A year ago, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis was ordered off the field for being a knucklehead. Thursday, he was awarded the team's highest honor.
Davis won the Len Eshmont Award, following in the footsteps of players such as Bryant Young, Jerry Rice and Y.A. Tittle.
Since 1957, the award has gone annually to the player "who best exemplifies the inspirational and courageous play," according to the 49ers. The Eshmont, voted on by the players, headlined the list of award announcements Thursday.
All of the team's winners will be honored Sunday at Candlestick Park when the 49ers face the Detroit Lions.
Last season, Davis seemed more likely to win an Emmy than an award for leadership. The tempestuous tight end was known for his practice fights and impulsive behavior. But he changed his approach under disciplined head coach Mike Singletary, who demanded that Davis grow up. In the most memorable dust-up, Singletary banished Davis to the sideline after he drew a senseless personal foul penalty against the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 26, 2008.
The transformation looks complete. Davis credits his coach for making him a new man.
"He's always getting on me for everything,'' he said earlier this season. "But I think Singletary is always right. That's why I trust him. I'm just grateful that I have somebody around to push me."
Davis still has his fair share of dropped passes, but he has impressed the staff and teammates by remaining on the field long after the final whistle to work on his hands. He catches balls shot from a machine — hundreds a day at times, even after grueling practices.
The payoff has been astonishing.
On the verge of being labeled a highly drafted bust, Davis shares the NFL lead this season with 11 touchdown receptions.
He needs three more over the final two games to break the NFL single-season mark for touchdowns by a tight end. Antonio Gates holds the current mark with 13 in 2004.
"It would be an awesome goal to end the season with," Davis said. "I didn't expect to have this many TDs."
With one more touchdown, Davis would join the four other NFL tight ends to score 12 in a season: Mike Ditka (1961), Jerry Smith (1967), Todd Christensen (1983) and Wesley Walls (1999).
Davis also has a shot at becoming the first 49ers tight end with a 1,000-yard receiving season. He needs 142 more yards.
"No, I'm not surprised," offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye said, noting that his system has always been tight-end friendly. "When we expanded our offense and unlocked the box, it gave him more opportunities in the passing game. He's been very productive in the red area."
These were the 49ers' other team award winners announced Thursday:
The Bill Walsh Award (voted by coaches): Linebacker Patrick Willis. Established in 2004, this award annually honors the team MVP. Willis has the unofficial NFL lead with 138 tackles and also has four sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.
Bobb McKittrick Award (voted by offensive linemen): Guard David Baas. Named for the 49ers longtime offensive line coach, the award goes to the lineman who "best represents the courage, intensity and sacrifice" displayed by McKittrick. Baas started every game at left guard this season and improved dramatically as the season went along.
Hazeltine Iron Man Award: Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Former linebacker/center Matt Hazeltine died in 1987 from ALS, and Walsh established this award in his honor that goes annually to the team's "most courageous and inspirational defensive player." A Pro Bowl candidate, Franklin has been a major part of a defensive line that holds opponents to 3.7 yards per carry (third in the NFL).
Thomas Herrion Memorial Award (voted by coaches): Fullback Brit Miller. The hard-nosed fullback who worked his way up from the practice squad won the award presented "to a rookie or first-year player who best represents the dream of Thomas Herrion."
Ten-Year Wall additions: Long snapper Brian Jennings and linebacker Jeff Ulbrich will be honored as players who have contributed at least a decade of service to the 49ers franchise.