Now that’s quite an ambitious project, but not anywhere near the biggest transition Sokoli has gone though in his life.
Sokoli was only 5 years old when his father left their hometown of Shkoder, Albania, with hopes of starting a better life for their family in America. Sokoli’s mother left two years later, and Sokoli and his brother would have to wait two more years before joining their parents in Bloomfield, New Jersey.
“It was tough,’’ Sokoli said. “It wasn’t easy. Thankfully, now we’re very proud American citizens, but it made me tougher for the future.”
Tough enough that the Seahawks’ staff believes the sixth-round draft choice can switch sides of the ball and play a position he never has played at the highest level of the sport.
“He’s a hard-nosed football player, and he’s real smart, too,’’ Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “And his measurables are just phenomenal stuff at 300 pounds.”
Sokoli is a bit of an athletic freak for a man 6-foot-5, 305 pounds. He ran a 4.8-second 40 and had a 38-inch vertical leap in pre-draft workouts. But the Seahawks see much more in Sokoli than numbers on paper can tell them.
“We always look for uniqueness and guys that have something special about them,” Carroll said. “Just because he comes from a different place doesn’t mean he’s going to be unique, but I think Sokoli is going to be.”
Unique might be an understatement for what Sokoli and his family have experienced. Communism ended in Albania in 1992, but the government was in disarray. Numerous Ponzi schemes caused the Albanian Rebellion of 1997 when Sokoli’s father left for the U.S.
“My dad came here and he applied for political asylum, or refugee, and he eventually won the paperwork,” Sokoli said. “It took him about three years. It was an extremely hard and stressful process for me and my family. I lived with my uncle in Albania. Some of those cousins are actually in America now, so it’s a really neat story for my family.
“But I was living through the aftermath [in Albania]. I don’t want to go into the political stuff, but every country that is transitioning into democracy from communism, it’s a tough transition and it’s not easy for its citizens. Albania has come a long way. They’re a lot better now than they were 20 years ago.”
Gjon took a job as a maintenance worker at an apartment complex in New Jersey. He lived in a basement with other workers and made $45 a day. Today, Gjon is the superintendent of the entire complex.
Kristjan, who has no noticeable accent, didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived in New Jersey in 2001. He started playing football at age 13, against his parents’ wishes at the time. By high school his talent was obvious as powerful offensive tackle. He earned a nickname from his coach: Moose.
After a college career as a nose tackle, the Seahawks were the only NFL team to ask him if he would consider moving to the offensive line.
“I was open to the opportunity,” Sokoli said. “I didn’t want to close the door. I also came to know [Seahawks offensive line coach] Tom Cable through a personal workout in New Jersey. I really felt like he would be a great fit for me. He’s very genuine, that’s what I saw. He really seemed like a guy that cares about his players, and is a great teacher, on and off the field. That got me really excited to potentially work for him.”
This won’t be the first time Cable has transitioned a defensive lineman to offense. J.R. Sweezy, Seattle’s starting right guard, was a defensive lineman at North Carolina State when the Seahawks made him a seventh-round draft pick in 2012.
So what it is about the Seahawks staff that leads them to believe they can make a player successful at a spot he never has played?
“We’re a staff that develops people,” Cable said. “I think if you become cookie cutter, you become normal, and we’re obviously not normal in what we do and how we do things. We’ve had some success being who we are. Our whole objective is to find the best football player and then develop them. It’s something that we’re good at.”
Nevertheless, it was a bit of a surprise the Seahawks didn’t draft an actual center among their eight picks. Last season’ starter, Max Unger, was sent to the New Orleans Saints, along with Seattle’s first-round draft pick, for tight end Jimmy Graham.
The Seahawks drafted two offensive linemen in the fourth round -- San Diego State tackle Terry Poole and West Virginia guard Mark Glowinski. Both players are starting out at guard spots with the Seahawks, Carroll said. That may change, but for now, it’s Sokoli who will get a look at center.
Seahawks general manager John Schneider was asked what it is about a player that makes him think he has what it takes to make a major transition.
“It starts with the measurables,” Schneider said. “And the attitude of the person, the grit, the makeup, his background, his character. To be able to come in and look the guy eye to eye and feel the passion. [Sokoli] was so intense. He was like, ‘I’m not going to disappoint you.’ It’s what he’s all about. It’s his mental toughness.”
When you’ve gone through the things Sokoli has in his life, moving from defensive tackle to center gets put into perspective. He’s had tougher challenges to overcome.
“I’m extremely appreciative,’ Sokoli said. “To me, it’s about making myself proud, but also my family proud and all Albanians proud. We have so many hard-working, hard-boned Albanians that have gone through so much, and they didn’t get to accomplish as much because the opportunities simply weren’t there.
“For me to come to America and to be blessed with this opportunity, I have so much drive and push to really do it, not just for my family and for myself, but for the whole Albanian nation.”