Life lessons from Zoltan Mesko

Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal dubbed Zoltan Mesko the NFL’s most interesting man. Mesko was a 10-year-old immigrant to the United States from Rumania. He played high school football and attended the the University of Michigan, where he also played for the team as a punter. He signed on with the New England Patriots after they drafted him in the fifth round of this year’s NFL draft.
Mesko hasn’t even made the team yet, but it wouldn’t be right to quibble with the premise of the Journal’s story. The story by John U. Bacon is a terrific profile of Mesko. It runs quickly over the highlights of Mesko’s life so far. At age 24, the young man has already covered a lot of ground. There are a few items that may be worth pausing over to consider possible lessons to be learned.
1. Zoltan Mesko looks back: “When I was 10 years old, I barely knew American football existed,” he says. “If you would’ve told me I’d get two degrees and a pro contract for kicking a ball in the air, I probably would have said, ‘Oh yeah? Are you going to disappear into thin air for your next act?’” You gotta believe!
2. Mesko’s path to pro football had an unusual origin: “He got lured into football only after he smashed a ceiling light with a kick ball in his Twinsburg, Ohio, junior-high-school gym….When Zoltan’s eighth-grade class played kickball one day, he boomed the ball so high it shattered a ceiling light. The teacher gave him a choice: ‘You’re either paying for my light, or you’re playing for my team.’” Talent goes a long way, but fortune plays its own peculiar role in human affairs and, as Machiavelli taught, fortune is a woman.
3. Mesko chose to go out for the team rather than pay for the light: “During warm-ups his first season, his coach casually mentioned the other team’s punter had just received a college scholarship. ‘Excuse me?’ Mr. Mesko asked. ‘A scholarship–for punting?‘” You can’t overestimate the value of being a good listener, or having a good teacher.
4. Mesko acknowledges the role of his mother in researching colleges for him: “Mom was always about academics.” As in so many immigrant families, you can’t overemphasize the importance of a good education.
5. Like Mesko when his high school coach told him about football opening college doors, Mesko’s parents were incredulous: “Before his senior season, Mr. Mesko had become the nation’s top punting prospect. Indiana offered him a scholarship, then every Ivy League school offered him admission. ‘My parents were awestruck,’ Mr. Mesko recalls. ‘This was really possible!’” You gotta believe!
6. Ivy League schools may not be the perfect fit, even for an outstanding student: “[T]he Columbia University coach told him, ‘We can’t guarantee you the NFL, but we can guarantee you Wall Street.’ Mr. Mesko wanted a shot at both, so he enrolled at Michigan, one of the nation’s top public universities.” He took two degrees at Michigan. You can’t overemphasize the importance of a good education.
7. Mesko attributes some of his success to a highly unlikely factor: “The college coaches probably see five Jim Smiths every year,” he says. “But the kid with the weird Z-name is going to register.” Modesty is becoming — even when it is implausible, and even when it is not this funny.
8. Mesko was named an Academic All-American and became the first specialist in 130 years of Michigan football to be named a captain. “That’s the one I’m proudest of,” he says. You have to strive to deserve the respect of your peers.
9. As a punter, Mesko should have known that he had to keep his eye on the ball. He took his eye off it at a crucial moment: “[H]e almost blew it at the Senior Bowl in January. ‘It was my first exposure to the whole process,’ he says. ‘I was too involved in getting all the cool gear, the interviews, the hype. I was horrible. That was a big wake up call.’” In the good ol’ USA, however, everyone gets a second chance. Mesko nailed his.
10. “I’ve got two degrees,” he says, “and no debt. Could be worse.” You have to keep things in perspective.
11. Zesko signed a minimum NFL contract ($325,000) with a substantial signing bonus ($187,250). “You only have this type of income for so many years. After that, you’ve either got to fall back on your education or live off the interest.” You have to keep things in perspective. And you can’t overemphasize the importance of a good education.
12. Reporter John Bacon draws only one lesson from Mesko’s story, though it is one that I am quite sure channels Mesko’s own thoughts: “He might be among the poorest players in the NFL but is probably the richest kid from Timişoara, Romania.” You have to keep things in perspective.
I could keep going, but I’ve already repeated myself several times. The important lessons probably bear repetition. They certainly jump out at the reader from Mesko’s story.

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