NFL players finding ways to stay busy during lockout

Jimmy Clausen and Tom Zbikowski both saw the NFL work stoppage coming and were ready to fill the void in their schedule.

Clausen, the Panthers quarterback, went back to college, seeking the 15 credits he needs to graduate.

Zbikowski, a safety for the Ravens, went back to boxing -- yes, boxing.

Zbikowski is the first to laugh at his switch from one violent sport to another, but he's serious about this. He's fought twice in the last three weeks, in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.,J., and won both. He's already hooked up with the big-time promoters at Top Rank and just last week Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward took him on as a client.

He couldn't have done any of it in a regular NFL offseason.

"I finished the last year of my contract and there's a lockout -- what perfect timing for me," said Zbikowski, a former Golden Gloves fighter whose first pro bout was in 2006, while he was in college. "Not needing permission from the people that are paying to play makes it possible. There is no way I could've passed up on the opportunity. It just opened the door for my other career."

Free time isn't piling up quite yet for NFL players because March is always part of their offseason. But since there's no telling when they will be back at work, and since only so many hours can be spent at the gym, guys are finding all sorts of ways to keep busy.

Some are delving into existing businesses, projects and charities, such as Bills safety Jairus Byrd expanding a program to recognize random acts of kindness.

Others are cultivating new interests and activities, such as Steelers receiver Hines Ward taking a turn on "Dancing With The Stars."

"Everyone has hobbies and things they like to do," said Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco, who rekindled a childhood love for soccer by getting a tryout with Sporting Kansas City of the MLS. He did so well, they let him stick around for a reserve game on Monday.

Agents and marketing folks are encouraging players to stay active -- "to remain relevant," as described by publicist Tom Savage, who works with Maximum Sports, the agency headed by Eugene Parker. Byrd is among their clients, and he's taken their advice by building on the "Louder Than Words" campaign he began last season.

The program is all about recognizing people for good deeds. Volunteers in Buffalo are armed with "Byrd Seed" such as free movie tickets and are supposed to reward strangers seen going out of their way to help others. All the movie tickets have been given out, so Byrd is trying to drum up another sponsor; he's hoping for an ice cream parlor.

Hines Ward on Dancing with the Stars


"Any time you're not doing anything, you want to be productive," said Byrd, who has been posting more often on his organization's Facebook and Twitter accounts. "We still don't know what's going to happen with the lockout. It's kind of like a soap opera. You're always concerned, wanting to keep up to date with what's going on. But you have to just go about your normal business."

The lockout began a little more than two weeks ago. Between ongoing court cases and the chance for negotiations to resume, there could be a new collective bargaining agreement before players miss any paychecks.

However, with each passing day, it becomes more likely that they will miss spring and summer gatherings, like voluntary and mandatory workouts, organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamps. Even the start of training camp is in question.

Some guys can't wait.

Cowboys receiver Troy Bergeron and Browns receiver Rod Windsor recently signed with Arena Football League teams. Neither was a lock to make the NFL, and both are former winners of the AFL rookie of the year award, so their decisions make sense.

So does Zbikowski's return to the ring.

"Boxing is what I've been doing in my football offseason all my life, since middle school," he said. "Some guys like playing pickup games of basketball; this is what I do."

After winning his debut bout in '06, Zbikowski put pro boxing on hold because football paid better. He was a third-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2008, and has been a solid player for the Ravens the last three seasons.

"It was starting to feel like an eternity to when I was going to be able to fight again," he said. "The NFL is year-round. I was young in my career and needed too much development to think I could go to boxing for a few months and come back to football."

But now there's no football -- and, technically, no team since he's a restricted free agent. It was the opening he needed to get back in the ring.

He won with a first-round TKO in Las Vegas earlier this month. This past Saturday, he was on an undercard in Atlantic City and won a decision over a guy who outweighed him by 20 pounds. He's tentatively scheduled to fight again in April, near Dallas.

"Most up-and-coming fighters have 10 fights a year, almost one a month," Zbikowski said. "I'm just trying to squeeze that into a five-month offseason."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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