The odds of making the NFL are so astronomically small – only 0.08 percent of high school seniors playing football will go on to be drafted – that just about any player who signs a pro contract has a tale to tell. But that doesn’t mean some of those stories aren’t slightly more fantastic than others.
Take, for example, the journey of Seattle Seahawks rookie Kristjan Sokoli, who traveled from Albania to the Mid-American Conference to fulfill his dream of playing in the NFL.
Sokoli is the first Albanian-born player to ever make the National Football League, and only the 13th player to ever be drafted from the University at Buffalo. And from the moment the Seahawks picked him in the sixth round and he got on the phone with offensive line coach Tom Cable, he went from being a college defensive tackle to an NFL center, a position he has never played before.
But after a voyage like his, Sokoli’s not about to let something as simple as switching positions at the highest level of organized football stop him. Because while his history has earned him headlines, the Seahawks’ sixth rounder believes that his best days are yet to come, and that his story is far from finished.
What was the conversation like with Seattle general manager John Schneider when you were drafted?
It’s funny because none of the other media guys has asked me that. I actually don’t remember. The moment was so intense that I’m pretty sure I’ll never know what John said, but I did tell him that he’s not going to regret it.
You’re transitioning to center, but you’ve only just started snapping the ball. Are you worried about changing positions in the pros?
Man, it’s crazy. I took 80 snaps on Monday with my brother Mark, then 80 snaps on Tuesday, and then Wednesday I took the day off and Thursday I came over here and got ready for rookie minicamps; it’s definitely been a wild ride but it’s going to be a process too. I came in and it wasn’t easy, but I have great faith in Tom Cable and I really believe that in time I’m going to be able to be special.
You moved to America when you were nine years old. What do you remember about growing up in Albania?
It was cool. It gives you a different outlook on life coming from a little country like that, because you learn to appreciate things more when you’re here. In Albania, my family weren’t very poor, but it was tough. Things weren’t as available. One time, I remember, as a present I would get a banana from my grandma. As a gift. I would be very excited to get that. Then I remember coming here at the age of nine, my parents told me “You can eat as many fruits as you want! Anything that’s in the fridge or available, you can eat as much of it as you want.” That was pretty big, just hearing that.
Did you think about any of that when you were signing your NFL contract?
Yeah. It’s crazy, man. I told my cousin Edmir, “If you could see where I was at when I was a 7-year-old kid in Shkoder, Albania and now to be here – not only as a kid who comes to America, gets a college degree, but signs an NFL contract – it’s a dream come true.” [Laughs] I’ll be honest, I haven’t gotten the NFL money exactly. The bonus is a nice amount of pocket change, if you want to call it that, but I have good faith in my judgment. Hopefully, I’ll be able to diversify well, how’s that? [Laughs]
Being the first Albanian-born player in the NFL, do you feel any additional pressure to do well for your country?
Honestly, I don’t look at it like pressure, man. Nothing against Albanians, I love ’em, I have a lot of Albanian pride, but the way I look at it is five, ten years ago, when I was grinding it on my own, Albanians didn’t know about me. This has been my dream for the last ten years, I’ve literally sacrificed and given everything to make this happen and I’m just going to keep going down that road, keep football first, keep God first and keep working hard every day to be the best center I can be in the NFL. I think the rest will fall into place. I think it would be amazing to become a Pro Bowl NFL player and represent my country in a positive manner. Obviously it’s been very exciting getting the support that I’ve gotten already from the Albanian community.
You mentioned your cousin Edmir, someone you consider to be a best friend and mentor. He pleaded guilty to armed robbery and is awaiting sentencing – what’s your relationship with him like now?
We talk on the phone about once a week and I visit him when I get a chance. I think our relationship is just as strong as it was five years ago, probably stronger. I got a lot of love for him and he’s got a lot of love for me. He’s one of the guys that I remember from being young and loving football; he always had my back and always watched out for me. He always helped me stay out of trouble. We’ve always been very close and he’s like a brother to me.
What was the conversation like when you told Edmir you had been drafted by the Seahawks?
Aw man, it was crazy. Right after I got off the phone with John Schneider, Pete Carroll and Tom Cable, I remember we had Eddie on the phone and I walked out of my living room of about 30 people and spoke to Eddie alone – it was really cool. He was really excited and I was too. It was a great moment.
You’re 6-foot-5, 305 pounds – and yet you ran a 4.8 40-yard dash and posted a 38-inch vertical jump at the NFL Scouting Combine. So, are all Albanians super athletes?
[Laughs] Obviously I have got to be very thankful for the God-given talent I’ve got, the physical ability that God blessed me with. But of course, I’ve worked very hard for the last ten years. I’ve been very focused on football, from training with Andre Reid, who was my trainer in high school through training at the University at Buffalo, I took the weight room very seriously and didn’t really miss a day. I think that’s also been a factor.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is all about competition. You’re also a pretty competitive guy, aren’t you?
Absolutely. That’s one of the things I loved about coming to America was the culture. I want to compete. I want to do right. I want to go by the law and give everything I’ve got. I have great faith in my physical ability, I really do. Right now my focus is to take all the coaching I can from Tom Cable, getting better at football, because I feel like the more I work on that, the more the rest will show.
You’ve already called yourself a “center” a few times in this interview, is that something you’ve already taken ownership of?
Absolutely. Like I told coach Cable when he asked me if I had any regrets about moving to the offensive line: “If I get drafted as an offensive lineman, my whole life is going to shift to becoming the best offensive lineman I can be.”