Boxing, soccer among ways NFL players keeping busy

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.

”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, N.J.,

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.”

AP Sports Writer Doug Tucker in Kansas City contributed.