It was the biggest game of a player’s life against the vaunted New England Patriots and Tom Brady. Dominating the point of attack as a defensive lineman and winning the game through the third quarter, all aspects of the game were going in his favor.
Then, with a bang, it was gone. The hard work invested into reaching the most prized game in football became seemingly worthless. Instead of battling 300-pound men in the trenches and anchoring an elite defense, his role was relegated to the sidelines with poking and prodding doctors.
That was the fate of Seattle‘s Cliff Avril in February at Super Bowl XLIX. Avril, a defensive end, suffered a concussion late in the third quarter; before the injury, he played an instrumental role in limiting the Patriots’ offense and haunting Brady.
“It was real disappointing,” Avril said last month at Charles Johnson’s Sports Academy and Community Night in Hawkinsville. “All of us are competitors; all of us want to be out there to help our team win in any kind of way. For me not to be able to finish one of the biggest games you’ll ever play in, it sucked.”
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But while the injury might affect his ability to help his team win the game, a larger issue loomed in the future if Avril were to risk playing with a head injury.
“But at the same time, I’m glad the docs decided to not put me back in,” Avril said. “Concussions aren’t anything to play with.”
With the attention the NFL has received in recent years concerning the effects of concussions, a new concussion protocol was enacted. It calls upon doctors to test players for head injuries after any large blow.
But it’s not an exact science. Julian Edelman, a receiver for the Patriots, received a hit to the head in the fourth quarter of the same game but was not forced to exit. Edelman went on to catch the game-winning touchdown, even though questions arose whether he should have been on the field in the first place.
And after Russell Wilson’s interception on the goal line in the closing seconds of the title game, the Seahawks lost their chance at a repeat.
For Avril, the victory in 2014 at Super Bowl XLIIX was especially gratifying because of his NFL journey before joining the Seahawks. After being selected as the 92nd overall pick in the third round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions, Avril’s initial impression of the NFL was not positive.
In fact, his team didn’t win a game -- the first team to do that since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976. During his five-year tenure, Avril suffered through four losing seasons and a total record of 22-58.
“It was amazing, man -- especially how my career went,” Avril said of the Super Bowl victory. “As a rookie, I went 0-16 in Detroit, and then to go to the Super Bowl two years back-to-back, it’s been a huge blessing.”
But the possibility of two Super Bowl rings? The Seahawks were only one yard away from a repeat.
“Who wouldn’t want to repeat?” Avril asked with a laugh. “Of course, we want to repeat, but we want to go ahead and make it happen this year; we have pretty much the same guys.”
Along with retaining many of its players from last year’s team -- outside of starting cornerback Byron Maxwell -- Seattle traded for New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham, who created one of the best quarterback/receiver connections in the NFL with Drew Brees.
Graham became a tantalizing weapon in New Orleans as he caught 355 passes for 4,396 yards and 46 touchdowns the past four years in a starting role. The addition of Graham will make one particular individual lick his chops: Wilson.
Wilson, entering his fourth year as the Seahawks’ quarterback, currently finds himself amid a whirlwind of contract negotiations; under the status quo, he will enter the final year of his rookie contract set to pay him $1.54 million in 2015.
Re-signing Wilson remains a priority for a Seahawks team seeking to make more Super Bowl runs and for Avril, who will look to avenge his injury in Super Bowl XLIX.
“I think he deserves everything he’s going to get,” Avril said of Wilson. “He wins; he’s been to the Super Bowl back-to-back years -- won one. And that’s all in three seasons in the NFL. He’s done more than a lot of these quarterbacks. So, hopefully they figure it out. I think he’s definitely the quarterback of the future of the Seahawks.”