FOXBOROUGH — The kid stuff began in college when Zoltan Mesko and his Michigan football teammates set aside Thursdays for visits to the university’s children’s hospital in Ann Arbor.
“What it started off as was that I needed to get something on my résumé to get into business school,” the Patriots punter recalled. “But after the first visit, I realized, this is the wrong reason why you’re here. Because I fell in love with putting a smile on some kid’s face.”
Since then, Mesko has made it both his passion and his pleasure to perk up youngsters, spending his weekly day off and more making charitable appearances at area hospitals and centers.
“Zoltan is one of the best punters in the league, but he may be the league’s current MVP for his contributions to the community,” Patriots owner Bob Kraft declared last week when Mesko was given the Ron Burton Community Service Award at the annual kickoff gala for the team’s charitable foundation.
In his two years here, Mesko has spent a thousand times more minutes representing the club off the field than he has on it. Last season, he was a prominent figure in the “Celebrate Volunteerism” program that brought him to hospitals, veterans homes, and Boys and Girls Clubs. He helped build a Providence playground in a day. He was involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He turned up at all of the team’s holiday events, playing games and helping kids from homeless shelters pick out gifts.
During the offseason, Mesko recruited his teammates to sing at a “ZoliOke” event that accompanied an auction to benefit Children’s Hospital.
“There’s something in particular about kids — they have the magic in their eyes,” he said.
“I can look back at how I used to look up to professional athletes when I was a kid and treat them as role models. If I can put a smile on their face, tell a couple of jokes, be a goofball . . .”
What Mesko has discovered is that he doesn’t have to be a standup comedian bearing an armload of Patriots memorabilia to make an impression.
“All they need is for you to show up,” he said. “You don’t need to do much else.
“I remember my roommate in college pointing out that not every kid has the same reaction. A lot of kids are shy, but when you look at their heart-rate monitors, within 30 seconds they spike because they’re so excited.
“They may not show it, but it kind of revives their day. It makes their day and sometimes their week or month. It’s crazy how much it lifts up the parents as well. They walk up to you later and say, ‘Oh, you visited my kid in the hospital.’ ”
His visits are a reality reminder for a man who hasn’t spent a night in a hospital bed since he was born 26 years ago and counts himself blessed.
“We have kids that are spending months in a hospital,” said Mesko, a Romanian emigré who grew up with an appreciation for the role that chance and circumstance play in a child’s life.
The Ceausescu regime was overthrown when he was 3, and Mesko and his parents spent Christmas Eve ducking the bullets whizzing through their apartment. Eight years later, his father hit the green-card lottery, and the family ended up in Ohio. Zoltan earned a college kicking scholarship, was drafted by New England, and soon ended up in the Super Bowl.
Most of the children he sees have started out on the losing side of life’s lottery.
“Kids have no input into their well-being early on,” said Mesko. “They’re pretty much out of control. It’s whatever’s dealt to you.
“That’s what hurts my heart. That’s why I want to help. They didn’t have that choice of a better life. If I can do anything to cheer them up and help them on the road to recovery after they’ve had a heart implant or chemotherapy . . .”
Mesko’s charitable appearances are part of a team tradition that began with Burton, who was the franchise’s inaugural draft pick in 1960, and has been encouraged by the Kraft family and the Patriots, whose foundations have made more than $100 million in philanthropic gifts over the past two decades.
“That’s something incredible, and it’s not even about the monetary value but about involving the players in the community,” said Mesko. “You can’t quantify that positive difference.”
It doesn’t matter that Mesko isn’t yet a household name hereabouts or that one of his hospital visits may last longer than his entire season’s work in uniform.
When he turns up, he’s the friendly face of the Patriots.
“Even if they don’t know specifically who I am, they know that I’m part of something bigger than myself,” said Mesko. “That’s what I like about it, that I’m on the shoulder of the Patriot logo. It’s a huge platform that we can use immensely toward the betterment of the community.”