A kick out of life
Tale of punter Mesko unlike any in NFL
FOXBOROUGH — Spend a few minutes with Zoltan Mesko, the Patriots’ rookie punter, and you get the impression that he’s bright, dedicated to his craft — he sounds almost like a professor discussing its minutiae — and level-headed almost to a fault.
Spend a few minutes talking to his longtime college roommate and close friend, Tim North, and you’ll find out all those things are true.
But Mesko is much more than he lets on.
For one thing, he was twice the University of Michigan’s homecoming king, something of a cult figure on the massive campus, with maize-and-blue T-shirts created in his honor, and he once survived a humorous run-in with former Wolverine (and current Pittsburgh Steeler) LaMarr Woodley.
By now, Mesko’s story is fairly well-known. He was born in communist Romania, in the large city of Timisoara, the only child of parents who were both engineers. Mihai and Elizabeta Mesko made $100 a month each, and waited five years for delivery of a car they had paid for in full. Yet with gas costing north of $8 a gallon, they rarely used it once it finally came.
Zoltan was a preschooler at the time of the revolution, but he has heard the stories of the Christmas Eve when the family was on the floor of the apartment, bullets flying overhead. When he was 10, the family won a green card lottery and fled for the United States, eventually settling in Ohio.
Growing up in Europe, Mesko enjoyed soccer, and his initial impression of American football was that it was brutal and mostly about hitting. But as he learned about the sport, he desired to become a field goal kicker and experience, as he says, the glory of nailing a game-winner.
He came to take punting as seriously as he took everything else, particularly his classwork, and several colleges came calling. At first, Mesko’s parents couldn’t believe that he would receive a free college education just for being a good punter.
As a freshman at Michigan, Mesko befriended North, a walk-on defensive lineman who eschewed the party life and embraced academics, just as he did. When they moved out of their freshman dorm, Mesko and North roomed in an apartment for the next three years.
That’s when North learned about some of Mesko’s unusual habits and the highly regimented schedule he kept.
“I make fun of him,’’ said North, now working for
“He’s a lot more organized than he lets on. He’s secretly meticulous about his schedule. He gets at least eight hours of sleep a night, I promise you that. He gets mad if he doesn’t.’’
Former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr always told his players that it was better to be three hours early for something than one minute late, North said, and Mesko took the words to heart. He is always early.
(That was evident at Patriots training camp this summer, when Mesko was, without fail, on the practice field 15 minutes before any of his teammates.)
With the football team, Mesko was highly respected, despite being “just’’ a punter. He became the first special teams player in Wolverine history to be selected a captain. In the weight room, North said, Mesko did the same workouts as position players, and he watched just as much film.
There was more, however, that earned him the affection of teammates.
“Anyone that’s met Zoltan, he has a natural charisma that draws you to him,’’ North said. “He gets very upset with himself when he doesn’t perform well.
“He’s not a big rah-rah guy, but he would go up to guys, especially younger guys, and talk to them one on one, not rain down on them, but guide them along, and I think guys attached to that.
“He’s looking out for guys on the team, a hard worker, and that’s what I think people saw.’’
There were no fewer than five T-shirts created in Mesko’s honor at Michigan, including “Zoltan for President,’’ “Zoltan for Heisman,’’ and the highly popular “Zoltan for Space Emperor (of Space).’’
A more recent one, which plays off Mesko’s billing by the Wall Street Journal as the “most interesting man in the NFL’’ and the Dos Equis “most interesting man in the world’’ beer commercials, states, “I don’t normally punt, but when I do, I prefer Zoltan Mesko.’’
Whenever Mesko took the field during home games, the student section held up their hands in a Z formation, a move taken from the movie, “Dude, Where’s My Car?’’
“I mean, everything about the guy is just kind of out of the ordinary,’’ said North. “You don’t see too many 6-5, 240-pound punters.
“You see this massive person that speaks five different languages. He’s goofy, well-liked, just the combination of all those things.
“I think his name is something you first notice, but as you learn more about him, it becomes more interesting.’’
Mesko drew numerous honors — All-Big Ten, All-America, Academic All-Conference —and was drafted in the fifth round by the Patriots in April. But he still remembers his roots, and the times when his family had to wait in line for food.
“It helps me appreciate where I come from,’’ Mesko said. “It puts things into perspective. Sometimes I do forget about that and I need to go back and, you know, kind of refocus on where I’ve come from and how far I’ve come, because every human being, we tend to start taking things for granted.’’
Just as he was once in awe of receiving a college scholarship for punting, he remains amazed that he’s getting paid to punt now. He is focused on every detail of his kicks, and while he has had some impressive efforts of late, Mesko is quick to point out his mis-hits.
Before you start to think he’s a complete punting nerd, let North tell the story involving Woodley:
“LaMarr was visiting when we were in senior year, and Zoltan threw a crutch to him when he wasn’t looking. It hit him in the side of the face, and LaMarr got mad; Zoltan ran away from him.
“Four months later, we’re walking back from a workout in the morning, and this SUV pulls in front of us. LaMarr gets out and he says to Zoltan, ‘I remember what you did,’ and started chasing him.
“Meanwhile, he forgot to put his car in park, and it started rolling and almost hit the hockey rink. He jumps in the car to stop it, and Zoltan kept running. That was pretty funny.’’
A run-of-the-mill story for your run-of-the-mill, Romanian-born, multilingual, homecoming-king punter, right?
Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.