It’s rare to find Zoltan Mesko without a smile on his face these days.
Ask anyone who knows him — his family, teammates, current and former coaches or any of his classmates in the Ross School of Business. They’ll all agree.
But for Mesko — Michigan’s all-time leader in total punts and punt-yardage — life hasn’t always been something to smile about.
Mesko was born in Timisoara, Romania, a town of about 300,000 on the westernmost tip of the country, during a time of great turmoil. The country had been under communist control for more than 40 years, and anger against the regime had sparked an outright rebellion.
Mesko even recalls having to dodge bullets with his parents.
“For the kids, life was very tough,” said Michael, Mesko’s father. “The food was very limited. The gasoline was also limited. To play a game, a ball game, you have the streets and one ball for many families.”
Despite the hardships, Michael and Elizabeth — Mesko’s mother — tried their best to provide for their son, sacrificing much for him.
“For growth for Zoltan, milk (was) very important,” Michael said. “I needed to go very early in the morning (to wait in) line when the store was opening because maybe other people got the milk. If you (were) last in the line or too late, you (were) going home with no milk.”
Mesko recalls his mother waiting in line for three hours to purchase eggs for a birthday cake for her son. On the way home, she tripped on a curb and dropped the eggs she had worked so hard to obtain. “She cried for another three hours,” Mesko said.
“It was always a fight,” Michael said. “To have some things, you need to sacrifice. We just (ate) to survive one day to another day.”
When Mesko was 11, his parents entered the green card lottery and were some of the 55,000 chosen to receive a green card out of the 200,000 that applied.
Luckily for the Meskos, they had friends who had won the lottery the year before to help the family settle down in Twinsburg, Ohio.
Having learned English in school in Romania, 11-year-old Mesko found the transition much easier than his parents.
In Romania, Michael had been a mechanical engineer and Elizabeth a civil engineer. When his family first came to the United States, Mesko’s mother cleaned houses and his father assembled door locks to earn minimum wage.
Since then, things have gotten much better — Michael is currently a quality control engineer and Elizabeth is a geotechnical engineer with a client list that has included NASA and the Cleveland Browns. Though they’ve been busy, Mesko’s parents haven’t missed a single Michigan football home game in the last four years.
And their son has not disappointed in his five years at Michigan, working hard both on the field and in the classroom. He graduated from the Ross School of Business last year with a 3.65 GPA, breaking nearly every Michigan punting record along the way.
“You talk about the American dream — he is (it),” former Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr said of Mesko, whom he recruited out of high school. “He’s not just a football player. He’s a guy that’s making the very most of all of his opportunities here.”
But no matter how busy things got, Mesko always worked to keep a smile on his face and on the faces of those around him.
“He always had this sense of humor,” Michael said. “The whole population in Romania has this spirit, this humor spirit. We are joking, we are laughing. Because this is how you need to take life, seriously, but you need to smile.”
In two weeks, Mesko will probably have one more reason to smile. On April 22, the 2010 NFL Draft will commence and Mesko is widely believed to be one of the top punters available.
It’s a rare feat for a punter to be selected, and many project Mesko will be one of the only punters in this year’s draft.
Despite the excitement surrounding the upcoming weeks, Mesko admits he didn’t always want to be a football player. Growing up in Romania, he mostly played soccer with his friends, and Michael remembers a stadium across the street from their apartment where Mesko and his friends would sneak in to play.
They would climb the 10-foot high cement fence to enter, careful not to cut their hands on the shards of glass at the top. Sometimes guards with dogs would chase them out, but they always went back.
The change to football came one fateful day during gym class in Ohio. Mesko was in the eighth grade and the class was playing kickball. When it was his turn, he kicked the ball so hard it knocked out a light on the gym ceiling.
Mesko’s gym teacher, Mr. Springer, who was also the high school football coach, decided to give the big leg an ultimatum — pay for the light or play football next year.
The scrawny eighth grader grew up during high school — growing three inches and gaining 80 pounds — and by the time Mesko got to Michigan, many believed he had the potential to do incredible things both as a Wolverine and beyond.
“When we practiced the punt, everybody watched because they knew that he was going to unleash some unbelievable punts that (looked like they) were shot from a rocket,” Carr said. “The first time he did it in a game, you could hear an ‘ohhh’ in the stands.”
It wasn’t just his punts that got the fans’ attention, though. In 2006, Mesko’s redshirt freshman year, the students started a tradition that lasted his entire career at the University. Whenever Mesko would punt, the student section would form a “Z” with their hands.
For Mesko, it was an honor unseen.
