PITTSBURGH - Coaches talk metaphorically about needing people who perform when bullets are flying. Zoltan Mesko already has — for real.
Players kid about hitting the lottery when they get drafted into the NFL. Zoltan Mesko hit one just to live in the United States.
Mesko still can't believe he's now the Steelers’ punter in the city he liked as soon as he became aware of it. Pittsburgh, to him, was what an American city was supposed to look like, was supposed to feel like.
“It's more what we imagined in life,” said Mesko, who is marveling this week at all the hills that, to him, provide personality, charm and stability.
Or exactly what he imagined growing up in poverty and, at times, fear in Timisoara, Romania, where the Romanian Revolution began in December 1989, ultimately killing 1,104 and toppling the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.
Mesko lived through it, even though his family's apartment, located at the center of the uprising, came under fire Christmas Eve.
Mesko, then 3, huddled under a bed and no doubt dreamed of a better day, one that wouldn't come until seven years later.
His mother and father were engineers with college degrees, yet they lived for years in abject poverty, barely surviving from paycheck to paycheck.
Nearly all the family's income went for overpriced food. A gallon of gas cost the equivalent of slightly less than one-tenth of the family's $100 monthly income.
To help make money, Mesko's mother sewed pajamas, T-shirts and other clothing, and her husband sold them weekly at a flea market.
“It was tough times, with financial struggles,” he said. “I had a respect for (his parents') spending. I was an only child, and I wasn't spoiled financially, so I was spoiled with attention.”
The family's break came in 1996, when Mesko's father hit a green card lottery to relocate to the United States. They lived in Queens for four months — “I thought the streets there would be paved with gold,” Mesko said — before moving to Cleveland because a family friend already lived there.
“Who knows how my life would have turned out if it weren't for that move?” he said.
Mesko, then in fifth grade, soon became attached to nearby Pittsburgh, buying a Steelers jacket at a Wal-Mart and proudly wearing it to school and on the streets. Starting this week, following his pickup on waivers from the Patriots, he'll wear one for real.
“I'm a strong believer in things happening for a reason,” Mesko said.
Mesko became a punter after a high school coach saw him kicking dodge balls off the high ceiling in a gymnasium. He went on to star at Michigan and be drafted by New England in the fifth round, only to be cut last week in a salary cap move partly because he was due to make $1.3 million. The symbolism wasn't lost on Mesko, who once didn't have two nickels to rub together but now was being viewed as too expensive.
The Steelers are hoping the 27-year-old Mesko will stabilize a position that has been in constant transition, with Daniel Sepulveda, Mitch Berger, Jeremy Kapinos and Drew Butler holding the job since 2008.
“It's been a bit of a roller coaster for me, and I'm glad I landed on my feet and landed with such a good organization,” said Mesko, who averaged 44.2 yards per punt in three Patriots seasons. “I did have a really good camp, and I feel fundamentally sound.”
No doubt the first punt he sends sailing downfield at Heinz Field will be greeted by fans forming the sign of Zoltan, the good-luck sign adopted by the Pirates from a movie comedy.
Those gestures will be much friendlier than those he was flashed as a youngster wearing his Steelers jacket in Cleveland.
“It's all pretty cool,” he said.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.