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Long shot


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.