Meet Lions' renaissance man: Sculptor, sketcher, pass-catcher

DETROIT -- Inside the hall that is the centerpiece of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Sean McGrath stops speaking mid-sentence. His eyes dart from the top to the bottom of Rivera Court, from the left to the right and back again.

The Detroit Lions tight end is fascinated. He's in the middle of explaining life as a nomad in the NFL when he's momentarily speechless, drawn into the Detroit Industry murals created by Diego Rivera in the 1930s. The artist in him begins to come out.

"Wow," McGrath says. "This is pretty cool."

He slides over to the DIA volunteer, who is explaining to another group of visitors the history of the mural and Rivera and the meaning of the mosaic's different panels. Then McGrath pulls out his black sketchbook.

He starts taking notes about Rivera's use of steel as a metaphor, the dignity of man and significance of the worker. He locks on to one panel on the top of the mural. Instead of taking notes, McGrath does what he'll often do in art museums, what he does in order to learn every play of the various NFL playbooks he has had in his career.

He starts to draw. Within minutes, McGrath sketches a face with a yellow hue in Rivera's mural.

"Naturally drawn to warmer colors," McGrath said. "You can look at the murals and see what jumps out at you. The ones that are kind of the blue-ish colors, that's just color theory."

On off days around the NFL, in training camp and the regular season, players often relax with video games, family time or charity work. McGrath does some of that. But when he can, he would rather be in places like the DIA, doing exactly what he's doing now.

Studying art.

McGrath, dubbed "Silver Lining Sean" by his wife, lives life with a perpetually positive mentality. He gives wait staff tips in $2 bills -- something he picked up from his dad. He started growing a massive beard to replace the hair lost on his head.

He discovered art at an early age. He wrote about it for an assignment in third grade at Santa Maria del Popolo School in Mundelein, Illinois. He wanted to be an artist.

The next year, he wrote that he wanted to play football for the Chicago Bears.

"He was always able to draw stuff," said Pat McGrath, Sean's father. "He's really into it. He's into art history, and he's pretty good with his hands. He's not a graphic artist, but he likes working with stuff. He likes making things."

McGrath leaves Rivera Court and spots something at the end of the hallway. Immediately he knows what it is.

The "Reclining Figure," by sculptor Henry Moore calls to McGrath like few other pieces. He'll always recognize a Moore. Moore was one of the first sculptors McGrath studied as an art student at Henderson State.

"I have just a deep, intimate connection with Henry Moore because of what it's tied to in my head and the inspiration that it was," McGrath said. "This dude in my art career, Mac Hornecker, influenced me a lot. He was one of the first artists that we kind of studied."

That McGrath encountered Hornecker was due to an unexpected sequence of events. McGrath started college at Eastern Illinois but was dismissed from the program for a violation of team rules he'll only explain as "a little bit too much fun and they suggested that we part ways."

Searching for a school, the studio art major ended up at Division II Henderson State in tiny Arkadelphia, Arkansas -- far from suburban Chicago. It was there he discovered himself as an artist, spending hour after hour in the labs.

A few years earlier, Hornecker retired to Arkadelphia, where he taught sculpture and worked full time in a studio. Hornecker, a former football player, and McGrath became close immediately. He accepted McGrath as an independent study, and they worked together until Hornecker's death in 2011.

"People said they were like kindred spirits," Hornecker's widow, Marie, said in an email. "Mac loved watching Sean at the football games, and I remember him coming home one day and saying, 'I think there are scouts looking at Sean.'"

This was McGrath's first real exposure to sculpture after growing up around his first artistic influence, Margo McGrath -- his grandmother. A former Chez Paree Adorable in Chicago, she joined the USO during World War II and worked with the Three Stooges.

Margo studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and became a caricature artist. When McGrath was a kid, he watched Margo with pen in hand, drawing and doodling. Sean was hooked, even landing a fourth-grade self-portrait on her desk at Cherokee Printing Company, the small business his father owned.

He wanted to do that, too. Since picking up the pen and paper, he hasn't stopped.

"She was a pretty big riot," McGrath said of his grandmother. "Pretty big inspiration for me and, I don't know, I just always kind of had that pen on hand, doodling ability I suppose. My parents have always encouraged me to do what I've been drawn to, no pun intended."

There was little question McGrath had artistic talent. A little older than her other students, Henderson State art department chair Kathy Strause said McGrath had more drive as well.

The program introduced students to a bunch of different disciplines. McGrath took to most of them: Sculpting with Hornecker, painting with Strause and working in ceramics -- one of his two heavy focuses now -- with Aaron Calvert.

"I remember him painting and making ridiculously fun paintings based on memories," Strause said. "There's one in particular that's a memory with his sister and spaghetti or something. He was very imaginative."

She identified another of McGrath's natural talents -- "his tenacity" for things he's passionate about. McGrath's mentality has been that if he's going to do something, he's going full immersion. If he can't get himself there, he'll move on.

