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Seahawks' Cliff Avril honors the memory of his dad

"It's a heck of a roller-coaster, really," Cliff Avril said of the past year. "I just think about all the positives with my dad and all the things he's instilled in me. And then having my newborn. [...] It's amazing." Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Cliff Avril's dad, Jean Samuel, had just gotten off work when he hopped in the car with Avril's cousins for a ride from Jacksonville, Florida, to Charlotte, North Carolina.

Avril, a Seattle Seahawks defensive end, and his family host a party every year. There was plenty to celebrate this past Memorial Day weekend as Avril and his wife, Tia, were going to find out whether their second child would be a boy or a girl.

Avril talked to his dad when he was about 45 minutes away. After the phone conversation, Avril's cousin, who was driving, noticed Samuel had dozed off.

"When they got to the house, I guess when they turned into the driveway, he fell over," Avril recalled. "They tried to wake him up like, 'We’re here.' And he never woke up."

Avril remembers running out to the car and calling an ambulance. But during the car ride, Samuel had died of a heart attack. He was 68.

"It was a surprise, a complete surprise," Avril said.

"It's the first time in my life, really, where I've lost anybody close to me. It's a difficult time, probably one of the hardest times in my life, especially because I was having a newborn as well."

The last nine months have been a whirlwind for Avril. In February, he was pulled from the Super Bowl and evaluated for a concussion. In May, he lost his father. And last month, he welcomed his second son.

"It's a heck of a roller-coaster, really," Avril said. "I just think about all the positives with my dad and all the things he's instilled in me. And then having my newborn, there's no greater feeling than seeing this newborn and seeing him look you in your eyes and knowing that you're responsible for this child. It's amazing. But it's been a heck of a year."

***

Defensive lineman Michael Bennett was returning to his locker at Levi's Stadium after the Seahawks' win over the San Francisco 49ers last month when he noticed Avril being interviewed.

"They've been sleeping on him for about four years now," Bennett said, unconcerned about interrupting. "He's got the most sack-fumbles in the NFL last three years. Second-most quarterback hits to me. More hurries than me. He's been balling, man."

The Seahawks' roster is filled with big personalities. Avril is not one of them. But ask teammates about him, and they go out of their way to explain why he's such a valuable part of the defense.

"He's a huge impact player for us," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "He's a big deal. He's one of the most important players on our defense. He doesn't get the credit he deserves. ... He doesn't get the Pro Bowl recognition because he doesn't have the gaudy sack numbers. But he does his job week in and week out. They shift to him, they send a back, they chip him. They do all these things to him and Michael Bennett, but he still continues to get sacks."

Added middle linebacker Bobby Wagner: "He doesn't talk much, but I think he's one of those guys that when he talks, you listen. As soon as you hear him open his mouth, you just feel the room get quiet because you know everybody respects him as a person and a player and wants to hear what he has to say. He leads in his own way, and I admire his leadership."

The LEO position in Pete Carroll's defense requires athleticism. Avril is best known for getting after the quarterback, but he's been outstanding against the run and will drop into coverage on occasion as well. Against the 49ers, Avril ran step for step with tight end Vernon Davis on a wheel route down the sideline to force an incompletion.

"That's really the job description for the LEO, is to come out and be a fantastic athlete," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "When it's your opportunity to get after the quarterback, go get him. When it's your opportunity to stop the run, stop it. And when it's your opportunity to cover, get that done."

Avril has 56 sacks in 112 games; this season, through eight games, he has 3.5 sacks, plus five tackles for loss. He's known for his ability to knock the ball out on his way to the quarterback, a skill that has led to 24 forced fumbles. Since Avril joined the NFL in 2008, the only defensive linemen with more are Julius Peppers, Tamba Hali and Robert Mathis.

"When you get to the quarterback, they're usually holding the ball with one hand," Avril said. "If you can just tap their wrist, their elbow, something, usually you tap it hard enough, the ball will come out. Getting a sack is one thing, but getting a sack-fumble was always better. Why not try to get it?"

***

Avril didn't start playing football until high school, and even then, he had to hide it from his mom, Marie.

"[She] didn't want me playing," Avrill said. "In the Haitian culture, football is, they thought it was just too barbaric. She didn't know. She thought I was at basketball practice. And then as I started getting a lot of notoriety and news clippings and different things like that, people from work told her that I was playing. She just came to a game one day and let it be. It paid for school."

Avril's parents came to America from Haiti in the early 1980s and settled in Jacksonville, where he was raised. His dad spent 25 years working for Vac-Con, where he painted sewage trucks. Avril's mom worked three different jobs for as long as he can remember until settling on one after he started receiving NFL paychecks.

Avril was picked in the third round of the 2008 NFL draft by Detroit and played there for five seasons. He said the fact he "only" got a two-year, $15 million deal as a free agent in 2013 no longer motivates him. Instead, he has new inspiration.

"What motivates me is my family," he said. "Seeing how hard my mom worked my whole life, and now having kids and my wife, trying to get them a better life. All that stuff is what motivates me to get better. All that stuff prior to that, [the] draft and everything like that, not anymore at least."

On any given Wednesday or Thursday, Avril can be found on the ground near his locker before practice, working through an intricate stretching routine. At 29, the muscles and joints don't bounce back as quickly as they used to, he says. But he puts in the work for good reason: Last December, Avril signed an extension that keeps him under contract with the Seahawks through 2018.

Life off the field will be difficult without his dad. Avril knows how hard his parents had to work after arriving in a new country and having to learn about a new culture. They gave him an opportunity, and he has made the most of it. Avril is charged with making sure the lessons he learned from his dad get passed down to his sons, Xavier and Xander.

"My dad was a very wise man," Avril said. "I think about all the great things he taught me and how to incorporate that into our day-to-day living and instilling those different values in my kids. I believe he's still with me everywhere I go. I'll meet him again one day."