O'Hara: Avril enjoys being just one of the crowd as he graduates from Purdue

Posted Aug 12, 2012

Cliff Avril had a productive offseason. He didn't get everything he wanted, but enough good things came his way to satisfy any young athlete reaching the prime years of a good career with expectations of even better days ahead.

Avril fell short in one area. He couldn't come to an agreement with the Lions on a long-term contract, but it is hard to find a sliver of acrimony on either side that Avril will play the 2012 season on a one-year contract.

Avril has a guaranteed salary of $10.6 million for the year, and the Lions have their best pass-rusher back at defensive end in a season in which they are set up to contend for a second straight playoff appearance.

The future will take care of itself – Avril signing a long-term deal with the Lions after this season or moving along as a free-agent, while the Lions plug one of their young players into his spot next season and beyond.

Away from the football field and the bargaining table, the greatest rewards for Avril in the last few months cannot be measured in terms of finances.

They're the ones that flash back 10, 20, 30 years from now – forever, really – when a pleasant jab from the memory banks makes a person smile in one of life's mundane moments.

One of those days for Avril was Aug. 3, when he celebrated the first birthday of his son, Xavier. Two days later, Avril reported to training camp, ending an absence of nine days.

Those who follow Avril's twitter account knew that Xavier's birthday was a high moment for Cliff. He tweets often about his son's presence in his life, and the fulfillment of having him fall asleep on his chest.

And there was another moment in May when Avril fulfilled a personal commitment to himself and his family by attending the commencement ceremonies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Cliff Avril, college graduate, with a degree in business management has a nice ring to it. One of the highlights of the commencement was that for a day, Avril wasn't a football player used to hearing the cheers of a stadium full of fans directed at him.

He was just another proud graduate in the crowd, wearing cap and gown, and walking across the stage.

Not being special never felt so good.

"The best feeling ever," Avril said the other day in the Lions' locker room.

He referred to getting his diploma that day as "walking," and his eyes sparkled as he talked.

"Besides my son being born, the best thing that ever happened to me was walking," Avril said.

"Seriously, I was the first person in my family ever to graduate from college."

Avril had made a pledge to graduate from college, but as often happens with athletes, a pro career delayed reaching that goal. It didn't end it, though.

Avril entered Purdue in 2004 and was a four-year player on Purdue's defense. When he left school after the 2007 season to prepare for the NFL draft, he was about a half year short of the required credits for his degree in business management.

Avril mostly played outside linebacker at Purdue. The Lions drafted him on the third round in 2008 and converted him to a full-time defensive end to best use his pass-rush skills.

Avril's career accelerated steadily, first under former Lions head coach Rod Marinelli, and in the last three seasons under coach Jim Schwartz and his defensive staff.

Avril had his best season last year, with a career-high 11 sacks. That set him up to cash in big time, and Avril has done that, at least on a one-year contract.

Away from the playing field, Avril was plugging along toward getting his degree. Xavier's birth on Aug. 3 of 2011 gave him the final push.

"It was moreso for my son," Avril said. "I went to school for three and a half years for free and didn't graduate, so how can I tell him to go to school and finish?

"I wanted to finish. Now I can actually push him. Lead by example, I guess."

There have been many examples over the years of high-profile athletes getting their degrees, and their reaction as they cross the stage to receive the diploma.

Bo Jackson won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn in 1985. In 2009, he crossed the stage at Auburn and raised his fist to the crowd.

More than he could have imagined, Avril discovered how much that accomplishment means. About 5,000 Purdue students were eligible to participate in this year's ceremony at the Elliot Hall of Music, and Avril enjoyed being a man in the crowd.

"It was crazy," he said. "Everybody was happy. Some of the girls I was talking to who were sitting next to me, they actually went into school the year I was supposed to graduate, which is crazy. They were 21 and I'm 26, and we're holding this conversation.

"To actually accomplish something like that is amazing. I don't think they realize it as much as I do, being a few years later.

"It's a great, great feeling."