FOXBOROUGH — Zoltan Mesko is one of the lucky few who could consider Wall Street his safety net.
He came out of the University of Michigan in 2010 with options.
He had two degrees (in finance/marketing and sports management), and after coming to the United States when he was 11, he spoke four languages (Romanian, Hungarian, German, and English).
He could also kick a football nearly 70 yards, which made him one of the top punting prospects in that year’s NFL draft.
The Patriots took him with their fifth-round pick, and going into his third season he’s emerged as one of the best punters in the NFL, but he acknowledges that if it hadn’t worked out, corporate America would have appealed to him for the same reasons as professional football.
“It’s high-pressure competitiveness, so I like that,” Mesko said. “It’s easy to compete when you have the mentality just like everybody else on this team. That’s why we were taken by this organization, because we’re self-motivated. We know whether we’re doing our job, and you’re either getting worse or you’re getting better.”
In the third year of the four-year, $1.98 million contract signed before his rookie season, he’s already had his share of highlights, from his 65-yard kick against the Ravens in 2010, matching the Patriots’ longest ever in an overtime game, to his 38.4-yard net average, an NFL record for a rookie.
In his first two seasons, he’s been nothing if not consistent.
His 41.5-yard net average last season was the best in the AFC, and his 46.5-yard gross average was the best Patriots history.
He’s the only punter in camp, but it hasn’t made him any less competitive.
“For me, there’s no harsher critic than myself,” he said. “I know there’s tons of guys out there. There aren’t many jobs out there for punters and kickers, and they’re always trying hard and they’re always passionate and you’ve got to watch it, because even though you may have some talent, that may not be enough if you don’t put in the work.
“As far as pressure goes, it’s all a matter of preparation, the number of hours you put in, and the more you put yourself in pressure situations.”
Mesko is constantly looking to fine-tune his form. He likes to compare punting to golfing, and when he’s fine-tuning, he’s no different than Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson.
“It’s basically just keep working hard, keep refining my fundamentals and my techniques,” Mesko said. “You always have to fine-tune or practice, get little tidbits from everyone else, from tier-one guys that you look up to. I like the challenge. I like practicing, I like working hard, and that’s the only formula I know.
“Golfers know what’s going on. I don’t know what’s going on with my golf game, I have two problems, distance and direction, but when I’m punting I learned to experience everything. So when I hit a bad ball, experience it, tell me what went wrong.
“Like Thomas Edison said, 2,000 experiments. OK, that one didn’t work. Process of elimination, try something else.”
Mesko and Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski are self-starters.
“They go out every day to get better,” specials team coach Scott O’Brien said early in camp. “They know what it takes, they know where they’re at. Physically they’re in good shape, they’re getting their timing, they’re getting their rhythm, and trying to improve every single day.”
In the preseason opener against the Saints, Mesko averaged 45.9 yards on eight punts, with four inside the 20.
“I felt good, but there’s room to improve,” he said. “Certain alignments that we saw, it’s different in preseason because there’s no game-planning. So, you never know.
“You’re not going to have the same returner in there every time, so it’s a little tougher. But I thought the coverage was great. If I can give them a good ball to go and cover, they’ll do their job. That’s what it comes down to, trusting your teammates.”
As well as Plan A worked out for Mesko, he knows there’s always something to work on.
“That’s one of the things that I’ve learned over the years,” he said. “We never stop learning.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.