading. Davis' statistics his rookie year (2006) with the 49ers weren't quite up to his lofty standards: only 20 catches for 265 yards. But, hey, freaks of nature aren't immune to freak occurrences, like when Davis broke his fibula in the third game of the season against the Eagles. Fortunately, the fib is the lower leg's non-weight-bearing bone and he missed only six games, playing in the team's last seven, highlighted with a career-high 91 receiving yards against Arizona in week 16.

So forget about the numbers for a second, because this is a story about competition, too. How do you think the 49ers won those five Super Bowl trophies sitting in the glass case in the lobby of their training facility in Santa Clara, California? Even in the middle of the off-season, the 49ers never stop competing. Mondays and Tuesdays are their speed days in the gym. How much weight you can lift isn't the point — put 50%—60% of your one-rep max on the bar and see how fast you can bench press, squat or power clean it using an apparatus that electronically measures the velocity at which the bar travels. Go outside after that to the manmade speed hill designed with a 6—8-degree incline to increase leg strength and power, and consequently running speed, and see who's the fastest up the hill. Thursdays and Fridays are maximum strength days in the weight room. Before it was, How fast can you lift the weight? Now it's, How much weight can you lift?

"Our motto is this: Compete with yourself, try to set records, always try to be faster, always try to go heavier," says 49ers head strength coach Johnny Parker. "Compete with others at your position, but more important, compete with others on the team. Who's the fastest on the team? Who's the strongest? Who's the most powerful? We're not trying to reinvent the wheel here with Vernon. He's well-trained, very blessed and driven already."

But with Vernon Davis, it always comes back to numbers. If you were at the Santa Clara facility right now, you'd see a small platform on four legs 42 inches off the ground with pads stacked on top that reach up to 50 inches. One day this past off-season, Davis vertical-jumped to where he was standing atop those pads. No running start, no secret technique, just a quick "counter jump" to help propel him upward to a height unfathomable for most. That same day he did single-leg squats with 284 pounds for three reps with each leg. "He's really driven to be the best," says 49ers assistant strength and conditioning coach Duane Carlisle, "inside the weight room and outside when we're running. He comes ready to work every day. It's never good enough. He's always trying to outdo himself."

"I'm just a competitive guy," Davis says. "I always want to be the best. I can't stand to see someone doing better than me. You gotta have that drive. That's how you get better. If a guy in front of me has a better bench press than me, I'm gonna work harder to beat that. It all starts in the weight room. That's where you become explosive, strong and powerful. If you look at a guy who's dedicated in the gym, on the field you can see it — he's dragging people and breaking tackles and things like that. It all comes from the weight room."

Just a few more numbers left: 815. 10,060. 62. These belong to Shannon Sharpe. Receptions, yards and touchdowns in a 14- year career played mostly with the Denver Broncos. The best a tight end has ever managed. He was big and strong and fast, too, probably even put up some pretty nice numbers in the weight room. But isn't it funny how much bigger those first two numbers are than any achieved in the gym? The big numbers, that's what Davis is after next.

"My motivation now is to pass the guys who were here before me," Davis says, "guys like Shannon Sharpe and [former 49ers wide receiver] Jerry Rice. I think back to when I was young and I was watching them and modeling my game after theirs, and I just want to be the one to surpass them. I use them as a goal. Those guys are already up there, and I'm just trying to get there and pass them." M&F