To be successful, Avril, like most NFL players, is convinced he can’t worry about life after football. And yet less than a minute later, in the same breath, he admits he thinks about the end, even while acknowledging that he can’t really think about it.
Cliff Avril watched the end of the Super Bowl in February like you did, on TV, except he was in an empty locker room. His wife sat beside him, rubbing his back. The problem was with the broadcast. Because it was delayed, and because he was deep inside University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., he heard plays before he saw them.
So when Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw an interception from the 1-yard line in the final seconds, Avril heard the roar before he saw the play that cost his team a second consecutive Super Bowl. By the time Avril watched it, a few teammates were running into the locker room crying.
Avril, a defensive end, was in the locker room because he had been knocked unconscious, face down, during the third quarter and left the game with a concussion.
How long is the average NFL career?
This is a confusing number to nail down. Both the NFL Players Association and the NFL released statistics in 2011, but the numbers don’t match.
The players’ association typically uses this figure.
The NFL estimated that rookies who make the 53-man roster average nearly seven years in the league.
The 2011 NFL study also said the average first-round draft pick lasts more than nine seasons. This number has been highly disputed.
Sources: NFL, NFLPA, Business Insider
This was not new. With Detroit several years ago, he had a concussion so severe it actually scared him.
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“I freaked myself out, because I just had my son,” he said. “I was like, ‘If I was to ever have something that bad happen again, I would really consider retiring.’ How much money do you really need to live off of?”
His concussion during the Super Bowl didn’t produce the same symptoms, but when doctors told him he couldn’t go back in, he didn’t protest like he might have when he was younger.
“People ask me about the whole concussion thing, and I’m glad the docs didn’t put me back in,” Avril, 29, says. “Yes, it’s a huge game. Yes, (Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady killed once I left, and it’s unfortunate.
“But at the same time, I’m human. Just like you want to take care of your kids, I want to take care of my kids. What good does it do to make a whole bunch of money and then you’re 40 years old and don’t remember how you did it?”
He is wearing a Seahawks hat and gently pounds the table for emphasis.
“You tell me a good parent that loves their job more than their kids,” he says.
Avril is in his eighth season, which means he has played more years than he has ahead of him. This puts him in a strange position. To be successful, Avril, like most players, is convinced he can’t worry about life after football.
“Any fear of it?” he asks rhetorically. “No, because I don’t think you can play this game with fear.”
And yet less than a minute later, in the same breath, he admits he thinks about the end, even while acknowledging that he can’t really think about it.
“I think you have to be aware of it,” he says, “but you can’t be afraid of it coming.”
Growing up, having a plan
Football demands immediacy. The game is so violent that injury is inevitable, and every player knows he could be one play from retirement. The NFL by its nature operates as a chamber of tension — contracts rarely are guaranteed beyond a few years.
But there is another reality, which is so obvious it is easy to forget: Players enter the league out of college, but then they grow up. They get married. They have kids. They plan for things they rarely considered as rookies.
Avril is concerned with life after shoulder pads. He asks former players what it’s like, and most say it’s a struggle. He’s befriended wealthy mentors in Seattle to teach him about finances, and he values their expertise so much that he won’t reveal their names or occupations. He has dabbled in real estate and thinks he and his wife could flip houses some day.
At the least, he hopes to have a plan.
Family provides perspective
He learned perspective young. Both of Avril’s parents emigrated from Haiti without speaking English. His mom worked multiple jobs. His dad worked grueling hours. He spoke Creole with them.
He lived only in apartments, which is why he wanted to buy his mom a house. Having a front yard was important.
His dad, Jean Samuel, died in May. Avril made a promise to him long ago that he wouldn’t play in the NFL for more than 10 years for health reasons.
“And I plan on it,” he says. “Unless something crazy happens and they’re offering me some ridiculous amount of money.” He starts laughing. “Then he’d probably tell me to keep playing.”
Avril has two sons of his own. One was born in 2011. The other was born in October. He had the same awakening as most parents. The present became inseparable from the future.
He finished his degree from Purdue in 2012 and brought his son to the graduation ceremony. He walked with the other graduates, which was cool until he realized he was the old guy.
Finding a purpose
Avril’s blessing is his burden. He is self-aware enough to think about the ride coming to an end, but also to know that he can’t think about it too much if he wants it to keep going. This dichotomy affects his thoughts daily, and he wrestles between the two in conversation:
You guys make a lot of money, you go to cool events. Do you think some guys in the league ever take that for granted? Have you ever had moments like that?
“I try not to, for one simple reason: I know this is going to end. This roller coaster is going to end one day. Ever since I’ve been in the league, I’ve been thinking that. But I see guys taking it for granted. It’s easy to just forget reality.”
Are you always on time? That is not the case with all athletes.
“I can’t say I’m never late, but I try my hardest to try to respect other people’s time. I think sometimes — and people do this to guys — but we get put on a pedestal so we tend to forget that we’re just like the next person. Years of hearing that you’re the best, you’re this or that, subconsciously you start believing that (stuff). It’s hard for young guys to differentiate all the smoke they’re blowing … with reality.”
Do you worry about your body, your health, down the road?
“I do. I think about it all the time. That’s why I say I don’t want to play for 15 years. I want to be able to do all the things my dad wasn’t able to do. In the Haitian community, they didn’t really play sports. I had to go play basketball with my friends from the suburbs. I want to be that dad. I want to be able to go play ball with my son when I’m 40.”
Is it cool to be at this point where you’re playing for others? Early in your career you’re mostly playing for yourself, your own ego, but it seems you’re playing for something bigger.
“Yeah, but it’s a lot of pressure, too. The more you play, financially it puts you in a better position, but it’s a lot of pressure. And I don’t even tell my wife these things, but when you’re going through a slump during the season, there’s a lot of pressure because there are so many people who depend on you. You don’t want to let those people down.”
You have money. It’s a nice problem to have, trying to figure out what to do with your time, right?
“No question. People are like, ‘Why don’t you sit back and do nothing?’ Who wants to do that? You have to have a purpose. I heard this from a veteran guy: You need a purpose to wake up and get out of the house. You have to have a purpose to do something every day.”
It’s hard, too, because you’re learning this stuff while you’re still playing.
“And you only have a certain part of the year — the offseason — to learn it. Outside of that, if you’re taking classes during the season, you’re probably not playing too well and you’re probably going to need those classes next year if you’re not careful. It’s a fine line. I think that’s our problem as athletes. We don’t want to think about it ending, because we feel like if we think about it, it will be fast and right on you. So a lot of guys just don’t think about it.”
Staying in the present
Avril is having his best season in Seattle, with 3.5 sacks in eight games. At times he pleads ignorance about the Seahawks’ opponent the following week or the standings. It seems strange and even a little cliché, because how could he not look at those things when we spend all week doing nothing but looking at them?
But Avril is not lying. He has lasted eight years in the league by blocking out the long view, even while keeping the long view in mind.
|Cliff Avril was drafted by Detroit in 2008 with the 92nd overall pick. He signed with Seattle in 2013.|
|2008||Detroit||3 years, $1.634 million|
|2011||Detroit||1 year, $2.61 million|
|2012||Detroit||1 year, $10.6 million franchise tag|
|2013||Seattle||2 years, $13 million|
|2014||Seattle||4 years, $28.5 million extension|