Click photo to enlarge
San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis reacts as he watches the U.S. men's curling game against France at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Friday, Feb. 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
More Olympics news

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Don't ask me how this stuff happens, why some things get hot and hip, while others don't. But so far, there have been two breakout hits of these Olympics.

The first would be those red mittens with the 2010 Vancouver logo, which give every spectator here hands that look like Minnie Mouse. They have become the "it" souvenir of the games.

And the second breakout hit? Curling.

In that regard, I would have to say that 49ers tight end Vernon Davis has jumped aboard the bandwagon at precisely the right time.

Davis showed up Friday afternoon as an honorary captain for the U.S. men's team and afterward proclaimed: "It's a lot more exciting in person than on television — I felt like I was at a 49er home game."

Well, let's not get carried away. However, in terms of pure electric curling atmosphere, I don't think it gets much better than this. Canada is a huge curling nation. So out here in the pleasantly residential Queen Elizabeth Park neighborhood, scalpers stand on street corners as sellout crowds of 5,600 file into the Vancouver Olympic Centre for every set of matches.

Considering that curling isn't one of those Olympic sports where anyone flies into the air upside down or does triple axels, that's pretty amazing. You do know about curling, right? It's a variation of shuffleboard on ice, only with much more sliding and sweeping action and far more bagpipes.


Advertisement

That's right. Bagpipes. Owing to the sport's Scottish roots, every curling match here at the Olympics begins with a parade of pipers in kilts, followed by the teams marching toward their rocks and brooms.

They bring cowbells and their lungs and go especially wild for their home team. The big Canadian star, balding 43-year-old Kevin Martin, allegedly makes middle-aged women swoon.

Apparently, up here, chicks dig the guys with the brooms. Is that true?

"I think we do OK for ourselves," said Jason Smith, who made some big shots for Team USA on Friday.

"I think chicks dig the guys who are winning," said Chris Plys, another U.S. team member who is just 22 years old, has fashionably droopy hair and wears diamond ear studs.

Go figure. Curling, the new hipster sport. Perhaps the 49ers' Davis is onto something. He flew in here Friday morning and met with the U.S. team to give it a pep talk before a match against France. The Americans went out and promptly won their first match of the Olympics.

"It's kind of amazing to have him here," Smith said. "It's really nice to have his support."

It's also kind of an odd partnership. But it's legitimate. Davis caught the curling bug thanks to a club based in San Jose, with a big prompt from Janie McCauley, a Bay Area reporter for the Associated Press. Knowing she would be covering the sport here, she asked Davis his opinion about how athletes in other sports might do throwing a rock.

Davis took the question seriously. He decided to find out the answer by visiting the local curling group at the Sharks' practice rink. He was immediately smitten. He also saw the game was no piece of cake. McCauley wrote a story about it. The United States curling federation saw the piece and asked Davis if he would film a public service television advertisement for the sport.

Sure, Davis said. The curling federation then invited Davis to attend the games. But he paid his own way here. He paid for his own hotel room. He seemed genuinely enthused during the three-hour-long match.

Of course, inside the curling venue, Davis easily stood out. He was the only large black man with a Mohawk haircut inside the building. One fan mistook him for U.S. speedskater Shani Davis and asked to pose for a picture with him.

"That was funny," he said. "But I really enjoyed myself. I respect the time and energy they put into this. You really have to use a lot of strategy in this game."

Halfway through the match, just in case anyone doubted his Winter Games sincerity, Davis even donned a goofy knit ski hat with braid-like extensions that gave him a quasi-Heidi look. He shot a fist in the air when the U.S. team made a good shot. He stomped his feet to try and rattle France's curlers on their important plays.

And when the American team closed out a 4-3 victory, Davis stood and made a touchdown sign.

"The guys were very focused, trying to make things happen," Davis said. "And they did. They made things happen. I'm proud of them, proud of the way they did it. You know I'm still learning about this. I'm explaining it to my friends — and I really don't know what I'm explaining."

The American curlers don't seem to mind. Did they plan on taking Davis out to party Friday night?

"Absolutely not," said team member John Shuster. "We have a morning game tomorrow."

Since the entire U.S. team is from Minnesota, it would seem to make more sense for a Vikings player to climb on their bandwagon. But as Shuster said: "I'm never going to complain about a Pro Bowl tight end coming out to support us."

Davis promised to be there this morning, as well, and hoped to see some other Olympic events.

"I'm not sure," he said. "I'm leaving Sunday."

"Not if we keep winning, you're not," said Smith.

It's all pretty crazy — the wild noise in the arena, people pounding their feet, NFL stars in the house. But surely, given that curlers are often practicing their sport off in the corners of rinks with figure skaters twirling, they are used to performing with bigger distractions.

"Yeah, sure," said Shuster, then reconsidered: "Well, no."

He had better adjust. This could become curling's golden decade.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5092.