All throughout the picturesque city of Chambery, situated in the heart of the French Alps, people can’t drive past certain billboards or walk by bus stops without seeing his face.
Jake Kiley, a former Penn State football wideout whose college career never quite took off, is trying to make a name for himself in the historical region of Savoy.
Kiley — who appeared in only two games for the Nittany Lions after an ACL tear and broken leg — is almost halfway through a 10-game season as the starting quarterback for Les Aigles de Chambery, a team in the French American Football League’s second division.
And while he’s in Chambery, less than a two-hour drive from both Italy and Switzerland, Kiley is embracing a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It was something I wasn’t really prepared for at first, with how much you really have to flip your mind and say, ‘I’m actually going to play in another country,’” Kiley said over the phone from his flat in Chambery. “You just have to tell yourself that it’s going to be for the best, and make that jump.”
And what a jump it was.
Finding his way to France: Kiley doesn’t speak a lick of French. Not a bit.
But he wanted to keep playing football and talked to a few friends about “alternative steps” to the NFL. He considered using his final year of eligibility elsewhere after deciding to transfer from Penn State in 2015. Maybe he’d try to find a spot in the Canadian Football League.
Instead, he made a profile on Europlayers.com, a website used by European football clubs to scout talent. And, shortly thereafter, Kiley received interest from teams in Germany, Holland, France, Spain and even Slovakia.
Kiley’s parents had their concerns — what used to be an eight-hour drive from New Hampshire to State College to visit their son is now an eight-hour flight — but, ultimately, they were on-board.
“My advice to him was that, ‘Hey, you’re young, you’re single, go and explore. Go travel Europe,’” said Ed Kiley, Jake’s father. “You get to play something you love, and it may open some doors down the road career-wise.”
Kiley accepted a one-year contract with Les Aigles — or, in English, the Eagles — on Jan. 13 with a cheek-to-cheek grin, but he quickly faced a challenge: Chambery’s season started in two weeks.
Kiley took a week to say good-byes, pack his things and learn the playbook. He flew in two days before Chambery’s first game, his luggage was lost, and a teammate picked him up from the airport for practice.
Culture shock: That’s when Kiley was met with his first real culture shock.
“Everyone here does the double-cheek kiss, and I was not ready for that,” Kiley said, laughing. “I got off the plane, met my teammate, and he was leaning in, and I was like, ‘Um, can I help you?’ So yes, that is a thing.”
Within a few hours of being in France, Kiley was on the practice field, calling out plays to a group of players that didn’t share the same primary language.
The adjustment period was understandably difficult. “I kind of had an idea in my head of how it would work, and of course it never, ever works out the way you think it will,” Kiley added.
Thankfully, Les Aigles had a support system in-place. Chambery provides everything from French classes to doctor appointments and haircuts, and Kiley lives with a French teammate to get immersed in the language and culture.
Plus, he’s not the only American. Dylan Padilla, who played at Murray State and signed with Les Aigles in February, is Chambery’s left tackle, protecting Kiley’s blindside.
Using his free time: With the way their football schedule works — practice Monday, Wednesday and Friday with film days on Tuesday and Thursday — there’s some free time to be had for Kiley and Padilla to check out a new cafe or visit one of the Alpine region’s famous lakes.
“Most of the team works during the day,” Padilla said, “so we can go and do our thing.”
In those trips to the cafe or bar, in the midst of learning and appreciating French culture, Kiley fields questions himself
Mostly the questions are about the current state of American politics and, yep, Kiley’s heard it all.
“Everyone is asking me, ‘What the hell is going on with your country?’” Kiley said. “That’s the question I get the most. Everyone thinks we’re crazy.”
From learning a new language to explaining the United States’ political climate, settling in France has been a whirlwind experience for Kiley.
The one thing he doesn’t want to get overshadowed or forgotten is why he’s there: to play football.
New position: Kiley, who was a defensive back and receiver at Penn State, is quarterbacking a spread offense against “college-level” competition. He hasn’t played quarterback since high school, but has found comfort in returning to his old position.
Kiley’s father, who visited with his wife and watched Jake last weekend, said he’s proud to see him continue playing the game he loves.
Akeel Lynch, one of Kiley’s best friends and a teammate at Penn State, echoed that sentiment.
“With injuries and everything else, he never truly got a shot,” the former Nittany Lion running back said. “He never really had his moment, so I’m glad he’s having it now.”
And that’s all Kiley’s really trying to do right now — enjoy himself.
He plans to stay in Europe: His contract with Chambery is for one year and, when it’s up, he plans to either re-sign with Les Aigles or play for another European team.
Maybe he’ll end up in Germany, Spain or Holland, or perhaps he’ll stay and play in Chambery for a while.
Whatever he ends up doing, Kiley is just glad he made the choice to cross the pond in the first place — especially after a few injury-plagued years at Penn State.
“If there’s ever a time to travel the world for free and still play football, the game I love, now is the time to do it,” Kiley said. “Why not take advantage of it?”