Why you should care
Because after four releases in 2017, he’s earned a shot at a ring.
During the 2008 BCS National Championship Game, Ricky Jean Francois recorded six tackles, assisted on a sack, had a tackle for loss and blocked a 38-yard field goal attempt en route to earning Defensive MVP honors while leading LSU to a 38-24 victory over Ohio State. Ten years later, as a New England Patriots defensive lineman preparing for Sunday’s Super Bowl LII, Francois says, “I’ve been on this stage before.”
True, Francois is back on the championship stage — and he’s taken quite the circuitous path to get there.
After leaving LSU following his junior season, Francois was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL draft. He started five games over four years for the 49ers before starting 23 for the Indianapolis Colts from 2013 to 2014. The Washington Redskins signed him to a three-year deal in 2015, but the team released him in February 2017, the start of a trying campaign. The Green Bay Packers picked him up a month later in a $3 million deal before cutting him in September, only to bring him back nine days later and release him for a second time in November. The Patriots signed him that month, released him on Dec. 2 and brought him back on Dec. 13. “It was a lesson and it was a journey,” Francois says matter-of-factly. “All I did was get stronger as a person.”
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia compared Francois to another late-season acquisition, James Harrison, a five-time Pro Bowler and onetime defensive player of the year, who was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers and has contributed to the Patriots with six tackles in the playoffs. “That’s just the nature of the NFL,” adds Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly, who ran Francois through pre-draft drills when he was coaching for the then St. Louis Rams. “He had a number of years where he bounced through the teams that he’s been with.”
Amid all the change and tumult, Francois found time for an important stop. The son of a Haitian immigrant raised near the Little Haiti district in Miami, Francois traveled to Haiti last year to help in its recovery from Hurricane Matthew. Redskins owner Dan Snyder loaned his plane, and Francois and Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon, also a son of Haitian immigrants, transported supplies to the devastated island. “I just wanted to go and lend a helping hand,” Francois tells OZY, recalling a hospital visit where he overheard doctors tell a family they didn’t have adequate supplies to properly treat them. “To see that family be hurt,” Francois says, “that was real touching.”
Francois has helped the Patriots with his veteran savvy while demonstrating the strength, athleticism, leverage, hand technique and instincts he exhibited at LSU and with the 49ers.
Back in the States, Francois has helped the Patriots with his veteran savvy while demonstrating the strength, athleticism, leverage, hand technique and instincts he exhibited at LSU and with the 49ers. He has called the Patriots a “band of brothers,” and Patricia says Francois has made an immediate impact on the defending champs. “He’s a really unbelievable guy, very smart, and [he has] really tried to learn our technique and what we’re trying to do,” Patricia tells OZY.
The 6-foot-3, 313-pound lineman proved particularly effective in the playoffs. Patriots right guard Shaq Mason, who goes up against him in practice, says, “He’s very quick-twitch, so he can move well,” referring to Francois’ fast-twitch, explosive muscles. With 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter of the divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans, Francois put that skill into action, sacking quarterback Marcus Mariota for an eight-yard loss. The next week he earned the start in the AFC Championship Game at defensive end and had five tackles.
Turns out, New England is a natural fit for Francois for another reason: He owns the franchises to 30 Dunkin’ Donuts, a chain founded in Quincy, Massachusetts, that’s a regional trademark and a fan favorite. At season’s end, when Francois becomes an unrestricted free agent, the 31-year-old isn’t saying whether he plans to keep playing — but he’s certain that he wants to grow his Dunkin’ Donuts franchises to 50 when he eventually retires. During his time with the 49ers, he learned the importance of planning for life after football from veterans Randy Moss, Nate Clements and Justin Smith. He began exploring options, and his financial adviser connected him with Dunkin’ Donuts. “I wasn’t like most athletes that just fund it,” Francois explains. “I want to actually be a part of it because I can learn something.”
And now he’s paying it forward. On every team he’s played for since, Francois makes a point of telling younger teammates to identify their post-retirement opportunities. At their age, it might not seem urgent, Francois says, “but the average length of a football [career] is like, what, three years?”
During his three years with LSU, Francois’ performance never quite equaled his play as a sophomore in the BCS title game, but he remains connected to the school. After the Jacksonville Jaguars suffered a crushing defeat in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 21, a game in which the Jaguars led by 10 in the fourth quarter, Francois consoled Jaguars running back and fellow LSU alum Leonard Fournette. The rookie was in tears, a moment captured on TV, and it’s a conversation Francois chooses to keep private. He did share, though, that he told Fournette that “he’s one of the best running backs, and sometimes things happen.”
It’s a lesson of perseverance that Francois knows well.