The smile transitioned quickly into laughter—nothing new for Gronk.
Super Bowl media day is the bold event that takes place on the Monday before the big game. Consisting of bright lights and thousands of reporters, players from each team answer numerous questions. The zanier the answers, the better.
Due to the global pandemic, media day occurred over Zoom, with players staring at computer screens, fielding questions in an empty room with no cameras or microphones shoved into their faces.
Gronkowski brings the energy in his answers consistently. But when Auclair was mentioned, it went to another level.
“You’re a good guy,” Gronkowski said, imitating Auclair.
Gronk smiled throughout his entire answer. It speaks to the impact Auclair has on this Tampa Bay Buccaneers team, one win away from the franchise’s second Super Bowl.
It is the second consecutive year a Canadian will suit up in football’s biggest game. Last year, Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif protected Patrick Mahomes en route to the team’s first Super Bowl title since 1969.
Tardif is on the frontlines in his home province of Quebec, serving as a doctor in a long-term care facility to stop the spread of COVID-19. Auclair, also a Quebec native, continues the momentum of Canadians who play impactful roles on Super Bowl teams.
“I’m so excited,” said Auclair on making the Super Bowl. “I haven’t been able to sleep well the last couple of days. It’s just a crazy year with COVID and all that. All the protocols we’ve been through, and having not many fans at games, it’s felt so much different. But it’s unbelievable to be here.”
Drive almost 100 kilometres south of Quebec City, the capital of the province, and one arrives at Notre-Dame Des Pins. A population of 1,227, the town is a parish municipality embedded in the Beauce region of Quebec, known for agriculture and religious heritage.
The sleepy town of Notre-Dame Des Pins became a starting point for gold seekers in the 19th century. As time went on, the village struck gold with producing professional athletes; hockey players such as Alex Tanguay, two-time Olympic gold medalist Marie-Philip Poulin, and now football tight end Antony Auclair. Whenever he and his brother, Adam, got home from school, they tossed a football in the backyard of their home.
“To be there, a guy from Quebec, a guy from Canada, in the second year in a row, it’s crazy to me.”
“It was the only thing we had to do at this time,” Adam Auclair said. “Every winter we planned a small tournament. We played in the snow with our friends and my brother and I were always against each other. The competition was always there and the winner of the tournament won a small cup. It was a source of motivation to come back after school and play with our friends.”
Auclair demonstrated a strong throwing arm, hence why he started his football career playing quarterback. He played under center Champlain-Lennoxville high school until his final year, where he transitioned to tight end.
“I got invited to an NCAA Camp in Buffalo,” Auclair said. “I started the camp as a quarterback and they said, ‘You are going to play tight end.’”
Laval head coach Glen Constantin, along with offensive coordinator Justin Ethier, recruited Auclair as a tight end, impressed with his natural physical ability.
“In the Canadian game, being a tight end isn’t easy,” Ethier said. “We felt good that we would be able to work on a pretty good package for him as far as being able to help us.”
As a tight end, Auclair not only provided tremendous protection against opposing pass rushes but he generated positive yardage catching the ball. For two years in a row (2015 and 2016), Auclair received offensive All-Star team honours for his contribution to the Rouge et Or offense.
That same 2016 season, Auclair hoisted the Vanier Cup, adding to Laval’s historic legacy as a football program. He didn’t record a touchdown in the 31-26 victory over the Calgary Dinos, but it remains one of Auclair’s defining games at Laval, thanks to his competitive spirit.
“In the provincial final, Canadian semifinal, and Vanier Cup, he not only blocked but made some amazing catches,” Ethier said. “Every time you have guys like that who are passionate about the game it helps the whole surroundings. He bought into our culture and added his work ethic and enthusiasm. Antony loves playing football.”
For Auclair, being a part of Laval’s winning culture prepared him to achieve his dream of playing and staying in the NFL.
“Everything is like an NCAA or NFL team,” Auclair said. “The way the whole organization at Laval prepared me to get here is by doing things in a professional way.”
Auclair dropped to the fourth round of the 2017 CFL Draft, with the Saskatchewan Roughriders drafting him. He didn’t get selected in the NFL Draft, however, the Buccaneers signed the tight end as an undrafted free agent.
In his first three seasons, the Buccaneers didn’t make the playoffs. The franchise possessed the worst career winning percentage in NFL history.
“He’s a great dude overall. I just love working with him.” – Rob Gronkowski
Auclair’s unflappable temperament served him well during difficult years for the team. In 2018, he played all 16 games, recording seven receptions for 48 yards. His primary role as a tight end is pass blocking, becoming one of the best in the NFL.
The Buccaneers offered Auclair a one-year contract last March before the global pandemic spread to North America. The front office began making moves, adding Gronkowski and six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.
The COVID-19 protocols did not deter Auclair from forming bonds with Gronkowski and fellow tight end Cameron Brate. The tight end trio always lightens the mood of the locker room, with Gronkowski’s infectious enthusiasm and Auclair teaching players French words.
“He’s a great dude overall. I just love working with him,” Gronkowski said.
Auclair recognizes the importance of having teammates like Brady and Gronkowski, who make players around them motivated with their winning mentality.
“It’s just fun to be around those guys,” Auclair said. “It’s hard to be down when you are around Gronk. They work so hard and they are good examples for me.”
In the rich history of the Beauce region and Laval’s Rouge et Or, no player qualified for the Super Bowl. That changed two Sundays ago at Lambeau Field, as Brady outlasted Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, sending 27-year-old Antony Auclair to a home Super Bowl.
Auclair became the 17th Canadian-born player in NFL history to compete in the Super Bowl. Eight of the last ten Super Bowls consist of a Canadian on the active roster.
Not only is this a testament to Auclair’s determination but also NFL teams recognizing Canadian talent. Wide receiver Chase Claypool and linebacker Neville Gallimore headlined the 2020 NFL Draft for Canadians, going to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys respectively. Edmonton native from Oklahoma State Chuba Hubbard, who set school records as a running back, is expected to be drafted in the early rounds of the 2021 draft.
When these Canadian players are visible to NFL scouts, they perform at a high level. Auclair hopes to use his Super Bowl appearance as an inspiration to those in Quebec and throughout Canada, who dream of playing football at a professional level.
“To be there, a guy from Quebec, a guy from Canada, in the second year in a row, it’s crazy to me,” Auclair said.
Earlier in the season, against the Carolina Panthers, Gronkowski caught a touchdown pass. Instead of the spike in the end zone, he handed the ball to Auclair, who performed Gronkowski’s signature move.
A sign of respect between tight ends, teammates, and close friends.
Auclair’s journey, from Notre Dame Des Pins to Raymond James Stadium for the Super Bowl, isn’t just a dream.
It’s a reality that makes Canadian football fans across the country smile with pride.
Just like Gronkowski, whenever he hears the name ‘Antony Auclair.’