“I tell all the guys: The NFL stands for ‘Not For Long,’” says defensive end Ricky Jean Francois, who recently signed with the Green Bay Packers.
Jean Francois wasn’t supposed to be an exception to that rule. A seventh-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2009, Jean Francois ― now on his fourth contract with his fourth team ― just completed his seventh season.
Sustaining a career in the NFL is not easy. The average career lasts just over 3 years, the lowest of any of the four main sports in the U.S., and that includes practice squad players who never even play in a game. Also, NFL contracts are not guaranteed, meaning players ― even stars ― can be cut at any time.
Before inking a deal with the Packers, Jean Francois enjoyed two productive seasons with the Washington Redskins, playing in all 32 possible games, seven of which he started, while recording 57 tackles, including 3.5 sacks.
Just how rare is such production from a seventh-round selection?
According to a 2015 study by Forbes, the median of “percentage of games started” by seventh-round picks from the 2010 draft from 2010-2015 is 0 percent. In other words, the mere fact that Jean Francois has become a starter while more than doubling the NFL career average is almost unheard of.
As a result, the tech-obsessed 30-year-old ― who was cut by Washington despite having one more year on his contract ― has a unique perspective when looking ahead to life after pro football. Despite being a star player and winning a national title at college football powerhouse Louisiana State University, he knew the odds of a career weren’t especially high.
Developing his business acumen became a priority for him early on.
“During my rookie season, I spent a lot of money,” he says. “I was like, ‘Do I really want to be this type of guy?’ I didn’t want to just spend money, because you won’t get it back. ... The next year you couldn’t pay me to spend a dime.
“After I signed a contract with the Colts [in 2013], I realized that I needed a retirement plan.”
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 78 percent of NFL players go broke within three years of retirement and 15.7 percent file for bankruptcy within 12 years of retirement.
The 6-foot-3, 313-pound Jean Francois ― this year’s proud recipient of the Redskins’ Media Good Guy Award ― did not want to become one of those statistics.
So Jean Francois started to ask around the league ― talking to veterans, coaches and anyone who would offer advice. He started to educate himself, going through an assortment of different business and economic publications. Forbes, Fortune and Bloomberg are his favorites.
With the help of his financial manager, he then purchased a Dunkin’ Donuts location in Georgia. Before long, he owned 25 franchises throughout the South, and he still has plans to expand to Houston. He committed himself to the business in every offseason, understanding the nuances of the business as he would an NFL playbook. At first, it was a grueling process, learning about projections and parsing through spreadsheets. But soon, it became second nature. He still feels a thrill every time one of his stores beats the sales projections.
“It opened up another world I didn’t know existed,” Jean Francois adds.
“I have to be hands-on so I can see everything grow. I gotta learn how to do it myself.”
When challenges ― such as consistency in the product and service ― presented themselves, Jean Francois leaned on his football background and his experience working with a team. But he’s never had a problem with a single employee.
“Football helped me mentally, because I had to get my mind right,” he says.
“Making sure everybody has a positive vibe,” Jean Francois says, is paramount. “I gotta make sure that I set the mindset of people in there to be happy. Teamwork is the most important thing. It can make things work better. In other words, if football is a brotherhood, business is a community.
“[Business] helped me become a better person,” he says. “Business makes you open up as a person, because now you’re more well-rounded. Early on in the NFL, you get influenced by the Rolls-Royces, the Ferraris, the Lambos. The next thing you know, you’re broke and out of the league.”
And while business has made Jean Francois smarter and more focused, it was the birth of his son six months ago that changed his perception of life.
“My son ― when he looks at me, I want to be the right father figure,” Jean Francois says. “He inspires me. I thought I grew up already, but when he came along, I was like, ‘Okay, I really didn’t grow up.’ When I look at him, it all makes sense.”
These days, Jean Francois ― who is of Haitian descent ― sees inspiration everywhere, including in frequent trips to the small Caribbean island nation as a means of giving back to local communities in need.
But the question still remains: What will life after football look like?
His $3 million deal with the Packers is only for the 2017-18 season. Then, he’s not sure where he’s headed, but he does have one big idea, despite lacking any tangible experience within the stock market.
“I’d like start a hedge fund,” Jean Francois says.
Another option, though, is heading back to school.
He wants to earn an Executive MBA in his hometown at the University of Miami, through a new Artists and Athletes program that has drawn rave reviews. Created in 2015 and aimed in large part toward football players, it employs a schedule that allows players to train early in the morning before going to nine hours of classes complemented by late-night study sessions.
To be sure, it’s no easy task, but Jean Francois certainly thinks it can be done. Fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap for instance, earned Pro Bowl honors for the Cincinnati Bengals this year, while also completing his MBA.
And considering Jean Francois is already acing statistics, why would anyone doubt him?