Mikhail chasing his football fancy with friend

Jesse Kirstatter, left, and Keith Mikhail have been playing football together off and on since 2009. The duo hopes to eventually play in the Canadian Football League, or perhaps overseas in a professional league.

One man can relate to Jesse Kirstatter’s journey into the professional football wilderness: Grand Junction Gladiator teammate and longtime friend Keith Mikhail.

Mikhail bounced around with various arena-league teams last year, living a transient lifestyle while pursuing his dream.

The 24-year-old native of Roselle, Ill., initially signed on with the New Mexico Stars of the Indoor Football League. He went on to play for the Arizona Outlaws of the American Indoor Football League and then for the Chicago Pythons in the Continental Indoor Football League.

Concussion issues cut short Mikhail’s 2012 arena exploits, and he wound up returning to Grand Junction. He has since passed on offers to play for an arena team in Missouri and for a club overseas in Serbia. Overseas is where he hopes to end up in the short term. In the longer term, both he and Kirstatter, who recently completed a season with the Amiens Spartiates in France, want a crack at the Canadian Football League.

“That’s the goal right now,” he said. “Me and Jesse, we’re both trying. We’d really like to get into Canada.”

Mikhail’s in the gym every day preparing for whatever opportunity might arise.

“I always make sure that, when the call is made, I’m ready to go,” said the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Mikhail, who plays linebacker and defensive end. “That’s why I’m always staying in shape, for when the phone rings. If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. Right now, I’m just staying in shape, working out and playing with the Gladiators,”

As has become custom, he’s playing alongside his best friend.

Kirstatter and Mikhail met at Western State College, where both played football. Kirstatter was a true freshman and Mikhail, who moved to southwestern Colorado with his family midway through high school and graduated from Durango High School in 2007, was a redshirt freshman.

“He was my best friend,” Mikhail said. “We played basketball together. We’d be up until 4 in the morning playing video games every night. It kind of carried over. We stayed in touch after school.”

In the summer of 2010, Kirstatter convinced Mikhail to move to Grand Junction, where they trained and played football together with the Grand Junction Gladiators. Along the way, they formed a bond usually reserved for brothers.

“We worked out every day, me and him,” Mikhail recalled. “We lived in the gym together. We went to the field together.”

The next summer, they moved to the Front Range with Keith’s younger brother, Brian, to play for the semi-pro Douglas County Reign. They were chasing their football dreams, albeit under trying conditions.

“It started out really good,” Mikhail said. “Then the team stopped feeding us. They cut the electricity out on the house. It was very rough, to say the least. We used to go days without eating. We ran out of money. We weren’t working there, just playing. But we still managed to go to the gym every day. We never really lost that drive or focus.”

Was it a great experience? Not at all. Did it open doors to bigger and better things? Absolutely.

“We always say we never should have gone there,” Mikhail said. “It was bad, but really, us playing in Denver, the film we got, the names we made for each other, it’s what got me and him where we’re at today. It’s kind of like a gift and a curse. It was really awful, the worst, just the living experience — starving each day and not having electricity.”

Side by side, Kirstatter and Mikhail emerged from that tumultuous summer with the spirit to keep fighting.

Mikhail set out on his indoor-league odyssey, and Kirstatter went on to play overseas in France.

They hope to play together overseas next season.

“Hopefully, we can play together again,” Mikhail said. “Our dream was always to make it together, for both of us to make it. Last year was my opportunity. This year was his. Hopefully, this next year, we get somewhere together.”


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