“I kept hearing about it,” Mesko said. “And I was, like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ So I went to check it out and it was right before a snap. I looked up and the snap was about to hit me in my facemask. And I was like, ‘Oh crap, get rid of it, go go go.’ I never really got to see it a lot but I knew it was out there.”
It wasn’t until his redshirt sophomore season that Mesko truly began to hone his skills when Filip Filipovic, a former NFL punter with the Dallas Cowboys, offered to help Mesko with his technique.
At the time, Mesko was struggling to improve and looking for guidance.
Over the years, the relationship has grown. This year, when Mesko’s last season at Michigan ended, Filipovic traveled from Chicago every week leading up to the NFL Scouting Combine to help Mesko prepare.
The mentorship has proved beneficial as Todd McShay, director of college football scouting for ESPN Scouts Inc., said Mesko is probably one of the top punters in this year’s draft class with potential to develop into a starting punter at the next level. Filipovic agrees.
“Zoltan (is) the kind of guy that can punt in cold weather, he can punt directionally inside the 20 (yard line), one-step punts out of the back of the end zone, he can do that,” Filipovic said.
“He really has become one of those punters who has all of the attributes. He has good hands. He’s quick with his get off time. There’s really no reason for a coach to get nervous about sending him out onto the field at any level.”
Mesko is a self-proclaimed goofball.
His best friend on the football team, fifth-year senior Tim North, said Mesko is always trying to get his teammates to laugh, especially during morning workouts.
He may have met his match though when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons started asking a tough question at last month’s NFL Scouting Combine.
“They sat me down and said, ‘Just tell us a joke,’ ” Mesko said. “ ‘Uhhh, I wasn’t prepared for this.’ And I told this joke that was so bad. I stopped them and I was, like, ‘I have to apologize for that bad joke.’ And they were just looking at each other and they were, like ‘OK, let’s move on.’ ”
But despite missing his chance to show potential future employers his humor, Mesko has had his fair share of shenanigans with teammates and a famous former Wolverine, too.
After former Michigan defensive end LaMarr Woodley’s first season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he came back to Ann Arbor to workout in the Michigan weight room and train with the strength and conditioning coaches. One day, Mesko was fooling around in the training room with a crutch he managed to get his hands on and he hit Woodley in the shin.
The 6-foot-2 inch 250 pound-plus Woodley wasn’t happy, but Mesko was able to get away. For the next few months, whenever Woodley would see Mesko he would vow to get him back. Then, one day Woodley was driving his new Mercedes Benz in the athletic campus parking lot and saw Mesko on his cell phone. Woodley got out of his car and started chasing Mesko, who didn’t see it coming. But Woodley had forgot to put his car in park and it almost smashed into Yost Ice Arena. He had to sprint back to his car to get it to stop just in time.
“There’s one thing about Zoltan, he doesn’t care who you are, he’s going to try and make you laugh,” North said. “He’s not intimidated by someone. That’s just the way he is.”
Though Mesko plans to play football at the professional level, he has always entertained the idea of entering the business world as well. He graduated with “high distinction” from the Ross School of Business last year, and this May he will complete his Masters in Sport Management.
From an early age, Mesko’s mother worked to instill the importance of education for her son and to this day, Mesko works hard on his schoolwork, making time for his studies despite having to juggle football and academics.
“During exam weeks, I would have group meetings or study with friends until two in the morning … and then I (had) to wake up at five in the morning to go to a 6 a.m. workout,” he said. “Investment bankers, they work 100-plus hours a week but they’re sitting at their computer. I’m running and lifting weights with the same amount of sleep.”
If he does end up in the business world, Mesko said he would most likely work for a consulting firm or something in the financial district, and maybe eventually start his own business. He also keeps the option open of potentially working around his football career.
Now, Mesko has a chance to be an NFL punter or, if he chooses, to enter into the business world. Either way, he’s ready for both.
The first time Carr saw Mesko punt, he knew there was something different about the kid.
“What I knew was, this guy had incredible potential and guys like him don’t come along every day,” Carr said. “It didn’t take long to see that he was also very dedicated. When he didn’t have a good punt it bothered him. He had a great pride in being the best. In my judgment, he had all the intangibles in addition to the great physical ability.”
Though the road to Mesko’s current life may have been tough at times, he and his family can look back on their struggles in Romania and smile, knowing things are better now.
Michael and Elizabeth made a decision to come to the United States for their son, and he’s made the most of his parents’ sacrifice.
“Their willingness, just leave their whole family behind and pack up for a whole new life, a lot of it was for Zoltan so he would have more opportunities in his life,” North said. “It’s a great story and you see Zoltan knows that it’s such a chance that he’s in this situation that I think he really does everything he can in his life to seize that opportunity.”