|ZOLTAN MESKO Well traveled|
Journey with hang time
Punter Mesko realizes dream
INDIANAPOLIS - His Romanian birthplace has been buried in snow and tonight’s windchill reading is expected to be 2 degrees below zero. So the citizens of Timisoara won’t be tempted to be outside, especially at 1:20 a.m. their time on Monday, when Super Bowl XLVI is scheduled to kick off. They’ll be tuning in to Sport 1 to see what Zoltan Mesko can do with a ball that is pointed at both ends.
“It’s really humbling to represent the country I grew up in that has heard nothing about football before I came on the scene,’’ said the Patriots second-year punter, who grew up kicking a soccer ball until he and his parents came to America after literally hitting the lottery.
Nobody else who’ll be suiting up inside Lucas Oil Stadium tonight has made anything approaching the odyssey that Mesko has made from an ancient city near the Hungarian border to Queens to Twinsburg, Ohio, to Ann Arbor, Mich., to Foxborough.
“This is something I dreamed of when I was a kid in high school watching Tom Brady, that it would be amazing,’’ he said. “Now that I get to do it, it’s something really mind-blowing.’’
Twenty-two winters ago, Mesko and his parents Mihai and Elizabeta lived through the upheaval that accompanied the collapse of the Ceausescu regime and threw the country into turmoil.
“My parents told me about us lying down on Christmas Eve and bullets flying through our apartment,’’ said Mesko, who then was 3 years old. “That’s what I remembered from stories and I started visualizing that. So, is it a memory or not?’’
When hyperinflation set in, his parents’ upper-middle class lifestyle vanished. “They were making $100 a month each,’’ Mesko said. “The first couple of days you’re just spending it on groceries and that’s it.’’
America was a fantasy until his father got lucky with the green-card lottery in 1997. “He came in with a huge envelope saying, ‘Hey, Elizabeth, I’ve got to show you something,’ ’’ Mesko recalled. “My mom thought it was another cockroach in the kitchen or something. It ended up being our chance to get interviewed in Bucharest and have the opportunity to come over and become citizens. Right off the bat I thought, I’m going, there’s no question about it. I had this image of America from the movies watching the Ninja Turtles and Rambo and all that. All dubbed in German, by the way.’’
Mesko, who already spoke Romanian, Hungarian, and German, picked up English in a few months after he arrived. “When you’re a kid, you’re like a sponge,’’ he said. The transition for his parents was much more difficult. “They made a tremendous sacrifice for me,’’ Mesko acknowledged. “They dropped everything. We had to sell our apartment, all our furniture, everything. We got to take six bags with us. You’re leaving behind relatives, friends that you’ve made throughout your whole life.’’
His father, who was a mechanical engineer, got a job assembling doorlocks for minimum wage. His mother, a civil engineer, cleaned houses. They never dreamed that their son could hook into the American Dream by punting an ovoid ball. It all began with an errant kickball boot in eighth grade that knocked out a gym light.
“Our teacher, who happened to be an assistant football coach, told me you either pay for that light or you come out for the football team, because our kicker was graduating,’’ Mesko said. Four years later he found himself at Michigan as a redshirt freshman. “My parents couldn’t believe at first that I could play football and earn a scholarship to a university and I couldn’t believe it myself,’’ he said.
Mesko ended up setting school records for a Wolverine varsity that kept him busy, was elected a captain, and twice was named Homecoming King. Then the Patriots, who’d had enough of Chris Hanson, drafted Mesko in the fifth round, 49 places higher than they’d taken Brady.
It was the first time that Bill Belichick had drafted a punter, but even after he’d bested former Aussie rules player David King for the job, Mesko wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep it. “I was definitely planning for options,’’ he said. “I was spicing up my résumé to send out to some Wall Street banks because I thought I wasn’t going to make it at first. I didn’t know if I did belong. It took me about halfway through my rookie year to really see that I can do this, I belong here.’’
Mesko set an NFL rookie record for net average (38.4 yards), punctuated by a killer 65-yard punt that led to the overtime victory against the Ravens. This season, his 41.5 net was tops in the AFC and third in the league and his 46.5 overall average set a club record. When the players were locked out, he interned with Graham Partners, a Philadelphia private equity firm just in case this American football thing doesn’t work out. “Nothing’s guaranteed,’’ he said, “so who knows about next year?’’
Who even knows about tomorrow? Mesko’s workload depends entirely on how well Brady and his offensive colleagues move the chains. In the last three games, Mesko has had to punt only six times. “You’ve got to be ready no matter what for any situation,’’ said Mesko. “Sometimes you’ll get six punts in a half and sometimes you’ll get zero.’’
Though New England fans are hoping that he collects cobwebs, the Romanians won’t be staying up to watch an invisible man. Only in America do they pay a professional athlete hoping that he never gets in the game.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.