It was at the start of his second season with the Laval Rouge et Or that Antony Auclair let himself think about a possible NFL career. On Saturday, that dream became a reality.
The six-foot-five, 256-pound tight end from Notre-Dame-des-Pins, Que., cracked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ opening-day roster. Auclair becomes the first player in Laval’s rich football history to make an NFL squad, doing so as an undrafted free agent.
But the 24-year-old admitted he was having a little difficulty fully realizing what he’s done.
"Right now Facebook is going crazy … I think people are really proud," Auclair said during a conference call. "For me, it’s hard to realize what’s going on right now because I’m always focusing on the next game, the next day and the next practice.
"Back in my second year at Laval I was watching other tight ends from other colleges in the U.S. and I knew I had the shape, the skillset … but like I said I’m always focusing on the next day and never project myself in the future like that. For me, it’s a day-to-day thing."
But Auclair’s accomplishment is bad news for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who selected him in the fourth round of the 2017 CFL draft.
Tampa Bay was among 17 NFL teams that attended Auclair’s pro day in Quebec City in March. Auclair signed a three-year deal with the Buccaneers as a priority free agent after being bypassed in the NFL draft.
Despite that, Auclair faced an uphill battle to crack Tampa Bay’s roster. Not only did he have to adjust immediately to American football but he joined a team that used its first-round draft pick on a tight end, Alabama’s O.J. Howard.
So while Auclair had three catches — one less than Howard — for 17 yards during the exhibition season, he also showed his versatility by playing on Tampa Bay’s punt, punt return and kickoff return teams.
"I never played on the punt team in college … so that was another thing that was different and I had to adapt to and learn," Auclair said. "For a player like me, (playing special teams) was very important and I embraced it.
"I really wanted to be good on special teams and get better every day."
Laval’s Glen Constantine, a nine-time Vanier Cup champion and twice Canadian university football’s top coach, said Auclair’s historic accomplishment is huge for the school and Canada.
"I think it’s bigger than Laval," he said. "I’m recruiting right now and I see kids who dream and this nourishes that dream of maybe hoping to go (to the NFL).
"In Canada, (football) isn’t our No. 1 sport so for a guy like Antony to be able to accomplish that, it’s feeds the dream for kids to keep on playing football. It’s a huge accomplishment and it’s all to his credit."
But Auclair gained notoriety during Tampa’s training camp for more than his football prowess. He was featured singing O Canada during an episode of Hard Knocks.
"I really wanted to give a shout out to Canada," said Auclair, who sang the national anthem in French. "At first, I thought they (Buccaneers teammates) were going to boo me but then I realized you can’t boo a national anthemw.
"You’ve got to be respectful of other countries."
And Tampa Bay starter Jameis Winston showed plenty of respect for his Canadian teammate, standing as he sang. Auclair said other teammates quickly followed.
"Jameis stood up and I really appreciated that," he said. "I really appreciated the respect from my teammates."
In fact, Winston and Auclair hit it off during organized team activities when Auclair was nursing a hamstring injury.
"He came over to me and was like, ‘Man, I miss you on the field,’ and stuff like that," Auclair said. "He made me feel comfortable over the summer and you want guys like that because you call them glue guys.
"He’s a good player but he’s a really good leader as well."
Football might be Auclair’s profession now but he’ll take the same approach to the game as an NFL player as he did growing up.
"You still playing a kid’s game, you’re just getting paid for it," Auclair said. "It puts a little bit of pressure on you to perform, which is normal.
"But I’m going to approach it the same way I always have: That’s to have fun and compete. I don’t think anything is going to change."