We're not journalists here at Maize n Brew. We're fans. But sometimes we do things that border on journalism that give us the false impression that we actually know what we're doing. One of those things was to interview the New England Patriots' new punter, Zoltan Mesko.
It's somewhat unusual for a fanbase to be as obsessed with its punter as Michigan's are. But when you follow Zoltan Mesko for as long as we have you can't help it. Zoltan don't play. Back in July, I had the chance to sit down with Zoltan at Big Ten Media Days before the 2009 season. In fact, he was my first "interview" as "credentialed press." What I learned that day is that Mesko is not only the very definition of the the Michigan Man, but he's a pretty cool dude on top of that and the kind of guy you hope suits up for your team.
So, about a month ago, as spring practice was getting started, I got in contact with the Space Emperor to request an audience. Despite this request coming out of the blue, Zoltan was incredibly gracious and granted your humble blogger far more of his time than was either wise or necessary. But the things I learned back in July remain constant. Zoltan rocks. One other thing I learned, it takes a while to make a transcript of an interview when you've got a day job, so please excuse the fact this interview is a month old. So, without further ado, the Maize n Brew Interview with University of Michigan Alumnus and New England Patriots Draft Choice, Zoltan Mesko.
Maize n Brew Dave: Zoltan, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
Zoltan Mesko: Thanks for inviting me.
MnB: A lot of fans don't have a clue what goes on during spring practice. Is there a short summary you can give us of what actually goes on, or what spring practice really is?
Z: It's definitely something I never experienced in high school. It's one of those things that gives you a definite jump-start on the season and keeps football fresh in your mind. An added bonus is you don't have to get used to wearing the pads again in the fall because you haven't worn them in nine months.
MnB: What usually happens in a day for you guys? When you guys trot out there for that first Monday or Tuesday of spring practice, what do you start off doing for special teams?
Z: It's just like any other practice in the fall, just in the spring we might get more use out of our indoor facilities. I mean if we do go outside, it's pretty cold so we've got to be in the right mind set. But in terms of practice, what we do is we warm up, we'll kick to the returners, do the team stretch, then we'll go into the field goal period, then go into punt return period and knock out all that special teams work with the full team. After that the specialist on are their own to do whatever: weight lift, cardio, maybe mess around a little more.
MnB: Speaking of messing around, there was an internet video of you goofing around the new indoor practice facility, as we call it "Newsterbann", with a soccer ball and a football. You managed to knock a soccer ball off the roof of the building. I have to admit, I was a little surprised you didn't clank the football off the roof. Did you ever manage to do that with a football?
Z: Yeah. It's actually pretty easy with a football. When that video was shot, the rubber pellets weren't in the grass yet so we were slipping everywhere. I wasn't trying to knock my ACL out of place by really going full at it, you know? It's pretty easy to do. If we're doing a pooch punt inside the 40, I'll hit the roof pretty often if I hit the ball as I should.
MnB: Well... whew. You've cleared up an internet mystery for us, so I feel a little better about that.
Z: Glad to.
MnB: Getting back to practice, how long does it take before you guys really start knocking each other around in pads? Does the coaching staff have you guys doing live cover drills or do the specialists get the ball down field and get out of the way for safety's sake? How does that work for you guys?
Z: Every other practice, we'll have one or two full covers. But we won't tackle full out. We'll wrap up the returner and let him go, you know, let the other guys get a chance at him. You just don't want anyone getting hurt. The guys already know how to tackle, the drills are about the lanes they need to get in to get to the ball carrier efficiently. As far as tackling goes they get enough in their defensive and offensive drills.
(more on Zoltan's NFL plans, the Combine, and his experience at Michigan after the Jump....)
MnB: You're a big guy, we met back at Big Ten Media Days and I'm six four and I think you had an inch or two on me. Has the coaching staff ever said to you "Hey, Zoltan, what do you think about playing Defensive End" or anything like that? Or have they kept you strictly as a specialist?
Z: Actually, I was offered playbooks by both coaching staffs under Carr and Rodriguez to play quarterback. It's not like that's never been done before. I think the Florida punter is the third string QB, Aaron Bates from Michigan State was the back up in spring practice when they were down in numbers. Tom Tupa was the back up at Ohio State back in the 90's. It's nothing new. We have to be a little more athletic back there and be able to throw the ball, so there's that. At the same time, I knew how much time quarterbacks commit and how much they have to put in to memorize the playbook and have everything down to a tee. Knowing that, I really wanted to focus on my academics.
