Potsdam Royals’ Albanian DL Kristjan Sokoli blazed his own trail to the NFL

Very few Europeans get the chance to prove their skills in the National Football League.

Although many get the opportunity to grow up in the US and learn to play football, not many continue and reach the level to play professional football. That’s where Kristjan Sokoli’s story is unique. He was born in Albania and at the age of five watched as his father left for America to find a better life for his family. Then, three years after that, he saw his mother leave to join his father. A year later, after the couple had fought to have Kristjan and his younger brother join them, he arrived in the United States.

Not an easy journey, but according to Sokoli a necessary one.

“It’s not easy but I give a lot of credit to the ones that make the sacrifice for themselves and their family to achieve a better life. And fortunately my dad did that. I was 8 when my mother also left to America. My mom’s father passed away and that actually helped her move to the US. She was able to stay and continue to fight for the citizenship with my father. And fortunately they won that fight. It was about 3 or 3,5 years that I spent apart from my dad, and one year from my father and my mother together. But when my and my brother also moved out, we slowly acclimated to the American way of life and language.”

Sokoli was 13 years old when he discovered football. As he tells it, he looked up to his cousin Edmir who was playing high school football.

“I was very much drawn to the energy and the intense physicality of the game. That is what lead me to playing football. However, the transition from high school football to college was a big jump. That is why we had a red-shirt year when we could adapt and become real players. Towards the middle of my second year, I began to feel that I can play with the other guys I was on the field with.”

Photo: Otto Greule

After an impressive college career at the University of Buffalo, 2015 became a milestone year for Sokoli. He was selected 214th overall by the Seattle Seahawks and also debuted that season in the National Football League becoming the first Albanian player to ever take the field in the NFL.

“Getting drafted by an NFL team was more than a dream than a goal for me. I gave everything and it came true. I remember, having an early dinner with my family at home and celebrating when I was selected. It’s nice to get drafted around your loved ones. This was the biggest jump for me in terms of speed. The game accelerated immediately. I think the Seahawks is really a notch above a lot of other teams. They have a unique culture and did a great job as an organization. The fans are fantastic. During a game 50 thousand Seattle fans would sound like 80 thousand from another team. When it’s third down they are yelling and stomping. It’s almost like an earthquake. Pretty intimidating and I was fortunate enough to experience it.”

Photo: Otto Greule

Nevertheless, life changed for the Albanian player in many ways. He joined Seattle as a defensive end but switched to an offensive lineman. Switching positions can be difficult for any player in the NFL. Although he did not remain a Seahawk he was grateful for the opportunity.

“It definitely changes your life, mostly in a good way. You go from a hungry underdog to a well-paid player. But one must handle this situation smartly. You must enjoy this carefully and remember how you got there. That is what I want to say to those whoever reads these lines. Enjoy your success because you worked for it but remember how you got there and continue with these habits.”

Photo: Sobotzki Fotodesign

After the Seattle Seahawks, Kristjan signed with the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, and the New York Giants spending varying amounts of time with each. In 2020, he joined the DC Defenders in the XFL and a year later he played in The Spring League for the Alphas. This summer he returned to Europe to play for his first-ever European team, the Potsdam Royals.

“I have to give a big credit to David Saul, the manager for the Royals. His ambition was outstanding. In the last few years, he already reached out to me. To tell the truth I was also interested in coming to Europe. I was still hungry for football. I’ve had three years off from the game due to my torn ACL and then covid kicked in. But now my body is fresh and I feel I can play for another 8-10 years. Now I am excited to see what we are capable of. The Royals have a good front line, we have a great chemistry and the defense is very solid as well.”

However, coming back to Europe was different for him.

“I can see the difference in lifestyle. It was tough to adapt in the US. In many ways I’m still Albanian to a lot of Americans. When I came here I was very American to the Europeans. Both will be a part of me. I am proud of the opportunity that America gave me and also proud of my roots, and where I came from.”

Although Kristjan Sokoli still has a lot of good years ahead of him, he also planned well for his life after football. He earned a degree in finance and naturally is interested in the financial markets and exchanging value through money. He has also taken up acting. Kristjan Sokoli was featured in a movie called Devil’s Island and an upcoming film, The Wedding Trip. Sokoli also considers himself a big ‘foodie’. He never says no to a big steak or a burger. However, in Germany, he admits he has developed a fondness for baked foods and fresh pastries.

Watch Sokoli and his Potsdam Royals take on the Munich Cowboys, Sunday. September 19 at 16:00 CET (4 pm, 10:00 am ET), live on AFI.tv.

László Makranczi is a radio reporter, announcer and American Football journalist in Hungary. He lives in Debrecen and works for the Hungarian American Football Federation. Studied at the University of Debrecen, got a master’s degree in American