For Cliff Avril, the key to success, it turns out, was just having a little more fun.
At 30 years old and in his ninth NFL season, Avril is having the best season of his professional career, and as a result he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month after racking up 6.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in October. They key to playing so well after all these years? Turns out that taking himself less seriously has been key for Avril.
"Just playing freely and not really caring, just going out there and having fun," Avril said when asked what has led to his increased production this year. "Breaking down film and all those things, I've been doing that the last few years, but I'm just out there having a blast honestly. It's just showing up in my play, I guess.
"There's a lot of things that go on with guys that most people don't recognize, from contract situations, not wanting to get hurt, and all these different things, and sometimes that can slow you down. But like I said, these last couple years I've just been like, 'The heck with it, just played ball and everything else will play itself out."
To call this a breakout season for Avril would be misleading; he's been a very good player for a long time now. Avril was a productive player for five seasons with the Lions, then in 2013 he and fellow free-agent addition Michael Bennett helped upgrade Seattle's pass rush and put the Seahawks over the top on their way to the first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
Over his first three seasons in Seattle, Avril had 22 sacks, including nine last year, so again, this high level of play isn't coming out of nowhere. Even so, it's clear to everyone watching that Avril, nearly a decade into his NFL career, is playing the best football of his life. Already Avril has 7.5 sacks this season, which ranks third in the NFL, and has him on track to shatter his career-high of 11 and also to threaten the franchise record of 16.5 set by Michael Sinclair in 1998.
"Just to recognize that Cliff was named NFC defensive player of the month I think is really great recognition, because we've seen his play be so on in a lot of different ways, whether it's rushing the passer, pressuring, or getting his sacks, or knocking balls loose, or knocking balls down, he's just been a great factor, and in the running game too," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He has played beautiful football… I think he's just had a great year, everything has fit together and he's playing like crazy. I'm really fired up for him."
"I think it's the most consistent he's been, yeah. He's always been a big player for us, but I think it's just recognized now that he is a big factor and he's been really putting up numbers, and it's so clearly obvious in the way he's doing things. I think it's the best he's started."
And just as Bennett earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time in his career last year, Avril's teammates hope and believe Avril should get that kind of recognition this season.
"It's fantastic to get some recognition and some appreciation," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "Hopefully all fans go out there and vote for him so he can get a Pro Bowl under his belt. He's up there with the league leaders in sacks, and every game he's consistently getting after the quarterback, getting a ton of pressures, getting a ton of quarterback hits. It's outstanding to see him get the recognition that he definitely deserves."
Avril downplays the significance of individual honors, both the one he received Thursday and the potential of a year-end Pro Bowl nod, insisting team success is his focus. And having lived the extremes of team failure and success—Avril was on an 0-16 Detroit Lions team as a rookie, and played in two Super Bowls in his first two seasons with the Seahawks—it's easy to see why Avril would put so much weight in team accomplishments. Don't get Avril wrong, he'll gladly accept your Pro Bowl vote, but he won't spend the rest of this season worrying about whether or not he'll finally get that honor.
"This is my ninth year in the NFL," Avril said. "That in itself is a blessing. If you get the accolades that's cool, but my main focus is winning football games—control what you can control. All the other stuff, that's (media) and fans and different things like that, those are the people that pick that stuff. If I'm waiting on a million votes, I'm in for a long wait. It is what it is… I just keep playing ball, and if I win a Super Bowl that's better than any accolade I could win."
Avril's ninth season hasn't just been his best on the field, but also one in which he is doing great things off of the field. Avril has long been involved in various good causes, most notably through the work his foundation does to fight diabetes, the disease that took his grandmother's life.
More recently Avril has found different ways to make a difference in Haiti, his parents' home country. Last offseason Avril went to Haiti for the first time in more than a decade to help rebuild a school and host a youth clinic, and after Hurricane Matthew recently did significant damage in Haiti, Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who is also of Haitian descent, convinced Avril to join him in an effort to build houses in Haiti. As a result, in what has been his most productive pass rushing season, Avril is funding a new house for every sack he records in 2016.
"(Dumervil) is also Haitian and he pledged to build 58 homes in Haiti last year," Avril said. "He reached out to me and was asking this summer if I wanted to be a part of it, and I said I was building a school right now but maybe once I was done we'll figure something out. Then the hurricane hit, and I was like 'I need to get involved now.' We came up with this plan of just build a house for every sack. That's kind of been the goal and the guys have their own little thing going. We have companies now that have gotten involved where now, not only is it one house every time I get a sack, but there's a company that matches so there’s three homes going up. It's cool to be able to use your platform to be able to help so many people. That's what I want to continue to keep doing."
Avril said the process of getting those houses, which are designed specifically to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes "is very transparent. The New Story which is the foundation that goes out there, they videotape everything, they let you see when the people move in… We're planning on going to the areas where we're going to build these homes. Hopefully around the April, May is when these homes will be finished and can move in, and I want to be a part of that process."
The Cliff Avril Family Foundation and Seahawks Legend Marshawn Lynch helped open an elementary school in Haiti, a project Avril, Lynch, and other NFL players undertook this past summer.