Mesko was confused until he realized his own mistake. Mesko clarified that his father had never been selected to the N.F.L.’s Pro Bowl, but instead was a professional bowler.
In his native Romania, Michael Mesko was paid under the table, as he explained it, to play club 9-pin bowling. He was also an engineer, and he met his wife, Elisabeth, in engineering school. So began an unusual journey that eventually led to their son, an engaging, humorous 24-year-old, setting a rookie record for punting footballs for the best team in the N.F.L.
Zoltan Mesko was born March 15, 1986, in Timisoara, near the Hungarian and Serbian borders, during the final gasp of Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship. Before Zoltan was 4, he and his parents lived through a harrowing week in December 1989 when violent protests, sparked in their hometown, led to www.nytimes.com/1989/12/26/world/upheaval-east-army-executes-ceaucescu-wife-for-genocide-role-bucharest-says.html?scp=2&sq=ceaucescu&st=cse" title="NYT article.">the violent overthrow of the Ceausescu regime.
The streets of Timisoara were marked by gunfire, tear gas and armored vehicles while the Meskos hunkered down in their concrete, Soviet-era apartment building.
“It was scary,” Elisabeth Mesko recalled. “For one week, we could not go out because of all the shooting. We didn’t have much food. I remember my husband’s mother died that week, but only he could go to the funeral. It was too dangerous to take Zoltan out.”
Even after the revolution, life was still hard in Timisoara. Although both parents were educated and held prestigious jobs, the Meskos scratched out a meager existence in an economy making a transition to an open market. Two- and three-hour lines for food were the norm, and gas prices neared $9 a gallon. Zoltan remembers wearing shoes long after they fit properly, until his toes poked through.
“Then we used duct tape,” he said, before adding with a laugh, “but we didn’t have duct tape.”
The hardships reinforced what the Meskos always wanted, to emigrate to America, and after years of waiting, the family finally won www.usgreencardlottery.org/" title="some info.">the lottery for a green-card visa. On May 8, 1997, they arrived in New York ready to begin a new life. At first they moved in with Julia and George Lutas, old friends from Timisoara who lived in Mamaroneck, N.Y.. The Lutases sponsored them and picked them up at the airport. After a few weeks, the Meskos found modest accommodations in Maspeth, Queens.
“They worked very hard and put themselves on their feet very fast,” Julia Lutas said. “Now, every year on the anniversary of the day they came here, they call and thank us. That is the kind of people they are.”
Although the elder Meskos were qualified engineers, their degrees did not transfer to the United States, so they found whatever work was available. Michael earned minimum wage working for a locksmith in Queens, and Elisabeth cooked and cleaned houses.
“It was a shock in Queens,” Elisabeth said. “I would never go back to Romania, but oh, my gosh.”
While his parents found their bearings, Zoltan began to add English to his other three languages: Romanian, Hungarian and German, which he speaks fluently.
“I first learned English watching Barney on TV,” he recalled, shaking his head. “One time I was watching it and it was especially confusing. Then I realized I was watching in Spanish.”
After half a year in Queens, the family took the advice of a friend and moved to Twinsburg, Ohio. Both parents found work in their fields, Michael as a quality control inspector for an industrial manufacturer and Elisabeth as a laboratory supervisor for a geotechnical engineering firm. (His father gave up bowling.)
At school, Zoltan excelled at everything he did.
That even included kickball. As a child in Romania, Zoltan was a left wing in soccer. He became a legendary schoolyard kickball player in Twinsburg, with a thunderous left leg.
“I was a fifth-round draft pick this year,” he said, “but I was always a first-round draft pick in kickball.”
Once, after he broke a ceiling light in the gymnasium, the school’s coach implored him to play football. That suited Zoltan, if not his mother.
“I didn’t want that,” she said. “I said, ‘They will kill you and they will hit you and they will beat you.’ He said: ‘Mom, a kicker and a punter, they don’t get nothing. They won’t beat me.’ So I was O.K. if he just be a kicker.”
His kicking prowess and academic success led to a scholarship from Michigan, where he became a cult figure for his name, his booming kicks and his wit. In April the Patriots made him the 150th overall pick in the draft, 49 spots higher than his fellow Michigan alumnus Tom Brady was in 2000. Mesko’s net average, 38.4 yards per punt, was the highest mark for a rookie.
“It’s a rags-to-riches story,” he said, “but the story is not over yet.” If it continues as it has, he may one day follow in his father’s footsteps, as a Pro Bowler.