The COVID-19 pandemic has Canadian tight end Antony Auclair channelling his inner Sylvester Stallone as he prepares for the upcoming NFL season.
The six-foot-six, 256-pound Auclair agreed Monday to a one-year contract extension with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But with both NFL facilities and Auclair's gym in Quebec City currently closed, the 26-year-old said his training regiment mirrors that of fictional boxer Rocky Balboa as he prepared for his bout in Rocky IV against Ivan Drago in a spartan Siberian cabin in winter.
"I'm a huge fan of Rocky IV when he trained in the snow and all that so I'm trying to replicate that," Auclair said during a conference call Tuesday. "I'm trying to split wood as much as I can and that's it.
"On sunny days it's pretty cool. But (Tuesday) it's snowing a lot, but I kind of like it. It makes us go outside a lot more. For now, we control what we can control, and we can't control the virus. For us, it's just to find ways."
Auclair is entering his fourth season with Tampa Bay. The former Laval star signed a three-year, US$1.685-million deal in 2017 as an undrafted free agent.
Sasha Ghavami, Auclair's agent, said he and the Buccaneers agreed to the one-year deal after being unable to settle on a long-term contract.
"When it came to value we couldn't agree on a value for a long-term deal," he said. "Ultimately, as you know in pro football contracts aren't guaranteed so whether you sign a one-, two-, three- or four-year deal you're basically signing a multitude of one-year deals.
"So for us to give up term to the team, value had to be there. We felt like Antony is still a player who's improving and the team really likes him from top to bottom — the coaching staff, management, everybody is on board with him. We all agreed a one-year deal was the best way to go and for Antony to continue that progress."
The Buccaneers (7-9) finished tied for second with Atlanta in the NFC South last year behind New Orleans (13-3). Tampa was a solid 5-3 on the road in its first season under head coach Bruce Arians, but just 2-6 at home.
Auclair remains predictably bullish on the Buccaneers' potential, and said that figured in his decision to remain with the club.
"I just want to win in Tampa because Tampa is my second family," he said. "I know the city, I know everybody in Tampa, that's pretty cool.
"I just want to stay there and start winning."
The native of Notre-Dame-des-Pins, Que., appeared in eight games in 2019 before suffering a season-ending toe injury in November. Auclair has appeared in 32 career contests with the Buccaneers, registering 10 catches for 84 yards.
Auclair said he's just about over the injury.
"If I could put a number on it, I'd say I'm 95 per cent right now," he said.
Auclair has been used mainly as a blocker with the Buccaneers. He had just one catch for 11 yards last season, but is hopeful he'll see the ball more this year.
"I'd be crazy not to say I would like to get the ball more," he said. "Having played 35 per cent of offensive snaps last year I think I have a pretty good role, an important role, with the team, but we'll see.
"(Offensive co-ordinator) Byron Leftwich and Bruce Arians are pretty good offensive minds in the league so we'll see how this role gets bigger in Year 4 with the team."
And the Buccaneers could have a big-name quarterback under centre this season. The club has reportedly gone hard after veteran Tom Brady, who guided the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl titles over 20 seasons there.
On Tuesday, Brady bid farewell to New England on social media. He's scheduled to become a free agent Wednesday, but could still reach an agreement with another club Tuesday.
"He's the greatest of all time," Auclair said of Brady. "We're not sure whether or not he's going to come to Tampa."
Last weekend, NFL players voted in favour of a new collective bargaining agreement that ensures labour peace in the league through at least 2030. But the margin was close, with a total of 1,019 accepting the deal compared to 959 against.
The new agreement expands the NFL's playoff field by two teams starting this year. It also allows league owners the option of expanding the regular season from 16 games to 17 as early as 2021.
Auclair wasn't sure if the deal would be accepted by players. He's in favour of more teams reaching the playoffs and isn't opposed to playing an extra regular-season contest.
"I think it (additional playoff teams) gives more opportunities for the cities to get into the playoffs, which is cool," he said. "It's fun to play football so why not one more game?
"For me it's pretty cool to play 17 games instead of 16. It gives you more chances and more opportunities."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2020.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press