During his rookie season with the New England Patriots in 2010, punter Zoltan Mesko faced an unexpected challenge. It wasn't so much the opponents' rush but instead the new life he was living. He'd arrive at the stadium daily at 6:30 a.m. and sometimes wouldn't leave until 6 p.m. or later.
It was all football all the time.
In one sense, that was a good thing because it allowed him to sharpen his skills in a career that he hopes lasts decades. Yet he saw danger in it as well.
"If I had a bad practice, after a 10-hour day, I'm going home and I have nothing else to think about. At Michigan, if I had a bad practice, I might have to go to class in a half hour, and you forget about it," Mesko said. "Last fall, I had to find something that took my mind off football, because an overload in anything is not good for you."
So Mesko, who was born in Romania, speaks five languages and was dubbed the "most interesting man in the NFL" last year by The Wall Street Journal, wrote a new page in his personal playbook. He started day trading and reading business books.
And now, at a time when he would normally be working out with Patriots teammates at Gillette Stadium but is prohibited from doing so because of the NFL lockout, Mesko has put his best foot forward with a new team -- Graham Partners, a Philadelphia-based private equity firm.
"It's kind of like I'm the rookie again here," said Mesko, 25, who was hired as an intern through an alumni connection at his alma mater, Michigan. "I'm kind of staying quiet in the meetings, but maybe if I can do this for a few years in the offseason, I can start to contribute a lot more. Right now, just like my rookie season, I'm learning."
His day begins with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call, and he's in the gym by 6:15 for cardio work and weightlifting. By 8:30, Mesko arrives at his desk in business casual attire and is ready for whatever the day brings. On Mondays, for example, he sits in a board meeting. Other times, he's researching one of the hundreds of companies that Graham Partners might acquire, and that includes making phone calls to gather relevant information.
Mesko speaks the lingo with confidence, using terms such as "leverage buyout models," "IOI" (indication of interest) and "letter of intent," the latter of which has a different meaning from the athletic letter of intent he signed at Michigan coming out of Twinsburg High School in Ohio.
Graham Partners manages more than $1.5 billion in equity capital while focusing on middle-market manufacturing companies, with the objective of maximizing their growth potential and professionalizing their organizations. So it's no surprise that Mesko describes his work as complex. He said he feels he has been given significant responsibility, and much like his initial foray into professional football, he's working hard to adapt.
"I'm still doing the training stages right now, I'm getting the hang of it," he said. "Sometimes I'll go home at 9 or 10 at night, just because there is so much work to do."
Mesko already has managed to stand out in one way; he's the only person on staff who spends his lunch break on the nearby high school football field practicing his punting. Carving out the appropriate time for football was a given for him -- he turned in a promising rookie season with just five touchbacks and a No. 12 ranking in net punting -- as was his ability to lighten the mood in the two-story office with his sense of humor.
Mesko's internship started in mid-March, and the plan is to be there until June, when perhaps there will be more clarity with the NFL's lockout. That was part of his thinking in accepting the position.
"The day after football ended, I just looked at my schedule, and there was nothing on it. I was like, 'What do I do now?' I felt somewhat worthless," Mesko said.
"I wanted to become productive again, and this was the kind of opportunity I looked into had my rookie season gone a little downhill. I kind of just thought about it, and I was kind of thinking that the lockout would be a definite possibility, and who knows how long it would go on for?"
Even without a lockout, Mesko probably would have been doing something similar, although it likely would have been closer to Gillette Stadium. In addition to the position at Graham Partners, he had two other opportunities in Boston and one in London to choose from.
The idea is to make sure he has options when his playing career ultimately ends, which he hopes isn't for a long time.
"It's going to end one of these days, and I want to land on my feet and get going right off the bat," he said. "I always want to feel productive no matter what I do, and I always enjoy a challenge, whether it's football, private equity or something else. I enjoy it, because I know the hard work will pay off."