SMITHFIELD — New Bryant University football coach Chris Merritt had plenty to keep him busy during his first few weeks on the job.
Merritt had to assemble a coaching staff. He had to find a place to live, plus he had to get out on the recruiting trail. When he returned home to Miami after his Dec. 21 introductory press conference, Merritt's first act was to make the short trip up Interstate-95 to Delray Beach to deliver his first recruiting pitch.
This wasn't a normal recruiting pitch. Merritt didn't have to sell this particular player on the Smithfield school's fantastic athletic facilities, or the school's business pedigree. No, Merritt only had to sell himself to Jean Constant, who made a name for himself as an All-American kick returner and All-NEC receiver.
“He was my first priority,” Merritt said last week. “I met up with Jean a few weeks ago down in Florida after I got the job. I knew he was entering his fifth year and was considering going someplace else. I met with him and defined what his role would be for us and how important he was to us. He didn't wait to get back to school to tell me he was staying. He called me right away and said, ‘Coach, we're all in right now.’”
Even though Constant had the opportunity to take his considerable special teams and offensive talent to a more high-profile program, the redshirt senior decided to remain at Bryant and play under his third head coach in the last four seasons.
When you consider how Constant ended up at Bryant, it's no surprise he's going to spend 2019 catching passes and returning kicks at Beirne Stadium.
“Not really, I never thought about leaving. You just have to believe in your ability and that no matter what coach comes in, you're going to get on the field and play,” Constant said. “You can only live up to your own expectations, so the pressure is the amount of pressure I put on myself – not any outside noise.”
Constant was born in a city an hour from Haiti's capital of Port au-Prince and lived the Caribbean nation until he was two-years-old when his mother moved the family to south Florida. It was in the football hotbed of Fort Lauderdale with Constant and his brothers falling in love with the hard-hitting sport.
Constant, whose first language is Creole, started his football career at mighty Atlantic High School in Port Orange where he befriended a talented wide receiver named Chad Ward. Ward's name should sound familiar to Bryant football fans because he holds the program record for most receiving yards (2,254 yards from 2012-16).
After transferring to smaller Village Academy, Constant turned himself into a Division I scholarship football player. As a junior, Constant had nine touchdowns, recorded three interceptions and 69 tackles. The number were even better in his senior season, but because Village Academy lacked a strong quarterback, most of Constant's good film was on defense or special teams.
When it came time to pick a college, Constant's options were to go to Northern Illinois as a scholarship athlete and leave it up to the coaching staff to figure out his best position. Or, Constant could come to Bryant, after Ward told then-head coach Marty Fine about Constant, and play offense.
The decision proved to be easy, mainly because it wasn't Constant's to make. Constant's older sister, Niola, is a nurse who lives in Boston. For Constant's mother, Bryant made perfect sense.
“That's every athlete's goal, to go big play and on TV,” Constant said. “It came down between my mom and my brother. He played football with Chad at Atlantic but had to stop to start working and help out the family. I really wanted to go to Northern Illinois because I wanted to challenge myself at the FBS level, but this was a great fit with my sister 45 minutes away in Boston.”
Niola makes the trip down I-95 with her two young children to watch every Bryant home game. She also brings plenty of Creole food – rice, fish and beans, since Constant is a vegetarian – on her frequent trips to Smithfield. Constant, thanks to rides from fellow receiver and returner Vinny Nisivoccia, also makes trips to Boston to see his sister and his niece and nephew.
Just like when he transferred to Village Academy as a sophomore and had to prove to coach Donald Hanna he belonged on the field, Constant has spent his career in Smithfield proving to coaches he deserves the ball.
After redshirting in 2015, Constant helped the veteran Bulldogs nearly win the program's first NEC title in 2016, which happened to be Fine's final season on the Bryant sidelines. Constant caught 16 passes for 285 yards and a score, but his career truly took off when James Perry succeeded Fine in 2017 and unleashed his up-tempo offensive approach.
In two seasons with Perry and record-setting quarterback Price Wilson, Constant caught 91 passes for 1,071 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also ran for a touchdown in each of the last two seasons.
His impact, however, was truly felt in the return game where a strong 2017 season – he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns – garnered him 2018 STATS FCS preseason All-America honors. Constant spent all of last summer on Beirne Stadium's new FieldTurf visualizing the opening kickoff of the 2018 season against Division II New Haven.
“I like envisioning stuff the night before or weeks before things happen,” Constant said. “One of the things I envisioned happening was that. During camp I was like, 'What if I take back the first kickoff?' Or during the summer when me and Vin were working out on the new turf, I was like 'Hey, I'm going to score the first touchdown on this turf.' If you're constantly envisioning it, it might come true. That's the way I live.”
Constant caught Francis Palmer's opening kickoff at the 1-yard line – right of the right hashmarks – and started following Nisivoccia. After cruising through the hole created by Hayden Panagos and the rest of the blockers, Constant eluded an overmatched Palmer and used his 200-meter speed to score the first touchdown on the school's new synthetic surface.
While kickoffs look like chaos, they're choreographed works of art practiced every day. Constant's “eyes” are Nisvoccia and Panagos. His job is to be patient, follow his two lead blockers and explode through the hole once it's created. If everything goes right, Constant should only have to beat the kicker – which dovetails into the cardinal rule for every kickoff returner.
“Once you get past the 30- 35-yard line, there shouldn't be anyone except for the kicker in sight,” Constant said. “One of our rules is to never be tackled by the kicker. I have been tackled by the kicker twice against Wagner.”
After Constant's impressive display against New Haven, he only had five kickoff returns over the next eight weeks. He made the most of those opportunities, averaging 31 yards per a return. Meanwhile, Nisivoccia returned 13 kicks in those same eight games.
“It was frustrating because you always want the ball in your hand, but my boy Vin's back there with me and he's always like 'You don't have to force anything. If they kick it to me, just get in front of me and I can make something happen, too,'” Constant said. “That's never been an issue where with me getting upset. But, you always want the ball in your hand.”
After returning three kicks for 48 yards against Saint Francis, Constant was back in the end zone in the penultimate game of the season against Wagner. The game started poorly for Constant, he fumbled the ball on a running play in the second quarter and it was recovered by Wagner.
The day, however, would get better for Constant. He returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter and then he produced a 53-yard return to start the third quarter. Constant returned another kickoff for a touchdown in a 56-55 win over Howard to end the season.
Accolades rolled in quickly after a season in which he led the nation in return average (39.1) and kickoff return touchdowns (three). Constant was the first play in program history to be named a STATS FCS first-team All-American. He was also named an All-American by the Walter Camp foundation and Phil Steele.
Going into his final college campaign, Constant envisions a new role as the team's only returning captain. Constant wants to play in the National Football League, but the league is deemphasizing kickoff returns, so he's going to return punts this season. Constant hasn't returned punts since he returned just seven for a scant 30 yards as a junior.
“I know there's talk in the NFL about taking kickoffs away from the game, so I'm trying to revamp my game,” Constant said. “I'll be returning punts this year, so I hope to have an effect in that part of the game. Absolutely, I was to do this at the next level.”
Follow Branden Mello on Twitter @Branden_Mello