SMC — As Alex Ceachir reflects on the past several months, he’s finding it difficult to vocalize a powerful sense of gratitude.
“I’m so nervous right now,” he confesses with a modest smile in his first interview with a journalist. “I just don’t have words to express. I like my coaches, my family because they support me, they help me. And that’s great … it’s hard to explain.”
Dressed all in white — shorts and a T-shirt — Ceachir, 20, is sitting on a bench overlooking Corsair Field on the campus of Santa Monica College. It’s just before 5 p.m. on a chilly Tuesday night, and our conversation is coming to a temporary close. During the past half hour, Ceachir (pronounced “Chuh-KEER”) has told me how he first played American football five years ago, how he instantly fell in love with the sport and how that love brought him to leave his hometown of Chisinau, Moldova, for Southern California.
Soon, Ceachir returns to the locker room. Practice starts in 10 minutes, and the freshman offensive tackle is often among the first to take the field.
“Coach told us we should always come early for practice,” says Ceachir, who speaks fluent English with a thick Eastern European accent. “We should stay after practice, we should be prepared.”
Several moments later, he trots back outside in football pads, crosses the track surrounding Corsair Field and runs onto the artificial turf. Ceachir warms up by throwing a football around with a teammate, making several leaping grabs that belie his hulking frame — at 6 feet 5, 280 pounds, he is one of the largest players on the team.
“Oh, man. My first thing was, he is big,” says defensive tackle Brian Allen, his eyes widening at the memory of seeing his Moldovan teammate for the first time.
Ceachir is also the only foreign member of the Corsairs, with more than 70 percent of the roster coming from the greater Southern California area. Before his arrival at SMC near the beginning of 2009, he had been in the United States just twice — first to see relatives in Los Angeles and second to visit SMC. He had gone most of his life in Moldova without playing, or even knowing how to play, football. But Ceachir did have an athletic background; in addition to swimming and playing soccer, he learned taekwondo from his father, a lawyer and martial arts instructor.
Then, when he was 15, Ceachir discovered football. A friend told him about the Kishinev Barbarians, a competitive football club started by Alexandru Malisev, a native Moldovan who had learned the sport in the U.S. and brought it back to Chisinau. Intrigued, Ceachir signed on. His introduction to football, however, was crude.
“We didn’t really know how to play,” Ceachir says, describing the Barbarians. “We were punching each other. And we were playing on a soccer field. There was no grass, nothing, so we were falling down and getting scratches.”
But the physical nature of his new activity only spurred him on. “I was watching [football] movies,” says Ceachir, who was particularly inspired by the 1999 film “Any Given Sunday,” starring Al Pacino as the head coach of a fictional professional football team. “I was playing a lot. Then I just wanted something more.”
Within two years, Ceachir and his parents were discussing the possibility of his moving to the U.S., alone, to play football. While he believed he had found his life passion, the prospect of leaving home, family and friends was intimidating. “This was a really tough decision, the toughest of my life,” Ceachir says.
In the end, he chose SMC. Not only did the school provide an attractive location — Ceachir’s aunt and uncle, whom he now stays with, live in the San Fernando Valley — but it also offered a direct avenue for the pursuit of a football career.
“My family and all my relatives told me that Santa Monica is one of the best football colleges and community colleges,” Ceachir says. “There’s a lot of famous players who played at Santa Monica.”
Indeed, the Corsairs have fielded some exceptional talent in recent history — Isaac Bruce, Chad Ochocinco and Steve Smith all played for SMC in the ‘90s before transferring to Division I universities and becoming stars in the National Football League.
But not everything went as planned, especially not in Ceachir’s first year at SMC. After landing in Southern California in February 2009, he learned he would not be allowed to play football until he passed English courses and earned some academic credit.
Despite the disappointing beginning, Ceachir was determined. On his first visit to SMC, he had talked with some of the Corsairs’ coaches, which led to his lifting weights with the team before the start of the 2010 season. He met several players, as well as Steven Garcia, the Corsairs’ current assistant head coach and defensive coordinator.
After gaining academic eligibility — he settled on a business major — and working out with the team for a summer, Ceachir was finally ready to become an official member. But in his first practice, it was evident he had a lot to learn; SMC head coach Gifford Lindheim noticed that the brand of football Ceachir had played in Moldova had done little for his development.
“I can only imagine what it was,” says Lindheim, who took the Corsairs’ head coaching position before the start of the 2009 season. “Based on what he did his first time out here, he didn’t know a lot of football. It was very rudimentary.”
Yet that first practice also left another impression on Lindheim. “He [looked] like a a natural left tackle — you know, ‘The Blind Side,’” Lindheim says, referring to the 2009 Academy Award-winning film that tells the story of Michael Oher, a current NFL left tackle who did not begin playing football until high school. Like Oher early in his career, Ceachir’s size, strength and unrefined but plentiful talent provided an intriguing — and sometimes humorous — glimpse of his potential. During a one-on-one pass rush drill, Ceachir had lined up against a defensive lineman.
“The guy gets off the line of scrimmage at full speed and tries to race around Alex on his way for a sack,” Lindheim says. “Alex grabs him in a bear hug and throws him to the ground … The other guys started laughing. He certainly was physical. But he had a long way to go.”
Perhaps it was because he started with so little coaching, or perhaps it was his diligent approach, but the new kid from Moldova quickly impressed everyone with his rapid development. In SMC’s first game of the 2010 season — and Ceachir’s first official game ever — he started and helped the Corsairs to a 21-10 win against Compton Community College. Since then, he has started every game, at either left or right tackle, for SMC, which recently finished the season with a 4-6 record, its best in eight years.
And as in his first practice, there were times when Ceachir’s sheer physical ability stood out. “He had a play where we broke a tackle, and all of a sudden we saw his big butt running down the field,” Lindheim says. “We look at each other, and we’re like, that guy’s going to be a great football player. Somebody with his size who can run that way… .”
Lindheim’s voice trails off, but he isn’t the only one impressed. On Nov. 15, Ceachir was named the team’s Most Improved Offensive Player, an award determined by his peers. “He’s matured a lot since he first came here,” says offensive lineman Hushun Smith.
This included putting on nearly 50 pounds of muscle and becoming a tremendous pain to deal with — for defensive linemen.
“He just sucks you in,” says Allen, who had to line up against Ceachir every practice. “You try to get away from him, but it’s like, why can’t I get away from this dude? He has good feet. That’s probably his best [football attribute]. He has really good feet.”
Ceachir’s growth went beyond the field as well. Once a quiet, reticent foreign student — he was embarrassed to speak English when he first came to SMC — he started to hit it off with his teammates, even learning to make light of the inherent cultural barrier.
“He talks [trash] to us, but not to the coaches,” offensive lineman Francisco Aguilar jokes of Ceachir, who is affectionately called “Cheech” by his teammates. “He’ll bust out the ‘Me no know English’ thing whenever he messes up.”
From a football perspective, the past several months have been eye-opening. While Lindheim noted that Ceachir still has much to learn in technique and consistency, he believes Ceachir — “after a whole season, now one of the veteran guys” — has the raw talent and work ethic to become a Division I recruit next season, which would set him up to earn a four-year scholarship. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who’s improved as much as Alex,” says Lindheim, whose 15-year coaching career includes stints at West Los Angeles College, El Camino College and the University of Nevada.
“I’ll do my best,” Ceachir said on that chilly Tuesday night when I first sat down with him. “I want to be faster, stronger.” He added that he wants to play in the NFL, a goal he has not wavered from despite the struggles of living in a new land.
“I knew if I would come here, I would not go back,” he said. “If it doesn’t kill you, it is making you stronger.”