The Amazing Adventures of a Romanian-Born New England Patriot
NFL punter Zoltan Mesko’s Catholic faith has been refined by his improbable and inspiring journey through life.
Even though his favored New England Patriots lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the recent AFC Championship Game, Zoltan Mesko is not letting that get him down. The three-year pro has faced much tougher situations, starting in his home country of Romania.
Economic hardships were a way of life under communist rule, despite the fact that both of Mesko’s parents were engineers with good jobs. The family had money, but it couldn’t buy them much in an economy with oppressive regulations. Then there were days when the family narrowly escaped a violent death. During the 1989 revolution, the toddler Mesko and his parents evaded gunfire that careened through their apartment.
Eight years later, the Meskos were fortunate enough to win the immigration lottery, despite unfavorable odds. The Meskos were among the 55,000 people from around the world who were granted a visa for entry into the United States -- out of the 22 million who requested one.
Mesko, 26, earned a master’s degree from the University of Michigan and was a record-setting punter on the school’s football team. It was also during his time in Ann Arbor that he started visiting sick children in the hospital, a practice that he enthusiastically continues today through the Zoltan Mesko Foundation.
Amid all his amazing adventures, Mesko’s faith in God and his Church has increased, as he explained to Register correspondent Trent Beattie after the Patriots’ playoff exit.
What are your thoughts on the recently concluded Patriots’ season?
We had a good regular season (12-4), but our postseason ended abruptly with a loss to the Ravens. Our team is so talented and dedicated that our goal each year is to win the Super Bowl. We’re capable of doing it, so when it doesn’t happen, it’s a disappointment.
The Ravens have played well, and so have the 49ers. They are evenly matched, so I don’t have a clue which team is going to win when they play in the Super Bowl. It’s an interesting matchup between two teams that are led by head coaches who are brothers (49ers' coach Jim Harbaugh and Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh).
American football is not too popular in Romania, so how did you get started playing the game?
I came to the United States with my family when I was 11 years old. In gym class, we were playing kickball, which I found to be similar to soccer, a sport I was familiar with. During the game, I kicked the ball so hard that it broke a ceiling light in the gym. The teacher was upset about that, so he took me by the collar and said, “You’re either paying for that light or you’re playing on the football team for us next season.” I wasn’t getting too much money from my allowance, so playing on the football team seemed like a much more reasonable option than paying for the light.
Did you have a tough time adjusting from Romanian to American culture?
Not really. Romania was a very harsh place to live while the communists were in power. They portray it as equality for all, but the equality you get is everyone being equally miserable. Government control of everything results in less prosperity for everyone.
One time in Romania, my mother wanted to make me a cake. She had to have eggs to do that, so she went to the egg store. (There was no supermarket, just a bunch of different stores that each had only one item for sale.) She spent three hours waiting in line at the egg store. She finally got the eggs, but then, on her way home, she accidentally dropped them. She then spent three hours crying about the experience.
Those kinds of things happen frequently when the government steps in and tries to do things that people should be allowed to do for themselves. When the principle of subsidiarity is rejected, society is unbalanced and unproductive. As Pope Pius XI wrote in Quadragesimo Anno (In the 40th Year), it is an unchangeable aspect of social philosophy that government should not usurp the rights of individuals to do what they are capable of doing through their own actions.
My mother and father are both engineers, so we had quite a bit of money. However, because of hyperinflation, the money couldn’t buy much. We lived paycheck to paycheck in Romania, so the transition to American culture wasn’t too tough. I found things to be so much easier here. Learning English came quickly, since youngsters tend to be like sponges. I just took in everything and was very aware of how blessed I was to be here.
Did your parents encourage you to take advantage of the new opportunities you had here?
Yes, my mother was especially concerned that I do as well as I could. She always wanted me to succeed in school. Sometimes I didn’t understand this, but, looking back now, it makes a lot of sense. Doing well academically is like laying the groundwork for a successful life. I actually had a master’s degree before I started playing in the NFL.
