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Harrowing gulf moment keeps ex-Pitt star grounded

| 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)

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 jdipaola@tribweb.com.

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