Cliff Avril’s retirement party is already legendary.
Past Seahawks such as Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett and Red Bryant were there this spring. And they’ve openly raved about the night.
“@cliffavril the retirement party was off the chains,” fellow recent Seahawk retiree Chancellor posted on social media.
“One for the ages!” Avril posted on his Instagram account the day after the party in Seattle.
“This was a really special night,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who was also there.
The extraordinary bash for the Super Bowl-winning, Pro Bowl defensive end has even helped fill a need on the Seahawks’ 2019 roster. It just brought back a popular former team captain.
In May, Carroll plus many of Avril’s former teammates and friends were inside Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, founded by the late Seahawks owner Paul Allen. That night Avril’s wife of five years, Tia, surprised him with a retirement party at Allen’s music institute under the Space Needle at Seattle Center.
Now 33, Avril was forced out of football in the spring of 2018 by a dangerous neck injury from the 2017 season.
His wife invited many of her husband’s Super Bowl-champion teammates from the previous five seasons to the surprise shindig. Sherman, now playing for the rival San Francisco 49ers, came. Former Seahawks Brandon Mebane, Jermaine Kearse, Clinton McDonald and Jeron Johnson were there. So where current Seahawks linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright.
DeShawn Shead was there, too. That’s him in the upper-left corner of Avril’s post.
At the time, Shead was an unsigned free agent recently let go by Detroit. He played 12 games in his only season for the Lions, last year. He did so while not fully recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee he suffered in Seattle’s playoff loss at Atlanta in Jan. 2017.
Shead, 30, has been a favorite of Carroll’s and the Seahawks since before they signed the decathlete at Portland State as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2012. Shead went from just trying to make the Seahawks as a special-teams helper in 2012, to a free safety, strong safety and special-teams mainstay on Seattle’s consecutive Super Bowl teams. In 2016 he was a first-time, full-time starter opposite Sherman.
This spring, after Detroit released him, Shead needed a job. These post-Legion of Boom Seahawks need defensive backs they can trust.
Seattle has questions all over its secondary for 2019. Who will be the starting free- and strong-safety pairing? Who will be the primary fifth, nickel defensive back covering inside slot receivers?
Shead has done all of those roles, and more, for the Seahawks, and at a Super Bowl-championship level. He’s been their special-teams captain, too.
That’s why Shead sought Carroll—at Avril’s party.
It worked. On Saturday the Seahawks brought back Shead on a one-year contract after one, abbreviated season with the Lions affected by his knee-reconstruction surgery.
“I definitely reached out to him,” Shead said Tuesday of Carroll. “I got the chance to talk to Pete beforehand, and just let him know that I am healthy, I am ready to roll. I am definitely healthier than before I left.
“We actually ran into each other at Cliff Avril’s retirement party. I got a chance to talk to him there. We were able to see each other, talk then.
“And I was pleading my case: ‘I would love to be back here. Out of the other 31 teams, I would definitely love the opportunity to be here.’”
Last week, on the eve of training camp with safeties Lano Hill and rookie second-round pick Marquise Blair recovering from injuries and on the physically-unable-to-perform list, Carroll and the Seahawks took Shead up on his lobbying. They called Shead across the country to their team headquarters for a tryout. He had just worked out on Tuesday for New Orleans, but the Saints did not sign him.
“That was my opportunity to come in and show you, rather than just tell you,” he said of his rebuilt knee. “I had the opportunity to talk to them beforehand, but seeing is believing.
“So, they brought me in. I had a great workout.
“I was able to move. They can’t tell even if there was an injury, which was the injured leg.”
Thanks, Tia Avril. That was some party.
Cliff Avril got feted. Best friends reunited.
And Shead got a job, back at his football home.
“Yeah, the best party,” he said, chuckling. “THE BEST party.
“I didn’t want to just come back. I wanted to show them that I could come back and be a player that can go out there and help this team anywhere on this defense.”
The Seahawks may need his help.
Shead has been a backup strong safety behind Bradley McDougald in the first practices of his second Seahawks go-round. Those practices resume Thursday following a players day off. The coaches are trying to sort out whether McDougald is going to be the strong or free safety this season. That will largely depend on when Hill and Blair begin fully practicing, and when they do whether one emerges as the sure tackler the team needs closer to the line as the strong safety.
