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Long shot

BY SCOTT BELL

Published November 16, 2006

Bullets flew through their apartment in Timisoara, Romania.

Sarah Royce
Punter Zoltan Mesko begins the process of punting the ball at Michigan Stadium. After competing for the starting job at the beginning of the year, Mesko has taken over as starter. (TREVOR CAMPBELL/Daily)

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It was 1989, and the Meskos sat right in the middle of the crossfire spurred by the fall of communism in Romania.

Three-year-old Zoltan Mesko ducked under a table with his parents, Michael and Elisabeth.

Because he was so young, Zoltan doesn't remember all of the horrific details. But his parents often remind him of some of the haunting memories from that bleak winter in Romania.

"There was a revolution, and there were stray bullets flying through our apartment, so basically, we spent our Christmas Eve on the ground just dodging bullets," Mesko said. "I remember they halted the shooting on Christmas Day so everyone could deliver their presents. My grandma walked through that winter snow to our apartment to give us our presents."

Mesko has come a long way from being that kid ducking under a table in that Romanian apartment.

His name means king in Hungarian - and why not?

It seems that Mesko, now Michigan's starting punter, sits atop a throne overlooking his special teams kingdom on Saturdays.

Pre-game kicks into the stands, big booming punts during games and student section hysteria are all a part of Mesko's everyday life now.

But the journey he has taken to get where he is today transcends a simple sport like football.

Don't be shocked if the word "Zoltan" translates to perseverance in English.

The journey begins

Michael stormed into the family's living room with an envelope in his hand.

"Hey come over here, I have to show you something," he said as he entered the room.

Elisabeth wasn't immediately excited by her husband's behavior.

"My mom just thought there was another cockroach in the apartment that my dad wanted to show her," Zoltan said.

But it wasn't any sort of a pest. Instead, it was the Meskos's opportunity for a better life.

Eight years after the peak of conflict, the family had finally gotten their chance to leave Romania.

Michael won a green card through a lottery - something just 55,000 lucky people receive each year.

They had just a few weeks to decide whether or not to go to America. When 11-year-old Zoltan was asked, he didn't think twice.

"I had no doubt in my mind," Zoltan said. "I was a little kid, so I was like thinking America - I get to have video games and stuff."

After choosing to leave, the Meskos had to prepare for life in the United States. Zoltan began taking extensive English classes, and his parents faced the tough choice of what to bring to the United States.

"We had to sell everything," Zoltan said. "We got six bags to bring over here, and that was basically our life in those six bags. We built up everything from right there."

The building process began in New York City. For six months, the Meskos lived in Queens with the aid of family members. The America Zoltan saw wasn't exactly what he expected.

One of Zoltan's earliest memories after moving to the United States was also one of his more confusing ones. Eleven-year-old Zoltan flipped on a television and began watching it for about a half hour. He didn't understand a word anyone said and thought that his English lessons had been all for naught - until he realized that the show was in Spanish.

Once the Meskos got on their feet in New York, they uprooted once again. Family and friends in Ohio offered Michael, an engineer, a job. The cozy security the position gave and the much lower cost of living in Ohio were enough to get the Meskos to move once again.

Zoltan had another culture shock in store.

"At first I had to get adjusted to the culture, so I didn't know who was rooting for who," he said. "When I first moved near Cleveland, I bought a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket because I liked the colors. I didn't know who the Pittsburgh Steelers were. Guys were shouting at me 'Go Browns.' "

Despite the occasional embarrassing incident, Zoltan and his family adjusted to American culture faster and easier than expected. The Meskos's willingness to uproot for the benefit of their son not only paved the way for a better life for Zoltan, but also brought on boatloads of praise and respect their way from Zoltan's peers.

"It's an incredible story," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "The sacrifices . that those people were willing to do to give their son an opportunity, it's heartwarming."

A light goes out . and a star is born

Usually a broken light gets you punished. For Mesko, it got him a new uniform.

That's because in ninth grade, an innocent game of kickball steered Mesko, then a diehard soccer player, toward a new sport.

Mesko's fate was determined in gym class one day, when he tried booting the ball as hard as he could.

"I was playing kickball in the gym one day, and I knocked down a light and the gym teacher said, 'Well you have a leg, I'm going to talk to the football coach,' " Mesko recalled.

The coach talked the strong-footed freshman into switching sports.