MnB: Speaking of academics, if I recall correctly you graduated early and are currently getting your Masters, is that right?
Z: Be done with my masters in April. I my undergraduate degree was in finance and marketing.
MnB: Holy cow. Any thoughts about eventually going back to Michigan's brand spanking new Ross Business School for an MBA?
Z: I'd love to. Probably half my masters' classes are from the business school, and I'm doing pretty well. It's funny comparing the students at the different schools. You've got people like me, who've still got that undergraduate mentality of getting all the work done on time and getting all your homework done first thing. Then you've got people who are coming in while working, and school isn't their first priority. It's get done with work and family and then make time for school. It's interesting.
MnB: (laughing) I can assure you that our undergraduate mentalities were quite different. Going back to the live covers, do they ever stick you on the tackling squads or any other kind of full contact drills for special teams?
Z: You know... I think I've done two tackling drills in my whole career at Michigan. The first made the Carr staff realize, this was pointless. The other made the Rodriguez staff realize that was pointless as well. I remember we did some kind of fumble recovery drill, which was awful. All we managed to do was scab up our elbows, so we said we're done with this.
MnB: Care to elaborate on just how bad it was?
Z: Man. Our forms were just so bad that they told us we needed to go back to high school and learn how to tackle. Eventually, the staffs told us just get your body in front of the returner somehow and force them back into the middle where guys can get ‘em.
MnB: Special Teams has a lot of different connotations depending on the individual football program. You've got places like Virginia Tech where seniors line up to be on Special Teams, because it's such a big responsibility. I know that Coach Rodriguez has put a lot of emphasis on special teams. How does Michigan go about selecting people to play on special teams? Is this a big competition?
Z: It's all about showing effort. Even if you're a starter you might be asked to be on special teams, because at the next level, the starters are playing special teams. Brandon Graham played on the punt block team this year and had two punt blocks and recovered another one that was blocked by Brandon Smith for a touchdown. He really did a great job. It's really all about effort. A lot of the walk-ons have been getting a lot of chances because they really work hard. They show that they just want to get in the game somehow. So if they don't have the talent to play full-out defense all the time, then they can at least get a man blocked or get the starters a breather.
MnB: Since you've been around the program for the last four or five years and have had the opportunity to watch the players practice, are there players that didn't make the field last year that will help Michigan in the future? Maybe someone who red shirted or was on the practice squad that will be a contributor down the line? Is there anyone like that who comes to mind?
Z: Definitely! There are a lot of young guys that have the potential to be something unbelievable. Justin Turner, for instance. I only see bits and pieces of practice, because I'll do my own thing indoors with the other special teamers, but when I do watch practices, Justin Turner was like white-on-rice with the receivers. He's still learning, but if he was on the receiver, it was like he knew what the receiver was doing next.
MnB: Well that's great news and very reassuring. We've been pretty nervous with the loss of Donovan Warren. But speaking of replacing people who are leaving, who's taking over for you?
Z: For punter, we signed Will Hagerup and I'm pretty confident that he can win the job. He's a good punter. The biggest thing he'll have to adjust to is the speed of the game. That's the biggest thing. He's got the strong leg and the ability and the athleticism. He kind of like me. He's 6'4", 220. I'm a little bit heavier but I think he's a little more athletic than I am. He's a good one. He's got all the physical tools.
MnB: When you say the speed of the game changes between High School and College, people think about quarterbacks reading a defense or a cornerback looking across the line at a full grown man waiting for him. How did the speed of the game change for you when you got here and how did it shock you?
Z: First off, when you get on campus you realize that everyone is bigger than you. I mean, I was the biggest guy on my high school football team. So it was like, "Holy crap...", you know? But at the same time the players get faster and there's a lot more scheming involved in the special teams. In high school you line up and you punt. And maybe you're told where to put the ball, but there's really not a lot of planning that goes into special teams part of the game at the high school level. And in hindsight, what I have to accept is that I was kind of scared of the rush as a freshman. But then I realized if you get hit you get 15 yards, so do your best job of acting. So as long as the coaches like it, I don't care if my body hurts after the game.
MnB: I think all the scouts will be happy to hear that. And speaking of which, what was your experience like at the NFL Combine?
Z: I really had a great experience. But, man, there is a lot of medical testing done. First thing that happened when we got there was we got our gear, and then had ten minutes to get changed. They told us "we're taking you to the hospital" right after that. Then we had four hours of examinations. And there were blood tests. As soon as I heard "blood test" I was not happy. I am not a big fan of needles. I was talking to the nurse, and to her credt she was trying to be nice, but I said "Listen lady, please hit the vein the first time because I hate needles." It was in there for a while, because they took six vials of blood, a pretty good amount. And the entire time I'm thinking just get this needle out of me.