There’s more to that story, though, which shows the possibilities behind adversity. In high school, I was one of the most-recruited kickers in the country. I got all kinds of attention and awards before I ever arrived at the University of Michigan. Once I was on campus, I fully expected to be the starting punter for the Wolverines. This wasn’t what happened, though.
I was actually beaten out by a walk-on player. To go from being thought of as the best to not even being able to start on your own team was very humbling for me. It was actually the most depressing time of my entire life, even more so than all the hardships we went through in Romania.
The reason why it was so tough was because of high expectations that were not met. In the United States, there are many more opportunities than in other countries, so your expectations increase, but so can your disappointments. I had put so much into what others were saying about me that I thought I was entitled to things, and when those things didn’t come through, I was very sad.
A lot of good ended up coming from the situation, though. I learned to trust in God, despite how dismal things might appear. I also learned to care more about my character than my reputation. As the saying goes: "Your character is who you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are." Sometimes the two coincide, but sometimes they don’t. That’s when firm decisions to do the right thing are so important.
I ended up staying five years at Michigan and earning my master’s degree. It was also during this time in college that I started visiting children in the hospital, which helped to improve my outlook on life.
Hospital visits are still a regular part of your life.
Yes, but I didn’t plan on them being so. It all started merely as a way to get something good on my résumé for business school. Yet it only took me one visit to realize that this wasn’t the right reason to be at the hospital.
Being around children in general is fun because they have a greater capacity for imagination and awe than adults do. They experience wonder at things we as adults don’t think twice about. What’s even more rewarding is being around sick children because they endure so much. They have an innocence and humility about them that is very endearing.
The most difficult but most rewarding thing is to visit the oncology wards. There you see 4-year-olds going through chemotherapy. Chemo is tough enough for adults, but it’s heartbreaking to see children go through it. I just try to be there for them and make them laugh. Laughter really is the best medicine.
Visiting children in hospitals is something I encourage my teammates and anyone else to do. It helps the children, but it also helps those who visit them. The things we get concerned about are put in their proper perspective, and eternity regains prominence. In serious illness, we can quickly see and act on what is most important.
What do you appreciate most about the Catholic Church?
I really like how the Church is for everybody. It cuts across times and places, and it shows itself to be the place where Jesus wants everyone to be. The Church adapts itself well to different situations, without losing its primary purpose of conveying all the means of salvation to humanity. Jesus suffered and died for all, so his Church is for all as well.
Sometimes this is lost on us because we don’t take the time to stop and consider it. We’re so busy with other things that God’s love for us is forgotten. I try to meditate on this and pray every evening and during the day as well. In the car, I often make the decision to turn off the radio and ask for wisdom on certain matters. Driving can be a great time for silence and prayer.
Do you have a patron saint?
My patron is St. Anthony of Padua. I wear a medal with his image, and I also have a picture of him on the wall. He’s holding the Christ Child, so his prayers are sought for things regarding small children. In fact, he’s someone my mother prayed to before I was born and then after I was born as well.
This reminds me of how in Romania everything was so expensive that people tended to have very few children. You just couldn’t afford to do otherwise. I’m an only child, but when I start a family of my own, I want to have many children. They are God’s greatest gift in the natural order, so it would be ridiculous to refuse such gifts when they can be accepted so easily.
I have so much to be grateful for, and I’ve beaten the odds in so many ways: surviving the bullets going through our apartment on Christmas Eve in 1989, winning the immigration lottery, getting a college football scholarship, making it to the Super Bowl (last year), physical health, spiritual health.
Some of these things I’ve worked for, but others have been free gifts given by God. When you consider the probability of me getting to where I am, it really is staggering. There’s no doubt in my mind that God exists and that he does have specific plans for me.
There’s so much more for me to learn about life, but I’m already aware of many great things God has given me. This makes me want to share my blessings with others.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.