If neither do, Shead is ready to.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course. He got a low-cost, easy-to-cut contract. But he has the familiarity with the defense, and with the coaching staff.
Plus, now he has his speed and athleticism again.
“I feel free. My knee feels strong. It is healthy,” he said.
“I feel actually faster than when I was here before.”
For a former decathlete, that’s saying something.
Shead was fast, versatile, and invaluable until the final game of Seattle’s 2016 season. In the NFC divisional playoffs at Atlanta, he shredded his knee cutting toward the sideline to cover a short out route on the artificial turf in the Georgia Dome.
During his rehabilitation in the spring of 2017, with Shead’s future in doubt as a restricted free agent, Seahawks general manager praised Shead the man as much as the player.
“DeShawn is a great kid. He’s got really strong faith,” Schneider said at the 2017 NFL scouting combine.
“You’d want him to be your son, you know what I mean?”
Reminded of the GM’s compliment Tuesday, back in his familiar, white-and-blue Seahawks number-35 jersey and with nearby fans yelling for his autograph, Shead smiled.
“I mean, that means a lot. It means A LOT,” Shead said. “It helps me to continue to do what I do, day in and day out. It helps me to go harder, just for my presence.
“For somebody to say that, it means a lot. It’s bigger than football. That’s my whole goal. Football is a game we play. And my whole goal is to be able to leave a legacy. And if that’s the case, doing things like that and hearing comments like that, I am doing a good job.
“I’m not bigger than anybody. I’m here to help teach, and be the best person I can be.”
Which brings us back to Avril’s party.
Carroll champions an environment in which he seeks to coach, guide and grow his players as whole men, sometimes as much off the field as on.
Yes, there have been Bennett’s and Sherman’s grumbling in 2017 when Seattle missed the playoffs for the only time in the last seven years. They claimed Carroll’s players were tuning him out after years of the rah-rah leadership. And Earl Thomas flipping off Carroll while getting carted off the field in Arizona in September, after the All-Pro safety broke his leg in his final Seahawks game, was a new level of knee-jerk anger toward the coach.
But the fact is the 67-year-old coach—and, let’s face it, the white man who grew up in ultra-affluent Marin County across the bay from San Francisco—was invited to a surprise party among tightly bonded, 20- and 30-something African-Americans, guys a third his age who are from Compton, Calif., Norfolk, Va., and deep into Texas. That speaks to the bond Carroll has built over his 10 years leading the Seahawks.
Put another way: Did Rob Gronkowski invite Bill Belichick to a bash when the rollicking tight end recently retired from the Patriots?
That’s not lost on Carroll.
“I had no idea. I was going to just support and have fun, see Cliff and all that,” Carroll said of how fantastic Avril’s party was. “I was blown away by just the emotion of the night with all those guys coming back.
“The reason it was emotional is because they’re happy to be together. It was Cliff’s night, of course. But all those guys getting together, it was so cool to see them respond to one another. I didn’t have to say nothing or talk to anybody. Just being around them it was so obvious: Big Red and Mebane and Mike coming back, all those guys, Kearse.
“It was just such a cool night to see them together. And I think it’s because it was clear to me the foundations of the relationships that have been forged over the years past and that they still maintain it. They’re talking about coming back to the area and living here, guys that aren’t in the area, and how fun it was for them just to come back just to be here again. Guys that have been in other programs, their comments about appreciating being here. They’re connected.
“So for me, to just sit there and have fun with those guys and hang out in the middle of it all, shoot, I was on cloud nine. It was a blast. This isn’t the last time these guys will get together. They’re talking about reunions and all kinds of stuff that will be coming up, and I look forward to every bit of it.
“It was really fun.”
And it was how DeShawn Shead got to be with Seattle again.
He says he wants to retire as a Seahawk. He got married here.
“I would love to be here for the rest of my career,” he said. “I started here. Been here for six years. My wife is from here, (she) grew up in Sammamish. I think we are going to make this home base.
“So this would be definitely the place, here.”