While this is going on, I look to my left there's a BIG lineman, and I think he was from the SEC or something, and he's 6'6" 330, the kid rolls out of his seat and faints while getting his blood drawn. When that happened I was like, "I really need to leave."
MnB: (laughing) So you don't know who this is do you? You can drop names if you want, I promise I won't tell anyone.
Z: Nah. I don't know who he was. And if I knew, I wouldn't throw him under the bus.
MnB: (laughing) That's spectacular.
Z: After that they took about twenty X-rays, chest and legs and everything. I think I'm just getting over my radioactive state right now.
MnB: Can you still glow in the dark or has that finally subsided?
Z: Yeah, it's been tough to sleep lately (laughing). Let me see, I got there on a Wednesday so I went to the hospital on the Wednesday. The next day we had about six hours of medical examinations waiting for us. The 32 teams had their own personal doctors there, because for some reason they don't trust each other, and they all want to yank on your knees 32 times.
MnB: I bet that feels great by the end of the day.
Z: Yeah. It feels great. A lot of the guys were complaining the next day, "Man my knees are so sore." I did a fairly good job of stretching out afterward so I was okay. But a lot of linemen who have had a lot of issues injury wise were just, uh... well, they were screwed. They had to stay from 6 am to 6 pm just doing all the medical examinations with the team doctors and then they had to do additional MRIs. They actually had the trucks, the portable MRI systems, taken to Lucasoil Stadium and they were parked there. Some of the guys were rolling back into the hotel 12 hours after they arrived at the stadium for their exams.
Then that night, we had interviews with the coaches for about three hours. The special teams coaches are pretty efficient. They sit you down at a table and there were probably 5 or 6 special teams coaches per table. As it went on I realized their personalities tended to group together. You had all the funny guys at one table, all the serious guys at another, and so on. It was pretty cool to adapt as a salesman of your own abilities, what angle to take in order to sell yourself and your abilities to these coaches.
The next morning, Thursday, we got up at 4:30 to take a drug test. It was that kind of week.
MnB: That sounds incredibly intense. I was going to throw out a bunch of jokes about poking and prodding but it really sounds like they put you guys through the ringer.
Z: Oh, there's no question. People say it's a meat market, it's very true. It's all about creating some demand for yourself.
MnB: At a certain point did you start to feel like you were at a kennel club on display? Were they checking your teeth? Did you feel like you were at Westminster?
Z: Yeah. It was pretty crazy. You would go into a room and couple of doctors would check out your shoulders and your knees, ankles, and every joint movement. After they were done they would take you to the center of the room and they would present you to another 20 doctors. "This is Zoltan Mesko, he's had this and this in the past." Thankfully I didn't have anything major that would affect my value or long term health. The teams that were maybe a little more interested would come up and check out your throwing shoulder to see how you throw.
MnB: And you were like greaaat another play book to learn!
MnB: So you get through all of this, the physical exam, the interviews. Did you finally get to the point where they stick you in the Reebok gear and get you on the field and jump around and run the forty?
Z: The forty actually was scheduled an hour before I had to leave for the airport, so I decided not to run it. It was set for Saturday and I'd already kicked on Friday, so after everything it made sense to head home. The main thing was I wanted at the combine was to kick well because that's the only thing that matters to coaches. I asked them do you want me to bench, do you want me to run? And they said "We don't really care. Just get it high and far and place it where we want you to place it."
MnB: So how'd that go? Fill us in.
Z: It went well. I was fairly pleased with my performance. The thing was, I felt I needed to make up some ground from the Senior Bowl. The Senior Bowl was kind of an on and off week for me. I really couldn't get in a rhythm and I was disappointed with my performance there. But other than that, the experience at the Senior Bowl was awesome. Everything was organized great, it's just that my performance affected my attitude and outlook on how it went. Other than that it was a great experience.
What I had to do at the combine was make up some ground. I was fairly pleased with how I compared in head to head match-ups with the other four punters.
MnB: You've been quoted in the papers as being friendly with some of the other punters and kickers in the Big Ten. Did you have a chance to meet or talk with the other punters?
Well, Brent Bowden from Virginia Tech was there and I've know him for a while. He was at the Michigan camp when I was offered here, and we became friends and stayed in touch over the years. All the guys were great guys. There's a reason they were at the combine. If you have character issues you're not going to make it at the very far.
