GREEN BAY – The torn jeans were the first thing to catch Ricky Jean Francois’ attention, not to mention the tattered white shirt and sandals filling out the ensemble.
A seventh-round pick for San Francisco in 2009, the young defensive lineman didn’t know what to make of Justin Smith the first time he laid eyes on his new teammate. Smith looked more like a tourist than a former fourth-overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Yet, that’s how Smith came to the office each day. On road trips, the eventual five-time Pro Bowler drove his BMW to the airport and appeared to carry the same luggage he entered the league with in 2001.
It wasn’t until Jean Francois took a trip to Smith’s house in Silicon Valley that the 6-foot-3, 313-pound defensive tackle finally put all the clues together.
“I showed up to his house and his next-door neighbor is the owner of Facebook,” Jean Francois said recently. “He’s like, ‘I don’t have to wear this. I don’t have to do that. All of that’s for show. Where I live at is what I need to invest in. Friends who I talk to are who I need to invest in. The people around my circle is what I need to invest in.’”
This was Ricky Jean Francois’ introduction to the NFL. As valuable as it was to play with Smith for four seasons, the life lessons Jean Francois learned off the field were just as vital.
The NFL is a tough business. Each season, there are hundreds of rookies who dream of Pro Bowls, Super Bowls and Hall of Fame careers. More often than not, most are dispatched to their next walk of life within three or four years.
Jean Francois easily could’ve been one of them as the 244th player selected in 2009, only 12 spots away from going undrafted entirely.
Jean Francois still found ways to distinguish himself in San Francisco. He developed into one of the most durable and versatile players on the 49ers’ defensive front, playing in all 48 regular-season games from 2010-12.
He signed his first big contract with the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent in 2013. Afterward, Jean Francois immediately recalled Smith’s advice about being smart with his money.
“We can’t play this game forever,” Jean Francois said. “Your career ends, your football-playing identity is gone. What are you going to do now? What are you going to fall back on? The NFL, that money ain’t going to be made forever. What are you going to do?
“In my case, as soon as I signed with Indy, I don’t want to keep looking at my account and see withdrawals. I want to see large amounts of deposits.”
Jean Francois didn’t major in business at LSU. He’s mostly self-taught, reading books by the likes Napoleon Hill and various financial magazines (Forbes is his personal favorite).
He also asked a lot of questions along the way and did an internship with Apple during his time in San Francisco. As soon as the ink was dry on his contract with the Colts, Jean Francois started putting all the knowledge he’d gained to work.
He began meeting with different bankers and financial advisors to begin testing the business waters. He wasn’t afraid to ask the tough questions, though. He wasn’t interested in advisors who just talked – he wanted people who were willing to teach him the whys and hows of the business and investment world.
After settling on a partner, Jean Francois was directed toward his first opportunity – Dunkin’ Donuts. He met with CEO Nigel Travis, and in only a few short years, one small opportunity in Savannah, Ga., has turned into 25 stores.
His goal is to have 50 Dunkin’ Donuts operating by the time he retires from the NFL.
“As more territory came, more businesspeople from different ventures started coming to me and started asking me for my advice,” Jean Francois said. “It’s like, ‘People are asking me now.’ I never thought I’d get to the point.”
Jean Francois is extremely active with the business in the offseason, entrusting a small circle of associates to help him during the NFL season. He said he has five individuals with whom he does business directly.
While the off-the-field exploits can be time-consuming, it hasn’t taken away from his love of football. Once an overlooked late-rounder, Jean Francois has 153 tackles and 12 sacks in 109 career regular-season games. He’s missed only six games over his last seven seasons.
His latest NFL opportunity has taken him to Green Bay in a defense that closely resembles the system he played in with San Francisco under Vic Fangio, a close friend and protégé of Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Not wanting to overwhelm his teammates, Jean Francois mostly kept to himself at first. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the first to approach him. Tight end Martellus Bennett was the second, and gradually he began to feel at home with his new surroundings.
Jean Francois loves his place on the defensive line. He admires Mike Daniels’ energy, and believes 2016 draft picks Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry have all the tools to be successful.
“He’s very intelligent, very smart,” said defensive line coach Mike Trgovac of Jean Francois. “He can pick up multiple positions very easily and he understands the game. I can tell by talking with him that once we get into a game, that’s going to be a smooth transition.”
The personal growth never stops. Five years ago, Jean Francois wrote down a list of goals he wanted to achieve in the next 10 years – to be a successful businessman, a home-owner and a husband (he’s getting married on June 24).
He also applies the same mindset to football. A national champion at LSU in 2007, Jean Francois hopes to claim the Super Bowl championship in Green Bay that has eluded him.
Now a ninth-year veteran, many of the players Jean Francois learned from – Patrick Willis, Carlos Rogers, Nate Clements, Cory Redding, Robert Mathis, Jason Hatcher and Smith – have moved on to the next phase of their lives.
Jean Francois doesn’t mind being an elder statesman. He’s happy to share his experiences with his younger teammates even if he doesn’t wear the ripped jeans and T-shirts like Smith did.
“Like I tell a lot of the guys when they first come in, I understand you want the car and the house and all of the other stuff,” Jean Francois said. “Now you’re seeing withdrawals on one side. Now, look at the other part. How many deposits — not your check from here — how many deposits are you getting that’s not football-related?
“It’s quick to see the withdrawals. But it’s better to see deposits.”