It was Christmas Eve, and Michael and Elisabeth Mesko, along with their 3½-year-old son, Zoltan, were pressed against the floor in fear.
Standing or moving about their apartment would mean jeopardizing life. Standing would only put them in the line of fire of the Revolution that had begun in 1989 in the city of Timisoara, situated in western Romania located near the Serbian and Hungarian borders.
Only about 300 miles away in Bucharest, the Ceausescu Communist regime was being overthrown. Outside the Meskos' apartment building, protests and riots had broken out. The commotion and violence in the streets is paralyzing.
There was no way to get out. No way to get in.
For protection, the Meskos took pillows from the bedroom and put them in the windows to minimize the risk of being hit by stray gunfire. They put pillows around Zoltan, shielding him from the martial warfare that had taken over the city.
"We were afraid to watch because you didn't know when the bullets would hit your apartment," Elisabeth says. "They were everywhere. We didn't know what to do. We were just so scared."
Zoltan Mesko, now the New England Patriots punter, vaguely remembers that day, which fell hours before Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed. His memories fixate more on the stories he heard around his family's dinner table in the eight years that followed.
The historical significance of his background intrigues him, making for a childhood different than almost any other NFL player in history. On Sunday, Mesko will play in his first Super Bowl, a worldwide spectacle that during his childhood, was encapsulated in a 30-second video clip. He may have been aware of the game, but never knew who was participating. He was a world away, as he and his family knew it.
To be here in Indianapolis, playing in this game, is almost surreal for Mesko. But nothing fazes him, not considering the road he traveled -- not only to an NFL career, but also to the United States. It is a love story of a sacrifice, hard work and dedication.
Mesko, however, is not the central character in the story, but instead a beneficiary.
Elisabeth Mesko fights back tears every time she thinks about her son's trek to the top. Her pride for her only child cuts through her thick Romanian accent, celebrating a son who on Sunday will be a local hero back in the war-torn border city where hope, belief -- and a little luck -- forged Mesko's journey to Super Bowl XLVI.
The fall of Communism brought freedom, but it also created obstacles. The economy tanked. His parents, both engineers, worked for $100 a month. Elisabeth traveled out of the country to purchase clothes and sewed up pajamas and T-shirts for Michael to sell at the local market on weekends to provide extra money.
Even living in a free country, Michael and Elisabeth wanted a better life for Zoltan. Michael entered the family in a lottery for green cards to allow passage to the United States. He was always the optimistic one. Elisabeth took a more glass-half-empty approach, not wanting to get her hopes up. Of the 19 million lottery entries submitted, only 55,000 families would be granted a green card.
"You never know and always hope for the best and you try not to jinx yourself," Zoltan says. "If it works out, great. If not, you try again."
Mesko was 11 when his family gained passage to the United States. But with new opportunity would come new obstacles.
Mesko speaks four languages. In addition to his native Romanian tongue, Mesko can communicate in Hungarian, German and English. He didn't completely master the English language until after his family arrived in the States. While he had a basic foundation of the language when his family came to America, Michael and Elisabeth did not.
Because they couldn't speak English, they took odd jobs despite being well-educated and respected professionals back in their homeland. Elisabeth started cleaning houses and worked as a coat check at a local athletic club. Eventually, as her speaking skills improved, Elisabeth found a work as a lab technician before eventually returning to work as a technical engineer.
Michael also found work where he could and where his lack of English-speaking skills wouldn't hinder him.
Elisabeth says for the first six months, life was difficult, but they slowly adjusted -- all so Zoltan could have a better life. But because of what their son meant to them, the struggles and the adjustments were worth the sacrifice.
"Everything was because of him," Elisabeth says. "It was part for us, too, but we wanted this for him. Now, we are rooting for his life. Yes, he was ambitious, but we are so thankful for this opportunity."
After spending a brief time in Queens, N.Y., Michael settled his family in Ohio.
