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Bucs hopeful A.J. Francis has active life outside football

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle A.J. Francis participates in drills during a practice at One Buc Place in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, June 2, 2016. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle A.J. Francis participates in drills during a practice at One Buc Place in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, June 2, 2016. LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Published Jun. 13, 2016

TAMPA — A.J. Francis, like so many 26-year-olds in the modern workplace, is trying to lock down a steady job this summer.

He was a bouncer in college. He has done internships in journalism and politics, spent time as an Uber driver last year, went back to school to get his Master's degree this spring and has built a strong following online with a weekly podcast on professional wrestling.

He's also 330 pounds and hoping to stick with the Bucs as a defensive tackle.

"I just like to be productive," said Francis, a Maryland grad who would earn a $600,000 salary this fall if he spends a full season with Tampa Bay.

Francis has been on the cusp of the NFL for three seasons, spending all of last season on the 53-man rosters of the Dolphins and Seahawks. He was normally inactive on game day but was able to play in his first three NFL games, getting a single tackle with Miami and another with Seattle.

And when it's not football season, he just likes to stay busy.

"I was so much bigger than all the other bouncers, so I didn't really have any trouble," the 6-foot-5 lineman said of his college moonlighting. "The worst thing I had to do was, if somebody got too drunk and couldn't walk out themselves, I had to carry them."

He's still being asked to move around people who don't necessarily want to be moved. The Bucs, who signed him after he was cut by Seattle last month, have only three proven defensive tackles — Pro Bowl player Gerald McCoy and veterans Clinton McDonald and Akeem Spence, who both have experience as NFL starters. The Bucs will likely keep a fourth, with Francis battling a few rookies for a key backup job this fall.

"A.J. is definitely one of the guys in the mix there," coach Dirk Koetter said last week. "You've got to bring your young guys along and develop them. A.J. is a guy we brought in here, and we've got a couple of other rookies working there."

Working there, it so happens, is what Francis does best.

"He is really well-rounded," former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. "Very personable kid. Very smart kid, good student, hard worker. I'm very proud of him not only as a football player, but as a student and a person."

Francis' time as an Uber driver in south Florida last year drew national headlines. ESPN followed him along for a ride, and late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon joked in his monologue that as a Dolphin, Francis could only drive 15 yards and then had to punt.

Francis' part-time driving — his biggest fare was a $48 ride — was also part-time entertainment, as he had a camera mounted in his car and (with permission) interviewed his fares, lining up Dolphins teammate Olivier Vernon (who has since signed a $90 million contract with the Giants) and other celebrities such as director Billy Corben and posting the conversations online.

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"I wanted to make some extra money — I didn't need the money, but I just wanted to because I wasn't making money in the offseason," he said. "Right now, I'm laying in my hotel room bed, watching Netflix. Last year, I didn't have money coming in, so I was like, 'Man, I need to make a couple bucks.' It was enjoyable."

His focus is firmly on football now — it's still his passion and obviously can help pay the bills. But he's keeping an eye on life after football and lining up work for after "retirement."

Francis this spring earned his Master's in public policy, with concentrations in international security and economic policy. When his football career is over, his "end goal" is to run for office, eventually back home as mayor of Baltimore, or perhaps governor of Maryland.

He understands that most pro athletes making a half-million a year don't spend their offseasons working side jobs, or finishing up postgraduate degrees as he did this spring.

"I'm just not one of them," he said.

Contact Greg Auman at gauman@tampabay.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.

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