Michigan punter Zoltan Mesko grew up in Romania, a place where getting the chance to move to America is as comparable to hitting the lottery. When he was 11 years old, his family did just that… they hit the lottery. It wasn't your normal lottery where the grand prize is millions upon millions of greenbacks. This was a lottery where the winners took home green cards.
“If you talk to Zoltan… if you know that story, the things that those people were willing to do to give their son an opportunity, it's heartwarming," Carr said. "The sacrifices; you talk about parents who fundamentally made an ultimate sacrifice. Look at what he has been able to experience because of what they did because they loved him."
“We hit the lottery when I was 11-years old,” said Mesko to Scout.com a few years back. “The Romanian government issued green cards to 55,000 Romanians so they could go to the United States. I remember my dad running into our living room as my mom and I were watching television. He was just jumping up and down screaming with an envelope in his hand. You have to realize that the odds of getting one of these green cards were extremely small. There are 40 million people in Romania.”
Once he arrived in the states, Mesko worked hard to acclimate himself to the new way of life. One part of his old life he was slow to let go of, however, was the game of soccer. Had it not been for a kick ball, a ceiling light, and an opportunistic gym teacher, Zoltan Mesko may have never given football a chance. As the story goes, while in the gym playing kick ball one day, Mesko blasted a ball into the school rafters that busted out a ceiling lamp, leaving it dangling and destroyed.
“Basically I just tried to kill it” Mesko said regarding the kick ball incident. “I kind of popped it up into the light in the gym. It was pretty close to falling. The gym teacher said, 'well you have a leg, I'm going to talk to the football coach.' I started playing football and ended up quitting soccer.”
For Mesko, quitting soccer was much like quitting a way of life. Soccer is the most popular sport in Romania and many of their national icons are former World Cup stars like Gheorghe Hagi. But he became captivated with American football, which made his decision to leave the other football behind a lot easier.
“I had played soccer all my life,” said Mesko. "This was like a religious thing I was doing. It was hard giving soccer up, but footballs is America's sport and I love it. It's a different crowd on Friday nights then on Thursday nights when you played soccer or whatever night it may be. I kind of liked that crowd factor because there are more people watching the game and having fun. There's certainly a different atmosphere on the football team too. I just fell in love with the sport from the first year on and I've liked it ever since."
Mesko would go on to become a three-year starting punter for Twinsburg High School in Ohio. Prior to the start of his senior year in high school he attended Michigan’s summer football camp. During that session Mesko observed starting Wolverine punter Adam Finley kicking balls halfway onto Oosterbaan Field House (Michigan’s indoor practice facility). Mesko thought he would give it a shot as well. His first four punts went clear over the building. He averaged 48.5 yards for the camp, with an outstanding 5.0 second hang time. At his 2005 signing day press conference, Carr summed up Mesko's camp showing.
“It's on a weekend and Mike (DeBord) called me up on a Saturday morning and told me, 'Lloyd you got to get over here and see this kid kick the ball," Carr said setting the scene. He's a left-footer, he kicked in the All-American Game in San Antonio, and I think he's going to be a real weapon as a punter.'
It clear when watching the 6-4 punter that he has two unique advantages working in his favor. Mesko has a clear understanding of the special tools he has at his disposal. “Leg length… if you see those World Drive Championships in golf, they use the longest club lengths, and I would say my club length is pretty long," Mesko said. "A lot of whip and a lot of leverage, a lot more follow through.”
The second advantage he has is being left-footed. That affects how the ball is received by the opposing return man. “It is a different spin," Mesko explained. "Maybe the other teams don’t have the advantage of practicing for a left footed punter.”
