Under Vernon Davis' pads
This is an extended interview from the 2013 ESPN The Magazine Body Issue. Subscribe to The Mag today!
How did you get started playing football?
VD: I started playing in 10th grade. Before that it was just basketball. My dream was to go to the NBA. When I got into my sophomore year, I walked into the head coach's office and he said I could try out. I got on the field and was running by everybody. The guys were amazed. I was a big kid coming in -- about 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds -- and they weren't used to seeing someone that quick that size. I lettered in track and field and basketball, but colleges started to come at me and, boom, there it was; I decided to play football.
What do you like about your body?
VD: I like my hamstrings, the musculature of my hamstrings. When I look at my hamstrings, I see speed, because that's where the fast-twitch muscles are. I like that my body represents the amount of work I'm putting in.
What is the most unusual training you've done?
VD: I started doing yoga last season. Now, I do yoga every day for an hour and a half. Yoga is not easy, especially for someone my size. It might be one of the toughest workouts I've ever done. The poses and positions are all unfamiliar and different to a lot of athletes. We just don't do those things in workouts as professional athletes. So if I do things I'm not used to, I'm going to be better off throughout my career. And it helps mentally. It keeps you focused.
What are the keys to your workout?
VD: The key component of working out, for a guy like me who is all about speed, is abdominal work. When I was running track, they stressed the importance of abdominal work because a lot of speed is generated from your core. You need your core to be tip-top; it's the foundation for everything. My favorite thing is to hold a 45-pound plate and do crunches with it. Core is also another reason I do yoga. I also do a lot of stuff to generate power in my workouts, like sled pulls, chain pulls, squats, anything that is loading and releasing. I work out three hours a day, five days a week.
What do you think of when you feel like you can't train anymore?
VD: What's your motivation? Why do you do this? Everyone must have a 'why;' there is a 'why' in everyone's mission to be successful, depending on your past or where you want to be or the goals you have. For me, this is what I love doing. I love playing football, and I love being the best at whatever I'm doing. I remind myself where I came from, where I am and where I need to go.
Do you think you're obsessed with your body?
VD: Obsessed, no, but I love my body. I think I have a great body. I'm in tune with my body. Your body is your temple -- it's a beautiful thing, man.
What's the biggest challenge you face with your body?
VD: Since my body fat is so low, I stretch like three times a day. A lot of guys can just come out and run and work out, but I have to stretch in order to run. I think I'm at like 3 percent body fat, so my body can get real tight. Before and after workouts, I'm stretching.
What is a mental weakness you fight against?
VD: Doubt. You can be the most successful person in the world, you can be on top of your game, but doubt still has its way of getting into your mind and trying to convince you to fail. For the Super Bowl, doubt came in. I started doubting my ability to catch, "Oh, I'm not going to catch this pass," "I hope he throws it this way so I can catch it easy," things like that. Little mental messages come into your mind, negative thoughts. I'll drown them out by talking to myself and keeping my confidence high. During the Super Bowl, I kept my focus on whatever came my way. If it was a pass, I focused on the ball rather than my thoughts. If it was a block, I'd focus on that individual and my technique rather than negative thoughts roaming my mind.
How does your artistic side mesh with your football career?
VD: Painting and football go hand in hand. When you're being creative, your mind works differently than other times because you're thinking outside the box. I think I block differently than everyone else because I'm thinking differently, rather than just trying to muscle people. I'm using more technique and discovering ways to dominate my opponent, to use his strength against him.
What's the worst thing your body has been through?
VD: Training camp. It's tons of work, more work than you can imagine. After seven days of working out, heading into the eighth, you're totally exhausted, and you have four more weeks to go. It's exhaustion on top of exhaustion on top of exhaustion. That's why you have to be mentally strong. Doesn't matter how physically gifted you are, you have to be mentally strong.
What about your body would surprise us?
VD: The fact that I'm 250 pounds and can run a 4.3.
How do you think you've transformed the tight end position?
VD: I think I helped people look at tight end and think, first, you don't have to be big. You don't have to be 275 pounds to play this position. You can be 240 if you master the technique. Second, tight ends have to have speed. You can't be slow. Nowadays you look at defenses, and they're putting corners and free safeties on tight ends because the linebackers and strong safeties can't cover them. They'll bring in the nickel to cover the tight end because we're too agile and quick for the other guys.
Bonus round question: How did you become honorary captain of the U.S. curling team?
VD: After I went on the ice and tried it, I had a chance to rub shoulders with some of the guys, and it was a great experience. What I like about curling is that it's all strategic. The granite stone you are pushing is about 40 pounds. They play this game through defense and offense by setting up stones so that the opposing team's stones can't get through. It's a pretty interesting game to play, and I think it's one of those games that everyone should try because you can learn a lot. It's a little like chess. A lot of strategy and thought goes into the game.