Zoltan had spent his entire childhood playing soccer, but never was in an environment where he became introduced to football. That changed as an eighth-grader, when Mesko showed his mettle as a kicker. During a gym class kickball game, he launched a kick toward the ceiling. The ball struck and shattered a large light. His classmates and teacher were impressed. Mesko says jokingly that after that moment, he became a first-round draft pick in kickball.
But lights cost money and so his gym teacher, also the middle school football coach, made Mesko a deal: Play football or pay for the light.
Mesko began kicking soon after.
During four years at Twinsburg High, Mesko averaged 44 yards per punt and also served as his team's field goal kicker. He set a career-high with a 71-yard punt that grabbed the attention of scouts who believed the high school All-American had a serious future in front of him.
At the University of Michigan, then-coach Lloyd Carr was looking for a punter. He quickly learned of Mesko's background, but says from Day 1, no one who watched Mesko punt would ever know he picked up football so late in life.
In addition to having a strong leg, Mesko, who stands 6-foot-5, had a solid frame and great hands. Mesko's confidence impressed Carr, who knew the background his freshman came from would make him unflappable.
"There are no situations that are going to intimidate him," Carr says. "He had to go into a new city and a new country, and I think all those experiences prepared him."
Mesko started all four years at Michigan, setting school records in both punts (243) and punting yardage (10,325). His 42.5-yard average ranks second, and he finished his career as the first special teams player to be named team captain.
Mesko also took advantage of Michigan's educational opportunities, as well, earning All-Big Ten academic honors while studying in the university's Stephen M. Ross School of Business.
The Patriots selected Mesko in the fifth round of the 2010 draft, and he promptly made an impact. His 38.4-yard average was best among rookie punters and his 65-yard kick against the Ravens was the longest in team history since Chris Hanson's 70-yard punt in 2008.
On Sunday, Mesko will play in his first Super Bowl, but it won't be entirely unfamiliar territory. Playing in front of 110,000 fans at Michigan has prepared him for the capacity crowd he will find himself in Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
But as one would expect, at times, he struggles to fathom that his Super Bowl experience is real.
"I'm here by probability," Mesko says. "One percent of one percent of Division I athletes get scholarships and one percent of Division I college players get into the NFL. Add the lottery into that and you start believing there's a guy up there watching out for you."
Michael and Elisabeth will travel over from Ohio, anxious to see a Super Bowl first hand, while the game will be played at 1 a.m. local time back in Romania, where residents will celebrate their local hero from afar. But for the parents that gave so much for their son to experience a better life, Sunday's game with the Giants is almost overwhelming.
Back in Twinsburg, Mesko's parents attend a Hungarian church where parishioners live vicariously through the Patriots punter. They consider where he came from and how far his ambition carried him. In Romania, Mesko's countrymen will celebrate on Super Bowl Sunday after weeks of news coverage about Mesko's accomplishments. To them, Mesko represents more than a fellow European. He represents hope.
"It's something that is unbelievable," Elisabeth says. "It's something that is the American Dream."
It's a dream story that Mesko realizes wouldn't be possible without his parents having their own wishes to see their son realize his aspirations.
That's why, Mesko says, the story cannot be told without them. On Sunday, as has been customary throughout his career, Mesko will walk out onto an empty field and soak in his surroundings. He will locate one fan or one stadium worker and then multiply that one person by tens of thousands, visualizing the environment he will compete in.
But before this particular game, he will perhaps think of the road that brought him to Indianapolis. While the Super Bowl came to draw meaning to him as a teenager, he has shifted his perspective to that as an adult. And following a week of hype, celebrity appearances and build-up to what amounts to a second Christmas for football fans, Mesko may flash back to another Christmas Eve day.
"It's crazy how much they sacrificed," Mesko says. "I believe when I have my first kid I would do the same thing just because of the love they have showed me."
But because of them, he won't have to.
Jeff Arnold can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @jeff_arnold24.
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