When it comes to NFL prospects emerging out of foreign countries, you might think of names like Osi Umenyiora, Ziggy Ansah, Sebastian Vollmer, or Jon Ryan. Or, maybe places like Samoa, Tonga, Nigeria, or Haiti come to mind first.
But Albania? Some people might not even know where it is. Others might just know it as that country Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman used in a fake war for that movie “Wag the Dog.” (And maybe they still don’t know where it is.)
Whether fans know it or not, the Seahawks drafted a young Albanian defensive-turned-offensive lineman this year named Kristjan Sokoli. And come Friday night, he’s about to become the first from his country to appear in an NFL game.
Sokoli is no stranger to transitions. After immigrating from Albania at age 9 to New Jersey with his family, Kristjan did what he could to make ends meet. He, nor any of his family, spoke a single word of English upon their arrival. Kristjan’s parents, Gjon and Gjyste, relied on their hardened work ethic and ability for overcoming adversity to provide for Kristjan and his brother, Mark. Gjon worked as a janitor in their apartment complex. The transition wasn’t an easy one, and it left no shortage of uncertainty for the Sokolis in the land of opportunity.
But in the face of uncertainty, Kristjan quickly learned one thing he was certain of — his athletic ability. He became intrigued by American football in elementary school, and discovered his own potential when he attended Bloomfield High School. He joined the school football team and played defensive end, tight end, left tackle, punter, and kicker, and was named an All-Conference player after helping the team to consecutive playoff appearances.
His success didn’t stop there. Kristjan also started for the Bloomfield basketball team and finished in the top ten in the state as a discus thrower. By this time, his rare athletic ability was getting the attention of the University of Buffalo. He would attend college there, and play defensive tackle for the Bulls throughout his collegiate career.
When he was invited to the NFL Combine, Kristjan’s numbers were simply jaw-dropping for a 6-5, 300-pound defensive lineman. He ran a 4.84 in the 40-yard dash, and posted a 38-inch vertical leap. This turned heads in the Seahawks’ front office, and they drafted him in the sixth round, 214th overall. Not bad for a guy from a small Balkan country who was projected as going undrafted.
Because Tom Cable and Pete Carroll like athleticism and quickness on the offensive line, Cable soon asked Kristjan if he’d consider switching positions. Kristjan has since joined the likes of teammate JR Sweezy in switching from d-line to o-line. In camp to this point, Kristjan has seen time at guard and center in a competition between fellow draft class linemen Mark Glowinski (West Virginia) and Terry Poole (San Diego State.) We’ll get our first chance to see Kristjan in game action on Friday night, as the Seahawks kick off their preseason games against the Denver Broncos.
Kristjan took time away from training camp to answer some questions from HawkBlogger this week. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: You immigrated to the States at age 9 with your family from Albania. What was it like to go through that transition?
A: It was tough. We had to all learn a new language and a new culture. It was especially tough for my dad coming here at 36 years old with a grade school education from Albania and not knowing one word of English. Both my mother and father have outstanding work ethic and perseverance and I think that helped both me and my brother Mark a lot.
Q: When did you first become interested in American football?
A: Towards the end of elementary school I was intrigued, then after watching my cousin Edmir play in high school I was really motivated to pursue it starting in middle school.
Q: Which players are you most inspired by?
A: I loved the way my cousin played the game, I always looked up to the passion and heart he played football with. In college I watched JJ Watt a lot and thought he was a player to look up to. It would be really cool to play against him some day.
Q: You played defensive tackle at Buffalo, and you’re transitioning to offensive line while here in Seattle. How are you adjusting so far, and what’s the most challenging aspect of it?
A: I think I’m doing okay. I have great faith in my ability to work and be an athlete. That combined with the coaches around me gives me a great feeling.
Q: Your teammate, JR Sweezy, went through a similar transition coming out of NC State. How big is his influence on you and your development?
A: It’s great to know that he did it, and he’s obviously come out to be a pretty great player! He’s been a great resource for me!
Q: The coaching staff has said they wanted to try you at different positions across the line. Where have you felt the most comfortable so far?
A: I think it’s still early to say. Right now I’m just trying to keep improving.
Q: What’s it like going against this defensive line every day in training camp?
A: I think it’s a blessing knowing that you’re working against some of the best in the league.
Q: What’s been your proudest moment of camp so far?
A: Probably settling into guard for a moment and doing okay in a short run series.
Q: You’re about to be the first Albanian-born player to appear in an NFL game. How huge is that for you?
A: I’m proud of where I’m from and I’m just happy to hopefully motivate other young Albanians!
Q: Five years ago, if someone had told you the Seattle Seahawks would draft you to play offensive lineman, what would your reaction have been?
A: That’s crazy.
Q: What’s your mindset going into Friday night’s preseason opener against Denver?