How to beat odds, survive 10 NFL seasons as seventh-round pick

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- As the games have gone on throughout the season, Ricky Jean Francois has tried to fight the nostalgia. There are more games to be played, after all, and his job is to stop opposing running backs from beating him and reach quarterbacks trying to throw against the Detroit Lions.

He has been doing this a while now -- Sunday’s home finale against Minnesota marking the 136th game of his career. So he has started to try to remember more, appreciate conversations in the locker room, notice the fans and cheerleaders. Taking in the sounds, the sights and those people yelling his name.

“I’m really looking into that. I understand a lot of people take that for granted because they think it’s going to happen every year,” Jean Francois said. “And eventually, at some time, it’s going to come to an end. As of now, I just enjoy it. I enjoy coming into the building every day. I enjoy clowning around with these guys and having camaraderie, building these relationships.

“I enjoy getting ready for the preparation of playing a team and going through the process and that I can use in life. If I’m trying to go through something, trying to learn how to prepare for something, I went through it for so long in the NFL that I know how to do it in a correct way.”

There’s a reason for this. Jean Francois is an anomaly in the NFL, the type of player that just doesn’t stick around in the league for more than the average of around three years.

A seventh-round pick out of LSU by San Francisco in 2009, Jean Francois’ brand is a rare one. According to ESPN Stats & Information, of the 1,101 seventh-round picks since 1994, just 84 -- or 7.6 percent -- have played in at least 100 NFL games. Not including kickers and punters, Jean Francois’ 126 NFL games ranks tied for 31st among seventh-round picks in the league since 1994. Of active non-kickers and punters, only Ryan Fitzpatrick, Captain Munnerlyn and Clark Harris have appeared in more.

Jean Francois understands that being in the league for 10 seasons was so unlikely. Statistically, he should be long retired and on to his second or third career. He’s reminded any time someone from his past approaches him with the same oblivious question: You’re still in the league? Jean Francois used to get annoyed. Now, he just laughs.

Yes, he’s still in the NFL. And yes, he’s pretty sure he knows how he did it, too.

Jean Francois looked around his locker room as a rookie. Saw Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and understood immediately what he had to do. He wouldn’t necessarily talk with them right away. Instead he’d wait.

Watch. Observe. Learn. Take notes. Listen. The veterans, he figured, might appreciate that.

He saw Smith in the hot tub, coffee in hand, when he arrived at the facility. Saw his weight room routine, how in-season he’d still squat in excess of 500 pounds. McDonald and Sopoaga were the same, trying to push a 1,000-pound sled 5 yards. Everything, to them, was competition. In Indianapolis, he admired Cory Redding’s energy and spirit. Then he met Robert Mathis, who gave him branding and film-watching advice -- teaching him to find ways to steal a play or two from film study that could result in a sack.

“I just paid attention to them. I never wanted to ask them a question because I was always a person observing people,” Jean Francois said. “Like I observed you from afar. In this locker room, I pay attention to everybody and I know who I can gravitate to and who I can’t. Throughout my career I always made sure I picked those older guys; it didn’t always have to be older guys, just had to be somebody in my position who I just felt had success going through their career.”

This started at LSU, when he followed Kyle Williams, Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey. When vets became comfortable with him, he started asking questions. And when they saw how Jean Francois worked, they helped out. The veterans could appreciate what they saw, because there is something to that once you’re a seventh-round pick, that always sticks with you no matter how much money you’ve made or how many years you’ve played.

“I kind of gravitate to the underdogs,” said Mathis, a 2003 fifth-round pick. “Myself, I was an underdog. It’s just a different race you have to run when you’re in that role.”

Mathis likened their positions to something his old defensive line coach told him. In the NFL, you’re doing one of three things: “Get. Keep. Take. It’s get a job, keep a job or take a job, man.” For Jean Francois, most of his career was built around taking a job. That’s part of life as a seventh-round pick.

It’s why he studied older teammates, understanding how they played a decade or longer. Jean Francois realized he was the older guy in Year 8. He told himself then, no matter what, he had to get to Year 10.

He hit that in September, with the Lions.

“I was always blessed to get another year,” Jean Francois said. “I didn’t care if it was another team. I understand people call me a journeyman and so on. I don’t really care for that journeyman part. Only thing I like is that I’m going to go to another team in another city with different players that either I can get to learn something from them or they get to learn something from me, and we can go from there.

“It’s always a plus. But I never looked at myself as I’m above average or average or this or that. I think a lot of people now, and I listen, a lot of people are still in shock that I’m in the NFL. But I asked those same people, ‘Why are you shocked?' Every team I’ve been on, just about, has been successful.”

At the same time, Jean Francois gets the pessimism. He still has some feelings of a seventh-round pick. It’s why he knew the money he made had to set him up for the rest of his life -- which led him to creating a small doughnut empire in the South and focusing heavily on the investments he has made with his business manager, Sherard Rogers.

Ten years in, Jean Francois values different things than he did when he was younger. It’s why he looks around the stadium more. Tries to remember every piece of it. One day, it’ll be gone -- although the 32-year-old isn’t planning retirement just yet. He says he wants to play at least a couple more years if a team will have him. But now, he’s just having fun on the ride.

“A lot of guys are like, it’s a blessing to get to 10,” Jean Francois said. “Anything past 10 that you want to play, just enjoy it. Enjoy everything that you do, even when you get to 10, just enjoy it.

“Because once it’s over, it’s over.”