NEW ORLEANS — The rant is one of those unforgettable tirades we see from time to time from exasperated coaches or frustrated players.
Mike Singletary stood at the podium after his first game as 49ers coach, promoted when the team fired Mike Nolan after a 2-5 start in 2008.
The 49ers had just lost by three touchdowns to Seattle, and Singletary had sent tight end Vernon Davis off the field during the game.
So frustrated was Singletary that he did what very few coaches do: He publicly called out one of his players. Pointing to what he called selfish behavior from Davis, Singletary said he’d rather play with 10 players and be penalized than use a player who does not put the team above himself.
“Cannot play with ’em. Cannot coach with ’em. Cannot win with ’em. Can’t do it!” Singletary declared.
Now concluding his seventh season, Davis actually credits Singletary with helping to mold him into the man he has become. He realized the error of his ways and set out to change them.
“Growing as a man, I had to go through some stuff first,” said Davis Wednesday. “I had to figure this thing out, find out who I was as a player.
“Singletary helped me channel my emotions and really find out the best route to go.
“Putting my teammates first was the best thing I could’ve done. Once I did that, things started to happen for me. I started to see the game differently. It wasn’t about me anymore. It was more about my team.
“I enjoyed it. I still do. Everything that I do, I put my teammates first. To me, that’s the mark of a true leader. That’s what I want to be. I want to be a leader and have guys continue to follow.”
Davis also acknowledged that for a long time he didn’t believe in trying to develop chemistry with quarterback Alex Smith, that he could just go out and work and things would take care of themselves.
After totaling 103 receptions in his first three seasons — decent numbers for some tight ends, but not one chosen sixth overall in 2006 — Davis seemingly got on the same page with Smith in 2009, having his best season statistically: 78 receptions for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns, tying the NFL record for a tight end set by Antonio Gates a few years earlier (and since broken by the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski).
He hasn’t replicated those numbers since then, but Davis is still looking to put the team first, and San Francisco has more options now; a more mature Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham (now injured), Randy Moss, and tight end Delanie Walker were all contributors in the passing game.
With Crabtree drawing a good deal of attention from opposing teams, Davis thought there would be more catches for him, but things didn’t work out that way.
And then came the NFC Championship game.
“They decided to drop me, take their eyes off me, which was a big mistake for them,” Davis said. “And I got open. It happened.”
Against the Falcons, he had five catches for 106 yards and a second-quarter touchdown, the 49ers’ biggest receiver in the biggest game of the year.
Davis, who celebrates his 29th birthday Thursday, is father to a 5-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter; before he left for the Super Bowl, they presented him with a bracelet that says, “Go Daddy.”
But Davis joked that his daughter likely just watched while his son completed the project.
A studio art major in college at Maryland, Davis is an active painter, saying it relaxes his mind.
“It takes me away,” he said. “When I’m stressed or I have some things I have to get off my mind, I go to the canvas and I paint.”
But it is not just a creative outlet: Davis opened Studio 85 in San Jose in December and has established the Vernon Davis Foundation for the Arts, which promotes arts education and art appreciation for at-risk youth and art-school scholarships for talented inner-city youth.
He has grown as a player, he has grown as a leader, he has grown as a man.
And it was kick-started by a Hall of Fame linebacker-turned-coach, who hit Davis with his words.
“Coach Singletary, he helped me find myself. I can’t deny it,” Davis said. “From the very first time he got here, he always told me, ‘Son, you have the tools to be great.’ But I didn’t know what he was talking about. I had to find that.
“I remember the very first time he kicked me off the field. That day, he talked to me briefly. Tears were shed. I told him, ‘I want to be traded, Coach. Let me out of here. You’re not using me. I’m not happy.’
“He said, ‘OK. I’ll find another team for you.’
“That moment, it started to click for me. I said, ‘I have to put my teammates first because if I don’t, I’m going to lose all I have. I have to focus and I have to be different.’
“I knew Coach Singletary was trying to use a disciplinary action with me. I fed into it.
“It made me a better man, a better teammate, and a better leader for my team. It helped me become the player I am today.”