Another guy that was there was Aaron Petree of Ohio State. It was kind of ironic that I held for him during the field goal period. It was like, should I give him laces or not? It was tough being Michigan Ohio State, but he's a good kid and I enjoyed holding for him. And that's the business part of it. You know, college is over and it is a business and people, to a certain extent, do treat you like you're a piece of meat.
MnB: Well, that's where your business degree comes in handy, you get a leg up on everybody there (hur. hur. Yes. I actually said this. - Ed.).
So, getting on to the important stuff, did you get any good shwag or did they make you give back all that Reebok crap they gave you.
Z: Oh, yeah. Wait. You're talking about the gear right?
MnB: Yeah. I'm not asking if you were stealing towels or anything.
Z: (laughing) No no no... I took an MRI machine.
MnB: That's pretty sweet dude. You can get a couple of mill for that on the open market.
Z: (laughing) Yeah, it's up on E-Bay... In all seriousness, I got a ton of stuff. Even at the Senior Bowl my parents had to buy me a second bag to take home all the stuff I got. I received so much stuff that I ended up giving away most of it to family and friends.
MnB: Now that you're gonna be a pro, do you think you'll actually be able to get to Ann Arbor and tailgate?
Z: Man, I would love to. When I was coming here on my unofficial visits, coming to the games as a senior in high school, I didn't really think too much of the tailgating. But my friends at Michigan got me interested in it, and I'm thinking to myself "Wow, I've never done it." Maybe I'll be able to do it down the road.
And that's the thing, hopefully I catch on with a team next year where I get drafted or put into a good free agency situation where I can stick with a team. Hopefully I won't be able to come back to Ann Arbor because of that... well there are bye-weeks... but, hopefully I won't be able to full-time tailgate until ten years down the road. But I'd love to do that.
MnB: You know if you sell that MRI machine you'll have no trouble getting yourself a pretty sweet RV to party with.
Z: (laughing) That's right.
MnB: There's another thing I want to touch on, you've become somewhat of a cult hero among the younger Michigan students and fans, the people who run the websites. Did you ever think to yourself, even in your wildest imagination, that you'd have the whole student section holding up the Z sign when you walk out onto the field or people calling you the Space Emperor? Did ever think that anything like that would happen?
Z: In my wildest dreams I never would've imagined this. I don't know... maybe it's the weird name I have that people can recognize pretty easily. I guess they link it to the movie "Dude, Where's My Car" and do the Z symbol. It's unbelievable. I've seen a couple of shirts printed of me, and it's like "Wow." I don't know why people are this crazy about their punter, but I accept it with open arms and I'm so thankful to have had this experience at Michigan. I mean I was voted Homecoming King in 2008, how's that for unbelievable?
MnB: Do you have a favorite game, memory or experience from your playing time at Michigan?
Z: My favorite game and moment was the Capital One Bowl when we carried Coach Carr off the field. That was an unbelievable moment. A lot of people were criticizing him and we really wanted to win that game for him, to send him out the right way. He's the one that recruited me and got me here and I've tried to mold myself around Coach Carr, especially when you think about the integrity he represents and the man he is. Hopefully, one day I can be a tenth the man he is.
MnB: Have you had a chance to keep up with him since he retired?
Z: I've actually gotten to know him much better and on a much more personal level since his coaching days. Back then he had so much on his mind and his time commitments were just outrageous. But getting back to what a great man he was, I think his salary was something like $800,000 and he donated half of that to Motts Children's' Hospital and to the United Way. Even when he was giving speeches, he never kept a dime of it and donated it.
What I like about meeting with him now, now that he's an Associate AD, it's a different experience. In high school you get close to your high school coach. In college it's kind of a semi-business and at the pro level it's really a business. In college you don't get as close to your coach as you do in high school. So now I'm sort of getting back to being as close to Coach Carr as I was with my high school coach, where I can really talk to him about anything.
MnB: Has he given you any advice about going on to the next level? Or ways and suggestions of how to prepare yourself for this next big transition?
Z: Oh, just a ton. Basically, the message from him is do what you've done here, be yourself and the formula that you've applied here will take care of everything.
MnB: I think that's probably the best way to conclude this session, man. Zoltan, thank you so much for talk with us, for all your contributions to Michigan, and good luck in the NFL. You know we'll be rooting for you.
Z: Thanks a lot.
My sincere thanks to Zoltan for taking the timeto talk with us. When he's an NFL All-Pro, we'll happily say we told you so. Good luck in the NFL, Z. And Go Blue!