Pats punter Zoltan Mesko happy to play 'goofball' role
INDIANAPOLIS -- Zoltan Mesko does not need much prodding to launch into a story about what was at once both his most embarrassing and most famous moment as a Michigan Wolverine.
One of the Wolverines' longest-running traditions is to leap up and slap an eight-foot-tall "Go Blue" banner as they sprint onto the field before a home game. As a senior in 2009, Mesko was one of the first players out for Michigan's season-opener against Western Michigan.
Only he was a little too enthusiastic. The 6-foot-5 punter got a little too much air and smacked the banner hard -- a little too hard -- with both hands. That caused him to lose his balance and tumble awkwardly to the turf, where he was smacked into by several of the 80 or so hard-charging Wolverines running behind him.
The clip hit YouTube immediately. ESPN's "GameDay" interviewed Mesko after the Wolverines' eventual win, just to talk about the banner incident.
Mesko laughed the mishap off then. And now, despite being in the NFL for two years and making his first Super Bowl, he's still more than happy to talk about it.
"So, two good things that came about because of that, besides a lot of laughs," Mesko said Thursday. "I got a little one-minute special on 'Gameday' -- they interviewed me about what was happening when I was getting trampled.
"And second, a sorority noticed it was at 90,000 views on YouTube, and they said they’d throw a party for the football team when it hit a (hundred thousand)."
The original YouTube video reached that milestone, and Mesko took his teammates to celebrate at that impromptu sorority get-together. Consider that the prime example why Mesko was a huge hit with his Michigan teammates and a veritable legend around campus.
Mesko's quirky, off-kilter personality has played well in the New England locker room, too.
"I know my teammates view me the same way, as far as 'Yea, he’s a goofball,'" Mesko said. "At the same time, I take what I do seriously ... but not ever myself."
To wit: Mesko, a native of Romania, has claimed a role as one of the Patriots' locker room clowns thanks to a Borat impression that running back Shane Vereen said is "right on the money."
"That’s his go-to. It’s half his popularity, that Borat impression," New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski said. "He pulls out the mustache and the wig and the speedo …"
Wait. There are props?
"Oh, absolutely," Gostkowski confirmed. "He’s very good at it. You close your eyes and it’s just like the movie."
It doesn't hurt Mesko's reputation among the Patriots that he's a pretty talented performer on the field, as well. Mesko averaged 46.5 yards per punt this season and dropped 24 kicks inside the opponent's 20.
Despite what his legendary YouTube clip might show, Mesko actually possesses quite the athletic skill set for a lanky punter. Former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez even gave him the green light to take off on a couple of fake punts, one of which resulted in a first-down run -- and a spin move around a potential tackler -- at Notre Dame.
Mallett even said that Mesko has a surprisingly good arm (a statement that came only after Mesko quipped that he taught Mallett everything he knows about quarterbacking during their time in Ann Arbor).
But both Mallett and backup QB Brian Hoyer, who sat nearby shaking his head feverishly at the thought, are praying that the Patriots don't ask Mesko to pull out his bag of tricks in a game.
"Zoltan can throw," Mallett said, "just not, like, when things are going fast."
So, until he's told otherwise -- "I don't know nothin' about the playbook," Mesko said coyly when asked if he was going to bust out a fake soon -- Mesko will stick to punting.
That's one of the few topics Mesko is completely serious about. Mesko took up the craft in high school, just a few years after his family won a green card lottery and emigrated from Romania to the United States. They settled in Twinsburg, Ohio, where Mesko developed into one of the country's most heavily-recruited punters.
His success led first to a scholarship at Michigan, then a fifth-round draft selection by the Patriots. And along the way, he's learned how to merge his wacky personality with the job he has to do.
"As long as I act responsibly when the time is right," Mesko said about knowing where to draw the line. "I pride myself on working very hard in the weight room, and working very hard on the field, doing all the required work -- not just required but above and beyond.
"I don’t want to just go the speed limit, I want to go above the speed limit."
A Romanian press contingent will arrive in Indianapolis on Saturday to check on Mesko's progress first-hand. Despite being more than a decade removed from his life overseas, Mesko remains a very popular figure in his home country.
"I mean, it puts things into perspective that I am -- that this sport is -- covered worldwide," Mesko said. "I gladly accept the role of a mini-ambassador, whatever I can do to help spread the popularity of football."
Carving out a niche on the AFC champion Patriots is a good start. Mesko's personal popularity might soar, too, the more fans in New England and around the NFL are exposed to his unusual presence.
"He embellishes it, he thrives on it," Mallett said. "Guys are working eight to 10 hours a day with the same guys, doing the same things. He keeps the locker room lively."
Mesko has yet to have his signature moment in the NFL (though if one of his teammates' videos of the Borat impression ever surface, that might suffice), but he might get a chance on the game's biggest stage Sunday.