49ers’ Vernon Davis gets a broom and goes curling
November 24, 2009
SAN JOSE – Vernon Davis stepped onto the ice and started moonwalking, fully confident he could conquer the sport of curling – or at the least be respectable. He is an NFL star, after all.
Then, the San Francisco 49ers tight end watched as Brian Zaitz glided down his lane of ice holding a lunge position and released a 42 1/2-pound granite stone with precision and touch, something that comes with years of curling at a high level.
“Whooo, that’s work right there. You guys really got to be strong,” cracked Davis, known for his exceptional athleticism. “I don’t see how you can get into this right here. I couldn’t do it.”
Or could he?
Davis was recruited to help answer that very question: Can just anybody step on the ice and give curling a whirl?
Those like Zaitz, who once got as far as the 1997 Olympic trials, say you bet. Zaitz, his fellow members of the San Francisco Bay Area Curling Club and others around the country are determined to bring more interest to their sport and capitalize on having the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
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“I’m strong and athletic. I should be able to throw it pretty good,” Davis said.
In an Olympic year, curling and other obscure winter sports come out of the shadows – momentum curling is counting on with these Olympics very much visible for U.S. viewers.
Some of the world’s best curlers are in Canada. There are about 1 million Canadian curlers, to about 15,000 in the U.S. Tickets for the 5,000-seat Olympic curling venue in Vancouver will be nearly as tough to come by as those for the country’s No. 1 pastime: hockey.
The Canadians are already gearing up for the Olympic trials next month in Edmonton and there’s hype throughout the country.
Davis knew little about curling before agreeing to give it a go under Zaitz’s guidance. Davis had heard of it and that’s all, but he did a little research beforehand on the sport widely believed to be born in the 16th century on the frozen lakes of Scotland.
It’s a combination of chess, darts and shuffleboard, but performed on ice with moving human beings. The objective is to slide the stone down a 146-foot sheet of ice and into the scoring circle while avoiding being bumped by an opponents’ throw.
Teammates vigorously sweep the path to create a layer of moisture for the moving stone.
“No, it’s not just a rock. … It’s 42 pounds of polished granite, with a beveled underbelly and a handle a human being can hold. And it may have no practical purpose in and of itself, but it is a repository of human possibility and if it’s handled just right it will exact a kind of poetry …” – Paul Gross in “Men with Brooms,” the 2002 Canadian curling comedy he wrote and directed.
Davis is about as pure an athlete as they come, blessed with size, speed and good hands. The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder is an NFL standout at all of 25.
“We’ll make good use of those legs,” said Stacey MacNeil, another of his coaches for the night.
Davis picked out his stone and was surprised by its weight.
“I hope they have some lighter ones,” he said, smiling at Zaitz. A few minutes later, Davis propped the broom on his shoulder as he listened to the rules.
Davis took a try at sweeping, too. He had to get the full experience.
Zaitz also explained the procedure of pebbling, or spraying droplets of water on the ice that allow the stone to travel two to three times farther.
“Is that cheating?” Davis said with a grin.
“No, it’s what we do,” Zaitz said.
“This is probably one of the craziest things I’ve ever done,” Davis said. “I thought snowboarding was crazy. This is even crazier.”
Davis was the perfect person for the assignment, which took place this month at Sharks Ice, the practice facility of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. Fortunately, he came prepared in extra layers for the chilly conditions.
“Goodness gracious,” Davis said. “I had no idea it would be this cold.”
A self-taught tumbler in elementary school, he once had far more interest in performing backflips than playing football or basketball.
Now, he likes to take a stab at any sport.
“You never know what you can do till you try it,” he said. “I’m a hybrid athlete. I think I can do anything. … But I’m a football player. Maybe I’ll fall 1,000 times.”
Nope. Davis stayed on his feet all evening.
From the moment he arrived, Zaitz and former Canadian curler Barry Ivy instructed Davis to keep his hands out of his pockets – where they had been – so he’d be ready in case of a fall on the ice.
Davis acknowledged he once slipped on ice during his college days at Maryland, and the last thing the curlers wanted was to be answering to 49ers coach Mike Singletary the next morning if Davis did it again.
Davis also prepped himself.
“Keep your balance. Stay under control. Take your time. Don’t be scared,” he told himself. “I always wanted to go out and put on some ice skates but I was always scared I would mess myself up.”
After learning the rocking motion of his delivery, Davis released a couple of stones and quickly caught on.
“Right on, man, you got it,” Ivy cheered.
“It’s really fun, man,” Davis replied.
He raised an arm in celebration for a good throw.
MacNeil raised her eyebrows, impressed.
On this night, Davis heard such foreign phrases as hog line, bury it, on the button and nose on – a big change from his football terms of seam, curl and out route.
“He’s picking it up real quick,” said Zaitz, a 40-year-old Minnesotan who came to California in 1997.
In the United States, curling is most popular in the Midwest.
“It’s just like anything, like golf, you may never play it to become a top player in the world, but it’s a game that’s rewarding and fun with great social aspect to it and a great tradition,” said Canadian Olympic hopeful Blake MacDonald. “Afterward, the thought is to go upstairs and have a beer. I think it’s a great game to pick up. Anyone can do it.”
Davis definitely held his own for a first-timer. Zaitz points to fellow club member Gabrielle Coleman as an example. She competed in the U.S. trials in February and has been curling for only about three years after becoming interested during the 2006 Turin Games.
The Bay Area club has more than doubled in size to about 100 members since the last Winter Olympics. The club even has a deaf curler, Karen Officer.
“With the next Olympics in Pacific time, we really think it’s going to boom,” Zaitz said.
Davis might help spread the word. The night before his curling outing he tweeted his fans about it. The next day, he got a massage, relaxed and went to the rink. He also sent out two more tweets:
“Headed to the ice to try curling I’m so excited. I’m nervous because of all the cameras goin to be watching and I might look silly lol.”
Davis had such a blast he lost track of time, until 49ers colleague Lisa Goodwin pointed out it was nearly 10:30 p.m. and he had football practice the next morning. He thanked Zaitz and MacNeil and promised he’d be back.
“I didn’t think it would be this much fun,” he said.