Playing football in France helps former Palisade player Kirstatter chase his dream
Two weeks into training camp with the Arena Football League’s San Jose Sabercats, Jesse Kirstatter received a life-altering email.
It came from Steeve Guersent, head coach of the Amiens Spartiates, a French football club. Members of the Spartiates’ coaching staff were intrigued by Kirstatter’s http://www.europlayers.com profile, which features video, photos and background information.
In the midst of a fight for one of the Sabercats’ final roster spots, Kirstatter read the email and then cut to the chase as he crafted a response.
“Well, I’m in the middle of training camp,” he replied, “so if you’re serious, let me know. He said, ‘I’ll fly you out.’ “
Kirstatter could wait and see what happened in San Jose or go with the sure thing and play in a league flavored with prestige.
So, off to northern France Kirstatter went, his football career pivoting in an unexpected but promising direction. It’s common for European leagues to recruit American imports, and the 2008 Palisade High School graduate is no clunker.
Playing linebacker on defense and wide receiver on offense, the 23-year-old Kirstatter contributed mightily on both sides of the ball for the Division I Fédération Française de Football Américain (FFFA) club. Off the field, he saw things few Americans get the chance to see.
“It’s one of those things I thought about in training camp,” the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Kirstatter said. “I could stay here and cross my fingers, or I could explore. While I was over there, I went to London, I went to Germany, I went to Switzerland, and I literally got to see things most people would never see in their life.”
Kirstatter, who arrived three games into the season, spoke no French upon his arrival. Between everyday conversation and the online program Babbel, he learned enough to get by.
On the field, though, the Spartiates spoke two languages Kirstatter knows intimately — English and football.
“All the calls on the field were in English,” he said. “When you’re off the field, you couldn’t understand anything, but when you’re on the field together, everybody understood everything.”
Playbooks were in English as well, Kirstatter said.
“I think the reason why is the Americans are supposed to be the guys,” he explained. “The French have to learn English because the guys coming in are supposed to be the leader of the team.”
The Spartiates put Kirstatter up in a three-bedroom apartment with two teammates, and the club footed the bill for insurance, travel and other everyday expenses. As far as salary goes, players earn between 500 and 1,500 euros per month, Kirstatter said.
“The pay is not great, but they know that,” he said. “Once you’re there, you have a better opportunity of going on (to the next level), so they use that as a selling point.”
Eventually, Kirstatter earned invitations to team dinners.
Kirstatter did his best to assimilate off the field. And that meant lots and lots of croissants during the three or so months he played for the Spartiates.
“The French, they don’t really believe in meat,” he said. “I lost probably 15 pounds when I was out there. It’s all bread. The croissants were really good, but as far as keeping protein, everyone was very skinny. Everyone is healthy, but nobody’s big and strong. Even at the gyms, everybody was skinny.”
Kirstatter experienced a joyous reunion with American fare on his way back from France in June. At TGI Friday’s inside Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, he gorged on wings, pizza, chips and salsa and steak before capping off his long-awaited American meal with a slice of chocolate cake.
“I spent like $50, eating as much as I could,” he recalled. “I felt like a starved kid. I went crazy.”
Taking the scenic route
Kirstatter has followed a long, trying and winding path to reach the European leagues, from which players are sometimes plucked to play in the Canadian Football League.
He starred at Palisade High School before a one-year stint at what was then Western State College in Gunnison. A shoulder injury and the departure of the Western State’s linebackers coach sent a depressed Kirstatter back to the Grand Valley in search of an identity.
“I fell into like a depression,” he said. “I stopped working out. At that point, football was my life.”
He enrolled at Mesa State College but didn’t have any interest in playing football there.
Rest and recovery did wonders for his shoulder injury, which Kirstatter traced to a game of pickup football as a youngster.
“I hurt my shoulder when I was young playing backyard football,” he said. “I think it was sixth or seventh grade, but I dove to tackle someone (which I shouldn’t have been doing because it was during school) and landed weird on my left shoulder. I tore my AC joint, broke my collarbone in two places and partially tore my rotator cuff.”
The injury resurfaced at Western State.
“I kept getting stingers with no real reason,” he said. “It cracked a vertebra in my neck, and they said I had a 50/50 chance to play again.”
Somehow, Kirstatter said, the injury healed on its own.
In the summer of 2010, the semipro Grand Junction Gladiators came calling.
“The quarterback of the team asked me to come play,” Kirstatter said. “I was like, ‘I don’t really know,’ but once I was on the field again, I felt like I was home. I was where I was supposed to be.”
All of a sudden, Kirstatter’s life had purpose again. Football has been his life since.
In 2011, he moved on to play with the Douglas County Reign, a semipro squad on the Front Range. He’s had tryouts with the Arena Football League’s Utah Blaze and the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders, though he quickly realized nothing would materialize from his Oakland trip.
“It was one of those things where you’re basically a body to see how everyone else does,” Kirstatter said. “They were using me as a dummy, basically.”
Kirstatter, who hopes to make at least a CFL roster someday, believes he’s better off in the character department for traveling an obstacle-laden football road.
“You get those guys who go to Division I colleges, and they go to the same place I’m at now, and they have no work ethic,” he said. “They expect everything to be given to them, as opposed to me going the hard way. I’ve fought for everything I’ve had to get, but I cherish it. When it comes to me, I’m appreciative.”
Kirstatter is aiming high.
“My ultimate goal, since I was a little boy, was to play in the NFL,” he said. “You have to be the best player overseas to play in Canada, and you have to be the best player in Canada to play in the NFL. I almost got to being the best player overseas. If I can just get into Canada. That’s where I’ve shortened my goal.”
He has a Canadian agent, is working out religiously and is playing for the Gladiators again this summer. He said he has a standing offer to return to France next spring to play for the Spartiates, but he hopes maybe he can make a CFL roster next summer.
“I don’t think I’m physically ready for the CFL this year, which is why I’m going to train until the next year,” Kirstatter said. “Ultimately, I could go overseas and then come back and play in the CFL.”
Whether or not the NFL or CFL is his final destination, football has brought adventure and purpose to Kirstatter’s life.
“It’s been a fun and difficult ride,” Kirstatter said, “but I wouldn’t change it for anything.”