McGrath reached the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks in 2012 as an undrafted free agent. The next year, he caught 26 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns for Kansas City. Then McGrath surprised everyone.

He walked away.

Pat McGrath was baffled when his son told him he was contemplating quitting. Dad told son to talk with Andy Reid, John Dorsey and Anthony Fasano before he did. McGrath said he would.

The next day, he retired. He moved back to Chicago, got a small apartment, and started his art career.

"I'm either in or I'm not, and I was just not having as much fun as I had been and I had always made that a priority," McGrath said. "That if at one point it wasn't fun, I was going to pursue ... it's way too hard if you're not having fun, right?"

He went to the Art Institute of Chicago daily, attending artist lectures, joining gallery walks and indoctrinating himself in the life of an up-and-coming artist. He worked on acrylic pieces and pen-and-ink sketches and took figure-drawing classes.

In between time at the Art Institute, he returned to Henderson State. He trained daily to stay in shape and worked in the ceramics studio with Calvert. He donated money to the art program.

And through art, which had been something he had always used as a mental balance to football, he rediscovered his passion for the game. He watched some of his Division II teammates -- most of whom had no chance at a pro career -- play because they loved it.

"I can't really put my finger on it. However you felt about whatever you were passionate about in your youth, you know what I mean," McGrath said. "That kind of feeling came back and you're like, 'Well, s---, my body feels good. Why not?'

"So try to do it again. It was way harder getting in the second time than it was the first time, and I was an undrafted free agent."

Rebekkah Peregrin served McGrath lunch one afternoon at Union Jack Pub in Indianapolis, where she was a manager. Came back with salt-and-pepper shakers. They had a brief conversation.

McGrath, in Indianapolis trying to resurrect his career with the Colts, came in again a few days later during a slow period. Peregrin found him with his sketchbook, drawing Lewis & Clark after she mentioned she wanted a tattoo of Sacagawea. His art drew her in.

"I didn't know he played football. He told me at some point during our first conversation, but I didn't believe him," she said. "I kind of laughed at him and thought he was talking to me about playing flag football in his spare time.

"That's honestly because his art was that good."

By the end of the conversation, McGrath asked her to lunch. The day of their first date, Indianapolis cut McGrath. He told her he was going back to Chicago. Ended up signing with San Diego. Peregrin figured she'd never see him again. Yet they kept talking.

At the end of the season, McGrath asked her if she wanted to drive back with him from San Diego to Chicago. She said sure. That was their second date.

"We've been together ever since," the now Rebekkah McGrath said. "We don't do things the normal way."

Rebekkah took a Greyhound from Indianapolis to Chicago for Valentine's Day soon after their road trip. McGrath showed up with flowers. Took her to the Art Institute and taught her about his passion. Helped start her own art education.

They got engaged in Paris, and she fell in love with impressionism -- Monet and Manet -- in a museum in the south of France, varying from McGrath's favorites of Dali (childhood) and Van Gogh (adulthood). McGrath said Rebekkah has influenced his art -- and how he views artists. It forced McGrath, an avid art historian, to learn even more about the backgrounds of artists.

"She loves art," McGrath said. "She challenges me in a sense that there are a lot of things surrounding art that isn't particularly pleasant at all, you know."

Yet it was a trip to Italy and Michelangelo's David where Rebekkah's appreciation for McGrath's art crystallized. McGrath brought along his sketchbook, sat down and started drawing.

Rebekkah noticed others gathering around the statue -- and her husband. They pulled out their sketchbooks. They looked over McGrath's shoulder as he sketched one of the most famous statues in the world.

"It was just wonderful to see this other interpretation also being valued," Rebekkah said. "And he was making so many connections and it was inspiring other people to get their sketchbooks out to draw.

"It was a conversation starter for families as they were walking through. It was very cool to see, and he's just driven. He's just staring at the David."

McGrath will do this anywhere. He sees art as a gift. During brunch in Newport Beach, California, Rebekkah brought a book. McGrath, sketchbook in hand, drew whoever or whatever he can find. If he finished, he'd gift it to a family.

He has drawn teammates. Currently on a mug kick, he has made countless ceramic pieces for family, friends and some of his coaches. He constructed all of his parents' earthenware and spent this offseason putting together a ceramics portfolio at the Irvine Fine Arts Center for MFA program applications. Eventually he wants to get his master's, and maybe teach. He definitely wants to create art, as the McGraths' temporary California home is full of finished and unfinished Sean McGrath originals.

For years, around the world, McGrath has sat and sketched the work of others while working on his own as a secondary passion from the NFL. His football career is not certain. He's no lock to make the Lions' roster. But whenever football ends, he knows where he's heading next. Back to art, where one day, the murals, sculptures or paintings hanging in a museum could be his.