ShareThis Page

Harrowing gulf moment keeps ex-Pitt star grounded

Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Pitt's Chas Alecxih speaks to the media after a team meeting at the Petersen Events Center Dec. 14, 2011. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)
Pitt's Chas Alecxih speaks to the media after a team meeting at the Petersen Events Center Dec. 14, 2011. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

Comforted only by prayer and a life jacket, Chas Alecxih was all alone.

Looking around for help, he saw nothing but the swift waters of the Gulf of Mexico and his own mortality.

It was a February day off the coast of Naples, Fla., when Alecxih, a former Pitt defensive tackle, and ex-teammates Max Gruder and Buddy Jackson decided to take a break from preparing for the NFL Combine to rent jet skis and attack the gulf.

Alecxih turned out to be a braver than his buddies.

“If you know me by now,” he said Friday from his home in Lancaster, “I like to push the envelope a little bit. I went out a little further than anybody else. Actually, a lot further.”

Misfortune struck when the jet ski broke down nearly two miles from shore. He assumed Gruder and Jackson were nearby, but when no one appeared, he began to get hot, thirsty and worried. He also needed to use a restroom.

“Very intelligently, I thought I would jump in the water and cool off,” he said. What he didn't account for was the gulf's current. “It's remarkable how strong it is,” he said.

The current carried away the jet ski, leaving the 6-foot-4, 296-pound Alecxih stranded in the water.

His instincts told him to swim to safety, but he was too far from shore. All he could do was tread water, hope the life jacket held him and pray.

For five hours.

“I was praying a lot,” he said. “You realize how powerless you are. You fail to realize how big the Gulf of Mexico is.”

Finally, what appeared to be reality hit him. He believed, at age 23, he was going to die.

“Honestly, I kind of was just ready,” he said. “I thought it might be the end of the line. One of my thoughts was, ‘Too bad I'm not going to get to go to the Combine.'”

Meanwhile, Gruder and Jackson had gone back to shore, thinking Alecxih was there. When they couldn't find him, they alerted authorities. A helicopter was dispatched.

The jet ski rental shop is able to track its jet skis, so Gruder and Jackson went with the shop owner to retrieve the jet ski.

When they arrived, Alecxih was nowhere to be found.

“Our hearts kind of sank,” Gruder said.

An hour into the search, Gruder said he, Jackson and authorities began getting a bad feeling.

But after 2 12 hours, Alecxih was spotted, and a police boat rescued him.

“The scariest thing was it was getting dark out there,” he said. “By the time we got back to shore, it was pitch black. They were 20 minutes away from calling off the search.”

A Naples police spokeswoman said the department is often called out to rescue stranded boaters or jet skiers but did not recall the Alecxih situation.

Alecxih was exhausted but otherwise unhurt. He said he hasn't been back on a jet ski since, “but not because I was scared. I just didn't have the opportunity.”

He went undrafted but signed a free-agent contract with the Miami Dolphins. He was among the final roster cuts and is hoping to get signed to the practice squad.

“I've been playing this game since I was in the seventh grade, half my life,” he said. “I have always made it work. To actually be told my services were no longer required at the moment, it stunk. But I'll try to take it in stride.”

No doubt he will. He's been through worse.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can reached at 412-320-7997 or

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.