Zoltan Mesko, Steelers Punter, 2013

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First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing since your 2013 season?

I’m working now at IBM with their analytics software. I did an internship during the lockout in the finance world and was a finance major in college, but the hours of a finance job were over the top for what I wanted to focus on so I went to IBM.

I enjoy solving problems.  Helping companies with cost reduction and new revenue generation is something I like to do. I like helping solve problems – just like punting. You have a problem with field position, I can help you!

You were born in Romania and spent much of your childhood there. How did you find yourself in the US?

We won the green card lottery. My dad used to play the lottery in Romania and would win a couple of bucks here and there. A family we were friendly with applied for the green card lottery and won, so he applied as well and we were one of 55,000 out of 20 million to win. I honestly think it was just the US’s way of bringing in more educated taxpayers. The probability for us to win was .04% …yes, I like numbers!

What are your recollections of living in Romania?

I was there until I was three-and-a-half.  There was a lot of money coming in but no diversity of product.  If you wanted blue jeans you had to get them on the black market. Someone would smuggle them into their apartment and would distribute them in the community – so you had to have your connections. If you were listening to the Beatles – well, that was unheard of to have a cassette tape of them! It was like 1984 – people were encouraged to tell on one another as Communists. There was a benefit to being a member of the party. Each member would get an extra propane tank for cooking. I remember my grandfather joined the party – for an extra tank to cook with, why not he said. I’ll join!

My mother told me the story about my first birthday. She wanted to make me a cake so she went to the sugar store first. Because that’s where you got the sugar. Then you went to the egg store. She had a coupon for three eggs and waited in line for three hours to get the eggs with her coupon. She ran home to bake the cake and tripped and broke the eggs. She couldn’t even get more eggs because she used her egg coupon for the week.

It was dangerous as well?

I don’t remember much, but I remember Christmas, we had to spend it on the floor because bullets were flying around. Over 3,000 people died on the overthrow of the regime, and they executed the dictator and his wife on tape delay on tv.

We tried to get out of Romania earlier. We were 25% German so we  tried to leave for Germany but were denied. Things happened for a reason. My father ended up playing the lottery and we got to the US.

So, you win the lottery and go to New York. Why there?

We had family friends that had gone there earlier. They sponsored us – you needed a sponsor to just at least give you lodging for a couple of weeks until you got on your feet. They were in Westchester County.

We moved to Queens afterwards. It was dirty and crowded – not what the movie image of the US was when I was a kid. The family that we found out about the lottery through had actually won the year before and were in Cleveland. They had trees, deer….it sounded like a much nicer place. My dad took a Greyhound bus there, found a job, and came back and got us.

So, you initially played soccer as a kid there…

I liked soccer –  more playing it. I was lengthening out then though – I was 6/2″ in eighth grade. One day I was playing kickball in gym class and tried to kick a home run and kicked out one of the lights in the gym. The gym teacher happened to be the football coach – he told me I needed to kick for the football team or pay for the light! The other kicker had graduated and they needed a kicker.

I was looking for something else anyway – and this was something I felt I could be one of the best at. When I found out that you could get a scholarship to kick a football and have your college paid for, I said “Holy Crap!” I weighed 150 then,  but I worked out, ate a lot, and gained 55 pounds. I went to work when I found out my school could be paid for.

And you end up excelling in college and getting drafted in the fifth round by New England, which is high to get drafted as a punter. Were you surprised?

I guess I was happy to be drafted in the fifth round. But look at the Raiders – they drafted Ray Guy in the first round. Now, I’m not comparing myself to him of course, but sometimes it makes sense to draft a guy in the first round if you know he’ll be around for a long time. Look at the Raiders – they drafted Jamarcus Russell in the first round…

After a few season, New England released you for another punter. What happened there?

If you look at the stat sheet, I had won the job. But it’s a business – it took me a while to realize that. I hit all of my accelerators the previous season and I was due to make a third-rounders’ salary. That’s more than twice what I would have made in my third season. So it made sense for them – there wasn’t a bang for the buck there for them.

And you then went to Pittsburgh – why the Steelers?

Well, the decision was made for me really. No one claimed me on waivers. I kicked well in my tryout and they gave me a one-year minimum wage contract. Beggars can’t be choosers, and it worked out well as it was just two hours away from where I had lived.

Who did you get closest to on the team – and any fun memories during your time there?

I stuck with the kicker and snapper – that trilogy. I also liked hanging out with the linemen – they were those humble pie guys. They liked to talk about food and crack jokes  – I always gravitated to them.

Suisham and Warren were class acts. Foster was a good guy. Across the line they were good guys. All were quick to recommend places to go and things to do.

I tried to get re-engaged in community service like I was in New England. But not being there for a long time…getting fired was traumatic. I was shell-shocked. I was only there eight weeks in Pittsburgh. I didn’t have that many positive experiences. I do remember going with Ramon Foster to the Woman’s Hospital – we were there to help with a program that showed them what to eat when you have cancer. We goofed off and threw food at each other and had fun -we made a lot of people laugh.

What happened in Pittsburgh that caused you to be released so soon?

Going back to New England, my second season was my best in the NFL. I led the AFC in net average. I kept wanting more – I wanted to make the Pro Bowl and get a nice contract. In New England, you didn’t get the chance to punt much. So I made some quick improvements to my technique – like in your golf game. They worked a little in the short term but not in the long term.  My form started to deteriorate though I didn’t realize it then.

The problems occurred more in Pittsburgh. I wanted to be the best of the best, but those quick fixes hurt.  After I was released I broke down my technique and rebuilt it as a free agent. I was a much better punter after that than I was in Pittsburgh.

It hurt being released. In Oakland it all came to a head.  They keep the number one ball for kickoffs throughout the game. When we kicked off to Oakland the return man caught it and took a knee.  He had Vaseline all over him and got it all over the ball – because that made his tattoos look good. Well, he got it all over the ball.  When I punted later, the ball slipped through my hands and hit my stomach. I didn’t drop it, but it slowed down my operation and the ball was tipped. I also hurt a vertebrae in my back against the Bears. I was feeling old – mentally and physically.  The grind…

Well, getting back to Oakland, I yelled at the ball guy for not wiping off the ball, but what did Tomlin care about that, I knew. I was at the mercy of God and was cut later. To be honest I wasn’t sad. I was mentally drained – it was a rollercoaster.

Why drained?

Being cut by New England, then Pittsburgh….and New England was weird. Everyone was so micromanaged. Tomlin talked to me more about personal stuff in my tryout than Billichik did in my three years there. Tomlin would give hugs after the game – that felt strange after coming from New England. You didn’t hug the head-honcho. And I’m an extrovert.. Billichick was just not a friendly guy.

How did your upbringing and faith affect they way you approached things?

Growing up in tough conditions made me more resilient. Even in college I was beaten out by a walk-on at first but I won the job back. The hardships you face in football – the ups and downs – are great life lessons. Sports offer so many lessons that aren’t life-threatening. I’ve taken from that the resiliency and grit I now apply to my professional life. Football is a job – it keeps the lights on. That changes the importance of what the game means.

And faith?

I’m not the most religious person. I’m a Roman Catholic – though I respect all religions.  I do believe in a higher power. If you put the hard work in and it doesn’t work out  – I do think there is a higher vision. If it’s not meant to be it’s not meant to be – I do believe in a higher plan.

I left the game with no regrets.. I was always first in and last out, which was weird as a punter.  You didn’t really need to study and learn all the aspects of the game. But I loved that part of it and worked hard. And because of that I can transfer that to the rest of my life.

 

 

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