- In the NFL, most players are migrants—working far from where they grew up, often moving from one place to the next for a better opportunity. For Ricky Jean-Francois, of Haitian descent, his team and the country of his heritage both draw strength from finding the best in people, and grinding through whatever they face
Ricky Jean-Francois is a huge and friendly guy who, when he sees that a strip of used adhesive tape has stuck to the bottom of a clueless reporter’s shoe, will cover a good piece of the locker room to help remove it. “Can’t have that,” he says. “Those are nice shoes.”
Since leaving LSU in 2009, Jean-Francois bounced through four teams before finally alighting with the New England Patriots last November. Before arriving in Foxboro, however, Jean-Francois already had a wicked awesome load of New England street cred. He is the owner of more than 30 Dunkin’ Donuts franchises all over the southeast United States, a powerful regional counterassault on the entrenched imperial forces of Krispy Kreme. Upon arriving to join the Patriots, whose tight end, Rob Gronkowski, is the face of the Dunk in commercials, Jean-Francois told Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston,
“Believe me, that was one thing as soon as I got off the airplane, every block I hit I saw a Dunkin’ Donuts. I was laughing; I must be in Dunkin' Donuts heaven here … Just 2014, I sat down and talked to a few guys, older guys told me I can’t play this game forever, so do something that can help you; the day you walk away from this game, you can have something to do with something that can take care of you and your family. So Dunkin’ Donuts. Plus everyone drinks coffee."
On Saturday night, in the customary New England first-round home-field playoff waltz, a 35-14 rout of the Tennessee Titans, the undersold Patriots defensive line sacked the elusive Marcus Mariota eight times. Jean-Francois had one of the more pivotal ones. With 10 minutes left in the third quarter and New England leading 21-7, Jean-Francois got loose and sacked Mariota for an eight-yard loss at the Tennessee 18-yard line. On the next play, Marquise Flowers got Mariota for another eight-yard loss. This left the Titans with a third-and-31 situation on their own two-yard line. This was a signifying moment because, generally, when you come into Foxboro to face the Patriots in the first round of the playoffs, life is a third-and-31 situation on your own two-yard line.
“I’ve been through the ups and downs, starting in Green Bay and ending up here in New England,” Jean-Francois said. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride, but it’s been a rollercoaster ride that I’ve enjoyed.
“Each man in here is grinding. Each man in here is trying to get better. What you want to do, you don’t want to look separate from them, so you want to grind it just as hard as them. The only way you can do it is you have the grind through the process, grind through the journey. I know a few guys been in the league 13 or 14 seasons that have never seen a postseason so you’re blessed. Don’t take this for granted because, in the blink of an eye, you can be on the outside looking in..”
(Let us pause here and congratulate Jean-Francois for some expert marketing. If you own 30 Dunkin’ Donuts franchises, doling out god alone knows how much coffee to sleepy highway workers, it’s smart business to be up there in your day job, talking about grinding.)
It had been an interesting week for Jean-Francois. A year ago, Jean-Francois, whose father was a Haitian immigrant and who grew up in Miami not far from the neighborhood known as Little Haiti, went to the island for the first time, to help in the recovery from that country’s devastating encounter with Hurricane Matthew. He was accompanied by Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garçon, another son of Haitian immigrants. The two flew to Haiti on a plane owned by Redskins owner Dan Snyder and, in a piece for The Players Tribune, Jean-Francois described how the trip and his time on the island affected him.
My dad’s family is Haitian and I’m from Miami, not far from a part of the city called Little Haiti,” Jean-Francois wrote. So, yeah, I sort of grew up surrounded by Haitians. Folks around town would hear my last name (Francois) and expect me on the spot to speak Creole. If another Haitian comes up to you and you can’t speak Creole? Well then you’re gonna get in a full-on argument—for no other reason than you can’t speak Creole. I’d picked up a few words here and there, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Sitting at a table of 20 Haitians and not understanding anything they were saying made me feel weird and out of place, even around my own family.
We were in Haiti for less than a day, but it was still an adjustment coming back. Being there was a lot to take in, the trucks everywhere, kids walking with bowls of rice on their heads. One moment you’re in a third world country, the next, you’re back in the NFL lifestyle. I thought about the nurse I spoke to—her voice had been cracking like she was about to cry. Whether someone gets help or not was a decision she has had to make every single day since the hurricane hit. Every day. But I also saw the Haitian people for the first time. That gap I had felt for so long was finally closed. Yeah, they’ve been through a lot, but that nurse keeps going back to the hospital to do what she can to make things better. Kids keep finding ways to get themselves to school, teachers are there ready to keep having class. Haiti keeps grinding. I think the people of Haiti feel forgotten. Even as a guy of Haitian descent, I hadn’t made the time for my country, which is why when Dan Snyder gave me this opportunity, I knew I wasn’t going to pass it up.
So, when Haiti came back into the news this week, because the President of the United States mouthed off about immigrants who are not from Norway, specifically mentioning Haitians who came here after an earthquake nearly destroyed the country seven years ago, Jean-Francois was listening a little harder, and feeling things a little more deeply, than he did before his trip last year.
“It’s been in the news this week. One thing you got to understand about Haitian people is that we’re strong. Words don’t bother us. Everyone has their opinion. The only way your opinion becomes valued is if I value it. It don’t mean anything. It’s just a bunch of words that don’t have a meaning unless you allow it to have meaning.”
This, of course, is a very Patriot way of dealing with a noisome issue from outside the stadium. Deal with it briefly and then move on. Now that free agency has established itself in the NFL, however limited its operation may be, football players are the same as all other professional athletes. They’re all internal emigrants, well-paid migrant workers in a dangerous occupation. In his eight-year NFL career, Ricky Jean-Francois has lived and worked in San Francisco, Indianapolis, Washington, Green Bay, and, now, in Massachusetts, five distinct regions with five distinct regional personalities, and five franchises with five distinct competitive identities. It takes all manner of personal and professional adjustments to fit into each of these. And now he’s with the Patriots, an operation with as distinctive a personality as any ever developed within a sports franchise.
Almost immediately after Saturday’s game, the game had receded so far into the past that it might as well have been an AFL game from 1961 against Billy Cannon and the Houston Oilers, the charter franchise that moved from Houston to Tennessee in 1997 because Houston declined to build them a stadium. Even franchises are migrants now, with an extra bit of economic extortion to give the whole business a bit of a tang. The Patriots—and Ricky Jean-Francois—had moved on to whoever they would play in the AFC Championship Game, the seventh consecutive one of those in which New England has played.
“The biggest thing in the downfall of things and of people is consistency,” Jean-Francois said. “This team has always been consistent in what they do, and they always stick to what they know. Besides winning, they stick to the process. They stick to the journey. And they keep doing it and you keep seeing what position they’re in. They don’t really tell it. We just look at the next guy. I keep seeing those guys getting better, grinding.”
For all the joking about how robotic that Patriots are, this is not a system for people without a firm grasp of who they are. That has been part of what Ricky Jean-Francois calls the journey, the one that has taken him to every part of this country, and the journey that took him to the wounded place from which his father came. In a country of immigrants, everyone is on a journey. Every one of us is a traveler. Every one of us is curious about what home really means.
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