Cliff Avril has been defined this season, maybe his best season, by his charity work in Haiti. But his reconnection with Haiti after more than a decade away from the island is rooted in the death of his father. The cycle of life and death made Avril consider history.
Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril called 911, but he lasted only a few seconds before he “fell out” and someone else had to take the phone. His father was slumped in the car parked in the driveway of Avril’s Charlotte home, unresponsive and cold.
A weekend Avril looked forward to every year — his family hosted an annual party over Memorial Day weekend — had become a nightmare.
Avril and his wife, Tia, had even planned a special twist for the 2015 party: They were going to learn the gender of their second child.
Some family members arrived Thursday night, but most reached Avril’s home on Friday. The last car to arrive was the one carrying Avril’s dad, Jean Samuel, who couldn’t leave Jacksonville until he got off work.
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Avril didn’t know his father as well as he wanted. His parents divorced when he was younger. His father was always involved, but he was also always working, and then Avril got swamped with football and college and the NFL. Avril’s parents emigrated from Haiti in the ’80s, but unlike his summer trips with his mom growing up, he never went to Haiti with his dad.
One of Avril’s cousins pulled the car into the driveway after the six-hour drive. Avril’s phone rang: his cousin.
“He was like, ‘Hey, come out here and help me. Your dad’s not responding,’ ” Avril recalled.
Avril thought his cousin was pulling a prank, so he told him to wake his dad and get in the house.
“Then he came inside and I saw his face and was like, ‘Oh (shoot),’ ” Avril said.
Avril rushed outside and saw his father in the passenger seat. He looked like he was asleep, which is what his cousin assumed during the drive. Avril called 911.
“I still can envision when I ran out there and where they laid him down to give him CPR,” he said. “Nothing.”
The next day, a Saturday, Avril and his family learned they were having their second boy. On Sunday, Avril started making arrangements for his father’s funeral and autopsy (his father died from a heart attack in his sleep).
Avril has been defined this season, maybe his best season, by his charity work in Haiti. He rebuilt and opened an elementary school and has pledged to build a home for every sack he gets this year. He needs just one more sack to tie his career high of 11. But his reconnection with Haiti after more than a decade away from the island is rooted in that Memorial Day weekend.
The cycle of life and death, of one life suddenly ending and another about to begin, made Avril consider history — what gets lost and what continues on.
“I didn’t really know my dad as much as I should have,” he said. “Just his background, my grandparents on his side, where he’s from. I want my kids to know me. I want my kids to know where I’m from. I want them to go back to the islands, to appreciate where their grandma and grandfather came from.”
But first he had to learn about the place himself. “The older you get,” he said, “the more intrigued you get with where it started.”
Avril loves flying over Haiti. The colorful houses, the rooftops, the beaches and curves along Haiti’s coast. When he was younger he used to look at a map, then look out the window of the plane, then look at the map again and wonder how they made it look the same.
It had been almost 15 years since the 30-year-old Avril had been back, but when he flew to Haiti with his mom and Marshawn Lynch last April, he felt the same excitement he felt as a kid.
“It’s always good to see people take pride in their country,” said Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, Avril’s closest friend on the team, “and he’s doing a good job of it.”
On his trips to Haiti growing up, Avril played basketball and soccer with his cousins but never football. He didn’t start playing football until high school. Now he plans on running a football camp on the island every year, and the strangeness of how much his life has changed in between isn’t lost on him.
The older he got, the harder it became to go back. He kept pushing forward — toward a scholarship in college, an NFL career now in its ninth season, a new contract and the creation of his own family.
Haiti became something in his past.
He always wanted a yard. Front or back, it didn’t matter, just as long as it was his.
His family only lived in apartments, and as much as he made it his goal to buy a house, he also wanted a yard of his own.
Even now, after signing contracts totaling more than $40 million during his nine-year NFL career, there are times he pulls into his driveway, past the yard and into the garage, and thinks it’s cool.
“I never understood why people got so mad when someone drove through their yard — until I had my own,” he said. “Now I see why. This means something.” He laughs and shakes his head. “One, you paid for it. But two, I never had one growing up.”
His dad painted sewer trucks for 25 years. His mom worked two and three jobs, including weekends: housekeeping, dish washing, packing crab meat.
“I could go the whole day without seeing her,” Avril said. “I remember she started teaching me how to cook. At night I knew she’d be getting in at 10 o’clock so I’d try to prepare a Haitian dish. I’d probably butcher the heck out of it, but I was trying because I knew she was at work all day.”
He remembers when their apartment building installed air conditioners in every apartment, those clunky units that hung outside of windows.
“My mom thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he said. “We’d have it blasting, and she’d be like: ‘You need to sit in the house. We have AC now.’ ”
His first three years in the NFL while playing for the Lions, Avril returned to Jacksonville in the offseason and lived with his mom. Same room, same apartment.
His brother recently sent him a picture. One side of the picture was that apartment building in Jacksonville; the other was his offseason house in Charlotte.
“Who would have ever thought you came from this to that?” his brother wrote.
“You might think this is BS,” Avril said, “but I kid you not: During the offseason in Charlotte, every day for probably the first month or two, I wake up and thank God that I’m fortunate enough to be here, at that moment, which is rolling out of bed. Every morning I get up and thank God because I know what some of my cousins and other family members are going through or went through, and I’m blessed to have AC. I’m blessed to have food.
“I roll out of bed, brush my teeth, have running water and have something to eat. When I sit back and think about my cousins and what my mom and them went through, how can you not be grateful?”
He didn’t always feel this way about Haiti. Even as recently as two years ago, Avril talked about Haiti from a distance, as if it was a place he had visited and not a layer in his story.
“Growing up,” he said, “Americans kind of made me feel like I was an outsider, like I was different because I spoke another language or because I looked like a Haitian, whatever that means.”
But the birth of his two sons, Xavier and Xander, and the death of his dad created a curiosity he is still sorting through.
“Once you start doing funeral arrangements and looking back on his life and what he meant,” Avril said, “you start realizing and valuing different things.”
Never one for history, he started listening to podcasts about Haiti’s culture and past. He bought shirts with the Haitian flag. He had a special medallion made with the Haitian flag on it, and he wants to buy a beach house in Haiti.
“My wife has been looking at me kind of sideways like, ‘What’s all this stuff you’re buying?’ ” Avril said. “I’m just happy to support and be a part of this culture that I feel like I’ve been neglecting for my whole life.”
His oldest son, Xavier, takes French classes and can speak bits and pieces of Creole. It thrills Avril’s mom when she calls and Xavier can say a few words in Creole, the language Avril spoke at home. Just two years ago he said he wanted to expose his only son at the time to Creole as a way of broadening his perspective. Now he wants both his sons to be fluent.
“That was the biggest thing: making my mom and my dad happy and to show them that wasn’t going to get lost,” he said. “And then it became more than that, like, I NEED them to know this. That’s who daddy is. That’s part of who daddy is. They need to have a part of that in them as well.”
Soon, he wants to take his sons to Haiti. They’re both too young right now. They couldn’t handle the long stretches without bathrooms, and they wouldn’t get what the place means.
“How do you do that with a 5-year-old?” he said.
But it’s important they feel a connection with the place and the people. That they understand their father’s time as a professional football player actually started here, before he was born, on an island he loved, then neglected, then rediscovered in full.
|Cliff Avril file|
|Defensive end, in 9th NFL season.|