After Carr witnessed Mesko's kicking exhibition, a scholarship soon followed. The youngster wasted little time offering his commitment. His feelings for Michigan were so strong that even when other big time programs began beating down his door after his pledge, he never wavered. “I was offered here first, after Indiana," he recalled. "You can’t beat the program and all the academics the school has to offer. A couple of days after Michigan offered, Ohio State offered. It was kind of weird because I grew up and Ohio State fan…a diehard. I switched my mind within a matter of seconds when Coach Carr offered me a scholarship. I accepted right away and from then I became Michigan all the way. Ohio State did offer, and I appreciate that, but I went with my first choice.”
Though many expected the ultra-talented prep to walk into the starting punting job his freshman year, things didn't go quite according to plan.
“Coming in, I expected to start,” Mesko admitted. “I ended up redshirting, which was a humbling experience. I don’t take things for granted as much anymore. I felt like I could have helped the team last year, but that’s history, and I’m doing what I can this year.”
In the final analysis, Mesko ultimately agrees with the decision to sit him
out his first season. “I have to admit, I wasn’t up to par with
the speed of the game yet” stated Mesko. “It took me about a half
a year to get adjusted to everything, so the coaches made the right decision. I’m
not going to question them. Plus, I have another three years to punt here.
I get to enjoy the college experience a little bit more, I get a fifth year.”
With a year of watching and learning under his belt, Mesko went about the business of winning the starting job in fall camp. His business-like approach to the competition with his friend and fellow punter Ross Ryan allowed him break free of an early season punting rotation, and take over the job full time himself.
“I wanted to be the punter from day one but, it’s kind of hard because Ross (Ryan) 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. It has been a process and it's been game-by-game. Ross and I started out in camp and it has been tough competition and we're still competing everyday in practice."
Since taking over Mesko has shown flashes of brilliance. He delivered one of the best performances in his young career last Saturday against the Northwestern Wildcats in very tough conditions. Though he only averaged 35.5 yards per punt, he downed four of his six inside the opponent's 20. Mesko pinned the Wildcats deep at their own 3, 9, 11 and 19 yard line in the game, helping the defense limit Pat Fitzgerald's team to three points for the game. Mesko has punted in all nine games this season and already as three punts of over 50 yards and a season long of 64 yards.
The young Romanian's newfound touch has been a pleasant complement to his powerful leg. It's not a coincidence that his accuracy has picked up. He has worked very hard on that aspect of his game and developed a new technique that increased his efficiency. "I started using more touch…more than just bombing every kick” he said. “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. Just to change up how I hold the ball compared to a regular punt, so it doesn't turn over as much when I kick it. So you guys won't see the spiral as much. It just lands on the bottom end of it."
All of Mesko's hard work has paid off with his impressive showing this season, but he still feels he can get better. It has clearly paid off for Michigan as well. The only price the Wolverines might have to pay for his continued success is the expense of replacing a few shattered lights.
“I still do (kick the ball into the lights) in the indoor building," Mesko said. "Garrett (Rivas) always yells at me for doing it.”
On being more consistent:
"I would say that consistency is every punters challenge. I am getting better and working hard to get as consistent as possible."
Longest punt in practice:
“I had a pretty good one this past week. It went from the five yard line to the other ten yard line.”
Funniest email he has received:
“People ask me if my leg was made out of gold.”
Meaning of his first name Zoltan:
“I believe it means “King”, it’s a Hungarian name.”
On if he is well known in Romania:
“No, no… actually guys would joke around on the team, someone ask me if they have parades for me when I go back (laughing). I just have my grandparents back there. I haven’t been there in four years now. I’ll pay them a visit.
On if he ever plays some quarterback in practice:
“Just messing around, playing catch. I’m not going to be a Tom Tupa. I remember he was the third string quarterback for the Buckeyes. It’s too much of a time consumption to be a quarterback here, the playbook is unbelievably big. (Henne) has given me a couple pointers but that’s about it.”
On the possibility of using his arm on a fake punt:
“I don’t know about that, we will see.”
On whether he will train for kickoff duties next season:
“I’ll work on my kickoffs, they switched up the tee this year and that’s quite different but I’ll try to get started on that in the winter.”