Kristjan Sokoli was destined to live in the Pacific Northwest at some point. “What IPA’s do they have?” are the first words out of his mouth as we approach the bar, seeking elixirs. A man behind the counter recommends a citrusy number, which immediately strikes a chord. Sokoli was born elsewhere, but his stint with the Seattle Seahawks from 2015 to 2016 clearly suited him; it’s all too easy to picture him trading his suave grey half-zip and gold chain for some serious lumberjack garb. The long brown hair and hulking figure give off the aura of an Albanian Thor. Fitting, as it’s time to get hammered.
We order our imbibements and sit across from one another. He’s endearingly scatterbrained yet genuinely interested, possessing an equal likelihood to stare intently into my pupils or flitter his gaze elsewhere while sharing his life story, which has traversed a singular spline.
It’s been 20 years since Sokoli emigrated from Albania, and he remembers every tribulation surrounding the move and stemming from it. When he was five years old, the chaos from a political transition spurred the family’s need for escape, so his father moved to the United States in pursuit of asylum. Three years later, his mother made it stateside. Sokoli and his brother completed the exodus in 2000. It took the whole upcoming decade to procure U.S. citizenship. “There’s a lot in there,” says Sokoli. “Lots of appointments and lawyers and fees. It was a process.”
Struggles of the legal variety did little to quell those that arose daily on a social level. Sokoli had a tough time acclimating, and craved avenues that would allow him to mingle with his peers. “I felt like an outsider,” he says. “I didn’t know the language, the culture, adapting to that.”
So sports became his cipher.
At the age of 13, Sokoli spent time watching his cousin Edmir play football; it ignited in him a passion for the game and crystallized his own goal of playing under the Friday night lights. And so it came to be that Edmir dropped the nascent footballer off at his first practice. Sokoli was drawn to the glamor of quarterback but relegated to the dregs of the offensive line, a source of pubescent hardship. “I remember I sucked at left guard,” laughs Sokoli. “It was a tough year.”
Though he didn’t finish the season, the gridiron hopeful was not to be denied. He signed up again the following year, and the success and enjoyment that had previously eluded him materialized at last. Now playing tight end, Sokoli developed quickly into one of the team’s most celebrated members. “As an immigrant from Albania, you look for that in a way,” he recalls. “I’m sure I wanted to fit in and be recognized for my ability.” Well, nothing endears a youth to his athletic peers quite like pancake blocks and teeders.
Sokoli continued to blossom in high school, with scholarship offers in tow. He nearly attended Notre Dame, but the University of Buffalo and defensive line coach Jappy Oliver ultimately won out. What ensued was more strenuous than your typical college experience. “I used to wake up to nightmares of [Coach Oliver] yelling at me for screwing up a play,” Sokoli says. “Looking back, he said, ‘You were 6’5”, 230. Everybody saw the potential in you, but I was the one who had to deal with how raw you were. Coaches get fired over guys like you.’” But Sokoli remains wholly grateful for Oliver’s demanding leadership. “The more I grow, the more I appreciate who he was for me as a coach and as a man.”
The adversity yielded nontrivial results; Sokoli made a noticeable jump as a football player between arrival on campus and his sophomore year. The sudden progression awakened a vertiginous realization within him: professional football was in the cards. “I went from a guy who’s physically gifted to a guy who’s learned how to use his hands,” he remembers. “I started saying to myself, ‘Yeah, I’ve really got a shot at this thing.’”
We meander our way to a nearby tavern. Sokoli is famished, and it would be cruel to deny the man a burger. As we wait for the bartender, a variegation of taphandles catches Sokoli’s eye. He selects Fremont Brewing’s Lush IPA, mostly because the word ‘lush’ fascinates him. He cheerfully repeats it to himself well after we have sat down and the food has arrived.
“Lush. Lush? Lussshhhhh.”
Sokoli is generous — both with his words and his french fries. He is also extraordinarily athletic, something he has taken pride in for a long time. “I worked really hard in the weight room,” he says. “I always loved competing in something so exact. Does it always transfer over to football? No. But it’s a good base.” Zachary Duval, Buffalo’s strength and conditioning coach, helped Sokoli transmute a natural athleticism into peak physical ability. Sokoli maintains that the thing he’s most proud of in his career is being Buffalo’s lifter of the year in 2013. He is well aware of his SPARQgawd status, as measurably the greatest athlete* to enter the NFL Draft since at least 1999 (per 3SigmaAthlete’s Zach Whitman). “I worked hard for that,” Sokoli says. “I feel like that was my gift; my physical gift.”
* Relative to position
So I ask him a very serious question to which the people need — nay, deserve — an answer: who is the better athlete between him and former Buffalo teammate Khalil Mack? The response is immediate (“Me, of course”) and then followed by a laugh and a qualification: “No, Khalil was the better athlete. He’s a freak. I’m a freak in my own way.”
It was Sokoli’s freakish athleticism that nudged the Seattle Seahawks to select him in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. “I was ecstatic,” he says of his draft-day conversation with Pete Carroll. “I was pretty speechless. I remember saying, ‘I promise you won’t regret this. I won’t let you down.’”
These aforementioned physical gifts also gave the Seahawks confidence in having the rookie undergo a position change — they were drafting Sokoli as an offensive lineman. “I came to realize pretty quickly that as awesome as [athleticism] is, the NFL is a real grown man’s professional game and you have to develop technically,” he says.
