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Vernon Davis is ready for ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and life after the NFL

The former star tight end discusses his dancing ability, his new career as an actor and activism in sports

He’s a Super Bowl champion, a two-time Pro Bowler and, in 2009, he tied the all-time NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end in a season. Yet, for all the time Vernon Davis spent in the end zone during his 14-year NFL career, he was never known to be much of a dancer.

Is dancing a special talent that Davis kept tucked away? We’ll get a chance to see on Sept. 14 when Davis joins the contestants for the new season of Dancing with the Stars. The cast, revealed on Wednesday, will also include former NBA forward Charles Oakley, rapper Nelly and Carole Baskin from Tiger King.

Davis, who retired from the Washington Football Team earlier this year, spoke with The Undefeated about his dancing ability, his new career as an actor, the recent death of Chadwick Boseman and the role of activism in sports.

What was your reaction when you were invited to do Dancing with the Stars?

My first reaction, actually, I can’t dance. [Laughs.] I don’t know what’s about to happen. I think I’m going to fall on my face. But, no, I’m excited, overwhelmed at the same time. I’m ready for the challenge. I’m up for it. It’s gonna be quite the transition, but I think it’ll go well.

You grew up in D.C., and you played a few years with the Washington Football Team. You’re telling me you never learned to dance at all the nightspots there?

In D.C. the culture is go-go music, where you’re jumping up and down and tapping your feet, that’s about it. Ballroom dancing is a whole ’nother animal. So it’s gonna be a lot of work. But, you know, I have a background with sports and, you know it is all about preparation. You put the time and energy in, you can do anything.

How do you master ballroom dancing in such a short period of time?

Repetition, just like football repetition. That’s why I think there’s a good deal of correlation when it comes to the two. I get frustrated, sometimes I’m down on myself when I can’t get a certain move. But I keep programming myself and telling myself that with repetition and time, it’ll all work out.

Your retirement was pretty abrupt because it looks like you can still play four or five more years. Why did you walk away from the game?

I felt like it was time. I wanted to go into a different lane and I just wanted to just tap into something totally different. And whether it’s acting, whether it’s dancing, it’s a challenge. I’m up for it. And just hoping for the best.

Your retirement announcement came during a video you shot with Rob Gronkowski and James Harrison prior to the Super Bowl. Why did you go that route?

I thought it’d be fun. A great opportunity to really do something different. And it was with James Harrison and Gronkowski. I mean, you couldn’t pick a better way to retire. There was a lot of humor in it, for sure. So I just thought it was a cool way to go. Doing it right before the Super Bowl, you couldn’t pick a better moment.

Did the concussion you suffered last season play a role in your decision?

It did. The last concussion I had, I was out for five months. I had light sensitivity. And we all know, in the world of concussions, where that can lead to later. That can be really scary. So it was a big factor in me walking away.

Were there any family discussions about your future after the concussion?

Yeah. With my grandmother and my kids. I sat down with them and we had a discussion about it. When I looked at their faces, they really wanted me to make a good decision for the sake of the family, for the sake of myself. And I had to think about it.

It wasn’t easy, because after playing a game I’ve been involved in since I was a kid and now I have to make a decision to retire, it’s a difficult situation to be in. But I made it and I’m happy with the decision.

When did your interest in acting begin?

When I was in San Francisco, I enrolled in a class at the Shelton Theater of Art in downtown San Francisco. From there, I fell in love with the acting. I wanted to pursue it, but I had to take steps because, just like anyone else, if you’re playing football, you have to dedicate so much time and energy into that field. You can’t just go out there and expect to do well without putting the time in.

I just wanted to just get all that I could from the tools and techniques standpoint, because I knew that once I was done playing football, I was going to transition and go into that direction. And that’s what I did. I was true to what I wanted to do, and now I’m doing it and I’m having fun.

Is there a particular actor that you admire?

I love Sidney Poitier. I’ve always tried to emulate him. I used to watch In the Heat of the Night with my granddad religiously, that was a great show. But Sidney. Will Smith. Morgan Freeman, I would love to work alongside that guy because he’s a legend. There’s so many guys, I can keep going on and on and on.

A guy who went to college in your hometown, Chadwick Boseman, recently passed away. What was it about his acting skills that made him special?

He was the most transcending actor, ever. Just unbelievable. We all know about Chad, and the work that he’s done is going to be around for so long. The impact that he left on a lot of the young actors and actresses coming up, it’s phenomenal. To see him go is so sad. But we just have to keep him alive and just cherish everything that he left behind. He’ll always remain with us.

What are some of the acting projects you’re working on?

I had a lead role in a film called Red Winter, alongside Rockmond Dunbar. It was awesome because I watched him a lot when I was growing up. Then there’s A Message from Brianna that we just wrapped about a month ago, which is a horror film.

I booked a role on BET not too long ago with the awesome director Victoria Rowell. I played a cop in that one. So it’s just all going really well. I’m excited, but I have a lot of work to do.

Let’s shift gears back to football. Your last NFL team, the Washington Football Team, has been in the news recently. What did you think about the name change, and do you think the fans in your hometown will embrace it?

You know what, that’s a touchy subject that I’d rather not talk about. It’s just so much going on with the name change. Some people may feel this way, then you have someone on the other side who will feel another way. I don’t even want to touch it. It’s just one of those topics that’s just hard to really talk about it.

We’re in an era right now with athletes and social activism. What do you think about this shift in the ability of athletes to really be vocal about their social concerns?

I feel like everyone has a right to say what they want to say, but we just have to be smart on how we’re trying to convey that message. You know what I mean? We want to be cognizant of people. Doing the right thing, but getting the message out there the right way.

We’re athletes. We have a lot of people that are watching us. So we want to make sure that we’re saying the right thing and getting the message across in a way that everyone can relate to and understand.

Did you ever feel like you had restraints to speak out when you played?

No, I never really felt like I had restraints on what I wanted to say. I just wanted to make sure that I was saying the right thing. And that my message was coming across the right way.

Are there any athletes that you admire in terms of how they’re approaching social activism?

I’m not going to say admire, but I know LeBron James is very opinionated. He says what he wants to say and he has a huge following. He’s an advocate for so many different platforms, which is a great thing. It’s always great when an athlete can use their platform, their voice, to make a difference and make a change. I’ve always been a LeBron fan and I feel like he’s doing everything the right way.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.