More than a foot note

Punter Mesko hoping to hang

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / May 2, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — It is easy to forget that Zoltan Mesko is a punter.

He doesn’t really look like one at 6 feet 4 inches, 235 pounds. And at a position where being a loner (or at least sticking with your own kind — other kickers) is generally par for the course, he was so involved with his Michigan teammates that they voted him a captain last year.

But get him on the field, and it’s easy to see why the Patriots made him a fifth-round pick. During rookie minicamp this weekend, Mesko had a couple of punts that sailed at least 70 yards, as he and Australian import David King worked under the watchful eye of special teams coach Scott O’Brien.

Pleasant and thoughtful, Mesko, 24, has a story not often heard on a football field.

Born in Timisoara, Romania, his father, Mihai, was a professional kegel player (a sport similar to candlepin bowling) before he and wife Elizabeta had their only child.

The family came to the United States in 1997, after Mihai won a green-card lottery. They first lived in New York City, but lasted just four months there before moving to Twinsburg, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, where friends from Romania who had also won the lottery had settled.

It was there that he picked up punting.

As Mesko explained yesterday, “I saw that I had long limbs that would help me out with my levers and punting.’’

In high school, he was named a Parade All-American and offered scholarships from numerous colleges. Though he was an Ohio State fan, Mesko chose archrival Michigan. After redshirting in 2005, he became the Wolverines’ punter the next year and kept his spot for four seasons.

A fan favorite at Michigan — and, it already seems, with Patriots fans — Mesko said he has to “drop back down to Earth and focus on the team, because that’s what’s important. I want to help the Patriots win like they have been winning and keep continue winning. Right now I’m all team-team-team.’’

With the Wolverines, Mesko and the other kickers coached one another, as there was not a position coach for the team. He is enjoying learning from the high-energy O’Brien.

“It’s much more drill-oriented and I like it,’’ he said. “Now I have a coach and I can pick his brain, and Coach O’Brien is excellent at keeping me task-oriented and doing the right tasks to improve.

“It’s unbelievable how knowledgeable he is and how much breakdown of your technique he does. He’s great.’’

Mesko is working on all aspects of punting, which he has learned over the years is much more technical than he realized during his days at Twinsburg High. O’Brien can answer any question he has, and often has drills to show Mesko as a way of illustrating his point.

Since New England elected to use a draft pick on a punter — something it had not done before under Bill Belichick — it is easy to think that Mesko will be the team’s punter.

But Mesko is not the only player at his position at this camp. New England signed King, a former semi-professional Aussie rules football player who learned to punt at camps in the American Southwest, to a contract last month.

“He’s a very good guy,’’ Mesko said of King. “We’re kind of . . . we are in competition, but at the same time he’s such a great guy that you have to respect him as a person, and as a punter because he’s very good.

“So I’m looking forward to the summer I have and the training camp I have.’’

During a conference call just after he was drafted, Mesko said he was honored to have been chosen by the Patriots, and also admitted to being a fan of fellow Michigan alum Tom Brady, something he has in common with nearly all of the followers of his new team.

“He’s a great role model and team leader,’’ said Mesko. “Whatever I can get from him is an added bonus because he’s a great guy. He came from Michigan, and now he’s a pro with the Patriots, so it’s crazy to be on the same team.’’

Mesko’s locker will be near Brady’s at Gillette Stadium.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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