Patriots' Mesko gets his kicks from working hard

Patriots' Mesko gets his kicks from working hard
August 1, 2012, 5:15 pm
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FOXBORO -- Attend a Patriots training camp session and you'll see various bits of football activity scattered all over the fields. In one spot, there are linebackers and running backs clashing in blitz pickup drills; in another, receivers battling defensive backs in 1-on-1s.

But with one guy, it's sometimes hard to tell what you're looking at.

Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko promises his work is important, no matter how simple it all looks.

"It's a lot of drills, a lot of fundamentals," he said. "But you have to be able to do the boring stuff to be able to enjoy the not-boring stuff, which is winning -- performing well."

He's at it from 7 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m., just like those glamorous receivers and quarterbacks. A lot of the time is spent in meetings, getting the mind refocused on football. And then he runs out, usually the first, for practice.

Mesko laughs to think of how it must look, the quartet of specialists spending so much time alone while the rest of the team draws the crowd's cheers with hard-hitting action.

"Not a lot of drills make sense," he said. "If you were to go out to see maybe track and field, like a javelin thrower or a hammer thrower, you're like, 'What's he doing?' because you're not familiar with the position. It's not in the spotlight all the time."

So what is he doing?

"I would say 90 percent of a punt is dictated by your drop, so I practice my drop a lot," he said. "And it doesn't take a lot of effort out of me to practice my drop, it's more of a skill than anything. But even if people tell you, 'Oh you're so smart, you're so smart,' it's the discipline to put in the hard work to overcome that boredom in the drills."

Yes, the punter has to stay competitive.

Mesko's spot on the team is secure; his 41.5 net average was best in the AFC and third-best in the league last year. His 46.5 overall average set a Patriots record.

But there are lots of punters looking for work, and they prey upon complacency.

"I want to be able to surpass that goal of beating the competition" he said. "There's so much competition. Because even if it's not direct, it's out there -- I just can't see it. There's so many free agents out there that want my position."

It's not fear as much as it's the recognition of reality. And Mesko knows what to do with it.

"You can take all these rah-rah speeches from all the coaches and psychiatric doctors, and read all the self-help books you can, but at the end of the day it comes from how you motivate yourself," he said. "I've had a good start in motivating myself in where I've come from in Romania, and living through what I've lived through to make the best life for myself.

Mesko grew up in Timisoara, the town that birthed 1989's Romanian Revolution. His earliest years coincided with the violence that overturned the country's Communist government. In 1997, his parents finally found a way out via America's green-card lottery.

Mesko was 10 when the trio landed in the U.S.

"There's no other formula that I look to besides hard work," he said. Then, after a thoughtful pause, he added: "Even though I've been given so much."

He's always had drive.

"I was always in love with competition, with winning," he said. "It's always been instilled in me, ever since playing soccer in the parking lots in Europe. You take off your sandals or the shirt off your back and you play 'til the night falls and your mom is screaming at you to get in the house at 11 p.m."

Mesko's father took him to professional sporting events, to soccer games especially. That's when he noticed something -- athletes were admired for their efforts. The better the talent and grind, the better they were appreciated.

He was attracted to the idea.

Now he's living it.

In the months following his sophomore season, the Patriots punter went to charity events, golf tournaments, Loudon's Sprint Cup race. He traveled. Somehow, he still considers himself a 'Joe Schmoe,' checking himself at every chance. But there's no missing the positive correlation between the success he's had and the work he's done. Even if the toil doesn't look typical.

"I love it," he says. "I love this job and I love what it allows me to do. It's cool that through hard work, things like this can be achieved."