Curling finds fan in Vernon Davis

SOCHI, Russia -- Sitting at my first curling match Sunday night, trying to figure out what exactly was happening on the four sheets of ice below, I turned to the die-hard to my right and humbly asked for some help.

I understood the basics of the sport but wanted to know more. Why do the competitors brush so feverishly? How do they effortlessly glide along the ice? And what about those checkered Norwegian pants?

The guru had flown halfway around the world to be here. Used a few days of vacation time, in fact, to travel from California to Russia to watch one of his favorite sports. He was far from your stereotypical curling nut. He wasn't waving a flag. Didn't have an inflatable stone on his head. And certainly wasn't holding a cold beer. He was African-American. Bald. Stood about 6-foot-4 with a chiseled 250-pound frame. In his day job he was an All-Pro tight end for the San Francisco 49ers.

"Those pants?" Vernon Davis said. "Those pants are strong. Very strong. It would be pretty cool to have some of those."

So what was one of the NFL's biggest stars doing in Sochi watching curling, of all things? Five years ago one of the 49ers beat reporters approached Davis about trying his hand at the niche sport. The reporter was going to be writing about the event at the upcoming Vancouver Games and challenged the tight end to give it a shot. Davis, who is always up for new things, went to a curling club in San Jose, grabbed a stone and brush and loved it.

He paid his own way to Vancouver to follow the sport at the 2010 Games. Afterward, he picked up a pair of brushes of his own. He visited the club in San Jose and dabbled in the sport when his free time allowed. As the Sochi Games approached, USA Curling invited him to serve as the team's unofficial captain. Here, he's not only cheering on the U.S. team and spending time with its members, he's trying to spread the word about his favorite spectator sport.

"It's just the type of person I am," Davis said. "I'm open to try new things and different things. That's just the way life is supposed to be. I find it fascinating."

Even if his friends don't always understand. Just like they struggle to grasp his passion for fine art.

"They're always like, 'Vernon, what are you doing? What are you doing with curling? You serious about that sport?'" Davis said. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm serious. Why wouldn't I be?' This is who I am. Everyone has something interesting about them and the way they operate. This is me."

Davis arrived in Sochi on Friday and given the smile on his still-jetlagged face Sunday night, he's having one heck of a time. On Saturday he watched the U.S.-Russia hockey game. "I didn't know [T.J.] Oshie before yesterday but I know him now," he said. On his strolls through Sochi and the Olympic Park, Davis said he has gotten a lot of stares. At a food court Sunday he said he was mobbed by some 30 Russians. On Friday night fans from Guatemala stopped him in the park and asked for a picture.

"They have no idea who I am," he said. "They just see a big African-American man, 6-foot-4, 250 pounds and they figure I must be somebody."

On Sunday night Davis and I watched the United States face off against Sweden. Earlier in the day, the Americans were eliminated from advancing to the semifinals following an 8-6 loss to Canada. Afterward, Davis met with U.S. skip John Shuster to get an idea of how he would approach a game that was essentially meaningless.

"I just wanted to know what was on his mind," Davis said. "I'm always open to hearing what these guys are thinking. I want to relate it to how I approach the game of football."

So Shuster told him.

"I said, 'You ever been knocked out before the last game of the season?'" Shuster said. "Which I know has been the case. I told him that you come out and play for pride, you play for your country, you play for your teammates."

With Sweden leading 3-0 in what I called the fourth inning ("It's actually an end," Davis said, "but you can call it an inning"), both teams had one stone in the circle with one throw remaining for the Americans.

"Watch this," Davis said. "They're going to hit the red stone into the yellow stone and knock it out."

He explained that they call this a peel. Or a crash. Whatever it was, when the stones all settled the U.S. was given two points.

"A safety," Davis said.

It was only the beginning of the football metaphors. The more we watched, the more Davis drew comparisons between his day job and his hobby. He told me the skip is like an offensive coordinator, trying to come up with the best play to score. He's also like a quarterback, directing his sweepers where to go. The sweepers? They're like receivers in a way. But rather than run a good route their job is to direct the stone on the perfect path.

"It's all about great execution," he said. "Just like football."

He told me about blockers, which a team sets up in front of its circle to protect stones that could potentially score points. When a Swedish stone managed to circumvent a U.S. blocker and ended up in the circle to score a point, Davis said, "Look at that. They just pulled the guard."

The more we watched, the more I noticed there was far more yelling than I expected. Not at the other team, mind you, but with the skip barking instructions to his sweepers. The Germans, playing two sheets over, were particularly boisterous.

"That's emotion," Davis said. "That's excitement about the game. I love that."

Davis said he grew up watching the Olympics and was particularly fond of gymnast Dominique Dawes and former NFL running back and bobsledder Herschel Walker. He added that he'd love to watch the team compete in Pyeongchang in 2018. When I asked if there is any chance he'd ever want to compete, he smiled.

"This sport right here, it's more about practice," he said. "Putting in that time."

And when his football days were over, would he be interested in putting in the time?

"Depends on the timing," he said. "It's possible."

And with that, it was time for Davis to leave. Not because the match was over (the U.S. would eventually lose 6-4) but because there were more interviews to do. More gospel for the NFL star to spread about this little-known sport.

"It's something that a lot of people don't know about," he said. "And I think that's pretty unique. Here I am an NFL player. There is no NFL player that promotes curling but me. And that's pretty cool. It shows I'm different and willing to open up and do something different."