There is a reason why a great cornerback is an extremely valuable commodity in the NFL. Modern football is as close to a pure team sport as you can find. On every snap, 11 men from different backgrounds and upbringings must act in concert to execute the called play. If one player fails on an assignment, the play can break down quickly. Trust breaks down even more quickly. And for cornerbacks, the stakes are among the highest.
It’s a lonely life on the outside of the line of scrimmage. As a cornerback, you often line up face to face with a sprinter-speed receiver, whose sole job is to humiliate you and score touchdowns. A breakdown on the offensive or defensive line may be open to interpretation by fans watching instant replay. But when a receiver gets by you and catches a long touchdown pass, there is no room for interpretation. You got toasted. Perfection is expected on every play. So the job requires not just a set of physical skills that few possess, but a mental toughness that is hard to find and even harder to develop.
“Playing cornerback, even just playing in the NFL is a constant mind game,” Vontae Davis says. “You line up against someone, and you’re looking into his eyes and he’s looking into your eyes, and it’s like, ‘OK, who is going to quit first? Who is going to say they don’t want it anymore.’ Fans don’t see it, but players do. You can see it in another player’s eyes when he doesn’t want to be out there anymore during a game.”
Last season, Davis demonstrated how badly he wanted to win on every play. He became a Pro Bowl player for the first time, helping to lead the Indianapolis Colts to the AFC Championship game. And though he always believed he had what it took to be great in the NFL, he would also be the first to admit that the road was hard, and there were a lot of exit ramps along the way—some harder to pass by than others.
Davis’ road less traveled to NFL greatness began in the Petworth section of Washington DC, a hometown where drugs and gang violence were the backdrop of childhood. Most elementary school kids around the country view a trip to Washington DC as a dream come true. To be able to walk past the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and many of our nation’s most iconic landmarks allows a child to fantasize about a bright future as a leader. For Davis, living in Washington DC somehow made a dream for a better life seem further away.
“The drugs, the guns, the gang violence, our neighborhood had it all,” Davis says. “There were a lot of bad distractions around all the time. A lot of my friends got caught up in it.” It was Vontae’s older brother Vernon, now a star tight end for the San Francisco 49ers, who helped keep Vontae on a track for growth and success.
“My mother and father really weren’t around much,” Davis says. “When Vernon was 16, I was about 12. He was the guy that made sure we were doing well in school and getting good grades and playing football. Vernon helped instill the work ethic that I needed to get better.
Vernon and Vontae have different dads, but share the same mother. When their mother encountered some issues with drugs, it was their grandmother, Adeline Davis, who took the kids in.
“My grandmother cleaned houses for a living,” Davis says. “For seven of us kids, she made sure there was food on the table. We never went hungry. It was tough on her at times. Without her, who knows where we would be right now.”
With Vernon down the road, excelling at the University of Maryland, Vontae then had a role model to emulate for football success. Even from afar, Vernon made sure that Vontae was practicing and getting his schoolwork in. After lettering in football and track, Vontae earned a scholarship to the University of Illinois, and would become a first-round draft pick for the Miami Dolphins.
By then, Vernon was well on his way to a successful career with the San Francisco 49ers. But the NFL life provided a new set of challenges that Vontae wasn’t quite ready to tackle. He struggled under heavy expectations in Miami and began to fall out of favor with the coaching staff.
“The NFL is a tough place to learn things quickly,” Vontae says. “You’re a young guy, and you’re learning how to be a pro. And Miami is a very fast place to learn. It’s a town with a lot of distractions. On top of that, the growth process is hard in football. That’s why most guys only last a few years.”
The Indianapolis Colts saw something in Vontae that the Dolphins could no longer see, particularly the Colts’ head coach, Chuck Pagano. Pagano himself was a strong safety at the University of Wyoming before becoming a coach. Pagano had been watching Vontae at a distance for years and felt that Davis still hadn’t reached his ceiling as a player. The Colts decided to trade a second round pick to the Dolphins to bring Vontae to the team and see if Pagano was right. He was.
“Sometimes, when a guy gets traded, he sees it as rejection,” Vontae says. “For me, it was a fresh start. This team really wanted me to come play for them. I still had faith in my ability. I saw it as an opportunity. I also saw it as some motivation.”
Vontae signed a four-year deal with the Colts that can bring him a lifetime of financial security. In the offseason, he married his longtime sweetheart, Megan Harpe, in a ceremony in Puerto Rico. Many of his Colts teammates came. Even Coach Pagano flew in for the wedding.
“Do you know how many guys’ coaches come to their weddings?” he asks. “Man, it never happens. It just goes to show you how fortunate I am.”
Vontae hopes to be even more fortunate this season. Most of the players from a very talented team are back to make another run at a championship. The expectations are high for the Colts this year. “They’re not any higher than our own,” he adds.
But after everything Vontae has been through in his life, he finally feels as if he can see the bigger picture. “You never know how things happen in life. You can get injured. Things can go a different way. Being traded opened my eyes to the business of the NFL. To me, life is about building relationships that will be bigger than the game. There is always going to be adversity to test you. You just have to be ready to take that test.”