It takes years to hone NFL-caliber technique, and Sokoli was asked to do so with only four months until final cuts. Run blocking came naturally, but the same couldn’t be said for pass protection. Sokoli fondly remembers being “taught some lessons” by third-year defensive tackle Jordan Hill throughout his first start in training camp. But his progress and potential were such that Seattle decided to roster him throughout the entire 2015 season, even after having selected two other offensive linemen in the same draft.
“I remember towards the back end of my time in Seattle, I was getting discouraged,” Sokoli relates somberly. “I was on the back of the depth chart.” Teammate J.R. Sweezy had made the transition from defensive to offensive line previously, and acted as a valuable mentor. “[Sweezy] always told me ‘be patient man, this thing takes time,’ and I said: ‘I don’t know if I have time!’”
In the end, a sanguine impatience bookended Sokoli’s time with the Seahawks. When roster cuts arrived before the 2016 season, he found himself on the outside looking in. Sokoli was offered a spot on Seattle’s practice squad, but felt that he belonged on the defensive line and was eager to give it another shot. He had been paying close attention to the defenders lined up across from him in practice and told himself, ‘I can do what they’re doing.’
So he moved on.
We arrive at the day’s final destination, a pizza place, which provides the perfect opportunity to argue over crust genres. In typical east coast fashion, Sokoli raves about the primacy of New York-style thin crust. Forever the contrarian, I express a justified, bellicose disagreement, and prepare to go toe-to-toe with an NFL athlete in favor of deep dish. Lucky for me that Sokoli is exceedingly noncombative, a reassuring quality when verbally jousting a man thrice my size.
Regardless, I switch gears by asking him for some self-descriptors. “Eccentric,” he opens with. “Is that like you’re out there? Yeah. Eccentric.” He ponders momentarily before unleashing another. “Adventurous.” Pause. “Active.” His biceps validate the claim. “Impatient! Let’s put some that are also bad things.”
Similarly, his recitation is about to take a turn for the worse. He describes how he signed with the Colts as a defensive lineman, performing well enough to make the active roster during the final two weeks of 2016; how he wasn’t brought back for 2017 despite his successes, due in part to organizational tumult; how the Saints provided an opportunity to play on the offensive line and he took it because “a job is better than no job”; how many in New Orleans affirmed his development as a blocker but he was still released before the season; how he signed late in the year with the Giants only to tear his ACL in the first preseason game; how the knee injury dissuaded teams from signing him the following season; how, by 2019, he had walked away from the game of football entirely. “Yeah, it’s tough,” he says softly, afterward. “I got a lot of breaks in my career. The last few probably weren’t the better ones, but you get what you get.”
An epilogue materialized, by way of the graceful, leathery hand of Vince McMahon; Sokoli had decided to put football behind him when the opportunity came up to play defensive line in the XFL. So he quit his newfound financial advising position at Merrill Lynch to join the DC Defenders.
Training camp appeared fruitful; Sokoli felt confident in his level of play. But, on some level, it wasn’t quite enough. “It was frustrating, but who was I to say anything?” he recalls. “I worked very hard and did everything the way you’re supposed to. Didn’t work out my way in the end.” During final roster cuts, he was waived.
Sokoli took about a week to reset and figure things out for himself. He decided that finance was indeed the avenue that he wanted to follow, and was lucky enough to reclaim and fully commit to his former job at Merrill Lynch. So it figures that, immediately after doing so, the Tampa Bay Vipers called to offer Sokoli a contract. He made himself sleep on it. “When I took everything into consideration, I’m kind of tired of moving back and forth with football,” he says. “I made a decision to walk away from the game there.”
In our first interaction online, Sokoli jokingly referred to himself as “a guy who failed at being a [Tom] Cable o-line conversion,” which is unfair but also begs the question: Could Sokoli have ended up a successful offensive lineman had things gone down differently? Cable himself sure thinks so, had his mentee signed with Seattle’s practice squad in 2016 instead of leaving for Indianapolis. “Hindsight is 20/20,” Sokoli shrugs. Every choice in life as a fringe NFL player is a gamble, and he doesn’t regret the ones he made. His repeated mantra — trust your work — reflects this. “It means something to me,” he says of the phrase. “I relate to it. You’re not trusting that things are going to work out right. You’re trusting that you embraced the process and you did what you thought you needed to do to get the best outcome you wanted.”
After all that has transpired, Sokoli is visibly thrilled to establish himself in a world of finance that has beckoned for so long. “I had a good head on my shoulders,” he says of his younger self. “If football didn’t work out, I’d do Wall Street. Something with finance and investing. That was my vision. It would be awesome if football could help me get to that place.”
Originally striving to work in investment banking — he enjoyed the grind and the long hours, a trait that certainly fueled his football career — an acquaintance in the field named Sokol Cano steered him elsewhere. Cano connected Sokoli with a network of fellow Albanians in finance, banking, and real estate, allowing the newbie to settle on disciplines that fit him best: financial advising and wealth management. He recently took matters into his own hands by traveling to Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine, in an effort to expand his network and establish himself in his new capacity. “I was out every day, every night just meeting as many people as I can,” he says. “Agents. Scouts. Former coaches. And some players.” His excitement is palpable and, for lack of a better word, exciting.
Sokoli seems relieved with where he’s at right now, outside of sports. “I love what football has done for me,” he says. “It’s given me opportunities. But in a way, it is something I kind of clinged onto as a kid. I want to walk away from it and I want to see who I am without the thing that made me.” The future is bright, but a different hue than before. Lush, even, if Sokoli has anything to say about it.