The wonderfully named Zoltan Mesko was born and raised in Timisoara, Romania, right on the Hungarian border. Like his parents, Mihai and Elizabeta, Zoltan speaks both languages fluently.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, life improved dramatically for most people living behind the Iron Curtain – but not much for Romanians. His parents, both engineers, could not leave the country until they won Romania’s Green Card lottery – yes, they had one – in 1997, when Zoltan was ten.
They quickly discovered Hollywood’s depiction of America didn’t quite match their apartment in Queens. It was dirty and cramped – even for just three people – and too expensive, so they moved to Twinsburg, Ohio, right outside Cleveland.
Zoltan learned English in about two months. His parents took two years, but understanding American culture took a little longer.
When Mesko’s eighth-grade class played kickball inside the gym one day, he boomed the ball so high it shattered a ceiling light. The teacher gave him a choice: “You’re either paying for that light, or you’re playing football.”
It was an easy decision. At Mesko’s Thursday night soccer games, only the parents watched. But the Friday night football games were sold out, every time. And football had cheerleaders.
During warm-ups for a game his first year, Mesko’s coach casually mentioned that the other team’s punter had just gotten a college scholarship.
“Excuse me?” a mystified Mesko asked. “A scholarship – for punting?”
“Yeah, for punting,” the coach said, like it was the most natural thing in the world.
When Zoltan told his parents, they didn’t believe him. Who’d heard of such a thing?
But Mesko knew they couldn’t pay for college any other way, so he devoted himself to the singular skill of kicking a football as high and far as he could. Before his senior season, he’d become the nation’s top punting prospect. Indiana offered him a full scholarship, then Harvard, Yale and every other Ivy League school offered him admission and financial aid. It still didn’t make sense to his parents, but they were no longer going to question it.
Mesko grew up a Buckeye fan, but when his mom researched his options, they quickly dismissed the home state team. The Columbia coach told him, “We can’t guarantee you the NFL, but we can guarantee you Wall Street.” Mesko wanted a shot at both, so he enrolled at Michigan.
He graduated from Michigan’s business school in four years with an A-minus average, and will be awarded a master’s degree in sports management tomorrow. He also got the attention of NFL scouts, but almost blew it at the Senior Bowl in January, where he was distracted by the gifts and the interviews and the atmosphere, and kicked badly.
A month later, at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, Zoltan focused on just one thing: Kicking the football. In a one-hour work out with four other punters, he re-established himself as the best prospect.
On Saturday, he watched the NFL draft with his friends and his parents, who drove up for the day. During the fifth round, Mesko’s cell phone rang. “Unknown Caller,” it said. When he picked it up, he found himself talking to the New England Patriots’ head coach, Bill Belichick, who’s won three Super Bowls, and the owner, Robert Kraft. While they talked, ESPN announced that, “With the 150th pick, the New England Patriots select Zoltan Mesko of Michigan.” The room erupted.
This spring Mesko will sign a contract for the minimum wage. But, in the NFL, that’s not $7.25 an hour, but $320,000 a year. He will be the poorest player in the NFL, but probably the richest kid from Timisoara, Romania.
Taking it all in, Mesko said, “What a difference a decade makes.”
Only in America.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.