But the words of encouragement from coaches and faculty weren't what caused Mesko to make the tough decision.

The bigger influence that swayed Mesko was the opportunity to play in front of a big crowd.

Mesko, a self-proclaimed ham, said the exposure he got from football was far greater than that from soccer.

"That's probably what prompted me first to do football," Mesko said. "In high school, seeing a couple thousand people at the football games on Friday nights, and during the soccer games, there were only like 30 people around."

It's only fitting that Mesko chose Michigan, the school with the nation's largest stadium.

But if you told the kid who grew up in Twinsburg, Ohio, and idolized Ohio State for his seven years living there that he'd choose maize and blue over scarlet and gray, he'd probably have laughed in your face.

"It was kind of weird, because I grew up an Ohio State fan, a diehard," Mesko admitted.

The Buckeye loyalty that seemed ingrained since Mesko moved to Ohio apparently wasn't permanent, as Carr changed the punter's mind almost immediately.

"I switched my mind within a matter of seconds when coach Carr offered me a scholarship, and I accepted right away," said Mesko, who is now enrolled in Michigan's prestigious Ross School of Business. "From then on, I became Michigan all the way."

Ohio State offered Mesko a scholarship a few days after the Wolverines did, but Mesko didn't even consider reneging on his commitment to Michigan.

A humbling experience

After everything Mesko went through during his trek to the United States, a setback like being redshirted wouldn't seem like a big deal.

But for someone as competitive as Mesko, the 2005 season was hard to swallow.

"Coming in, I expected to start," Mesko said. "I ended up redshirting, and it was really a humbling experience."

Mesko competed with walk-on Ross Ryan for the punting duties upon Mesko's arrival at Michigan. Even though Mesko had all the tools to contribute right away, the coaching staff didn't feel he was ready to handle the speed of the game.

"I took it kind of personally at first, but then I was thinking about it, and the coaches made the right decision," Mesko said.

Mesko admitted it took him half of the season to get adjusted to the vast difference between the high school and college game. He originally struggled trying to handle a quicker rush from the opposition, and had a difficult time getting punts off quickly enough.

Now a redshirt freshman, Mesko relishes the fact that he'll get three more years to punt after this season comes to an end.

"I'm in college, playing for the greatest team, and I'm loving the experience," Mesko said. "I want to appreciate every moment that I'm here."

Moving forward

Now, with all of his trials and tribulations behind him, Mesko has finally found his role on the Michigan football team.

After losing the job as a true freshman, Mesko rose to the occasion this season and wrestled the starting punter honors away from Ryan, now a fifth-year senior.

It was an accomplishment Mesko strived for since enrolling at Michigan, but was hard to enjoy considering the circumstances.

"I wanted to be the punter from day one, but it's kind of hard because Ross is one of my better friends on the team," Mesko said. "It's kind of hard competing against him, but you have to separate business from friendship."

Now that he has the job, Mesko must keep it. Even with Ryan, a more experienced punter, chomping at the bit behind him, Mesko has managed to manufacture the results to validate the coaches' decision to start him.

The 6-foot-4 Mesko averages more than 40 yards per punt, which puts him in the upper tier of Big Ten punters. But what's really turning heads in the college football words is Mesko's ability to bring specialization to different situations.

"The ability to get the ball high in the air and cover it and knock some inside the 20 plays to the strength of our defense," Carr said. "I think it's a very important thing as we go forward."

Mesko has always had the leg to boom punts, but the addition of pooch punting to his repertoire has made him much more of a dual threat.

"I started using more touch, more than just bombing every kick," said Mesko, who credits a change of his grip before punting as the key to his improved spin control. "I developed this new style of punting before the Michigan State game, which helped us pin them down a little bit, avoiding those touchbacks. I can now be certain that I can check the ball back inside the ten and help my gunners down it inside."

His maturation on the field has been evident as the season has progressed. His maturation off the field had already been noted.

But when you're forced to grow up as quickly as Mesko did, you really can look at things from a different perspective.

"I'm glad I'm from a different nation, so I get reminded of where I come from every day, and I'm more appreciative of where I am today," Mesko said. "You always need to be reminded to not take things for granted, because it could change from day-to-day."

One thing that probably won't be fluctuating daily is Mesko's spot in Michigan's starting lineup. He's persevered through too much not to take advantage of his newest challenge to the fullest extent.


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