When asked if ever holds up former Northstar Zack Mesday as a positive role model for his current Nottingham High football team, coach Jon Adams could not answer fast enough.
“Oh my God, yes!” Adams exclaimed. “I am always using positive examples of our former players to help motivate our kids to succeed. Zack Mesday is an example of never, ever giving up on your dreams. Moreover, I use him as an example of what kids can achieve academically if they follow their heart and work for something. Zack is an outstanding student as well.”
In reviewing Mesday’s college career, it is easy to understand Adams’ enthusiasm. As a fifth-year senior for Temple, Mesday is one of five defensive ends who rotate in for the Owls. He had 15 tackles through a 4-3 start, including five unassisted and two for losses. He also had one sack.
These may not seem like All-American stats, but considering his first three years of college he barely got on the field due to two major injuries, they are a tribute to hard work and perseverance.
“It’s definitely been a long road,” Mesday said. “But I’m happy to be playing again.”
In a nutshell, Mesday went to prep school to learn how to play linebacker, needed help from a Northstar assistant to get to Temple; redshirted his freshman year but suffered a torn ACL while playing scout team in practice; returned only to tear his ACL again without even knowing it until he woke up from surgery; then came back for his redshirt sophomore year and played sparingly—at fullback, of all places.
He was finally returned to defensive end last year when Geoff Collins came in as head coach but, playing behind two starters now in the NFL, Mesday saw limited action in five games.
Finally, his determination is being rewarded this year. He is still not on scholarship, but is loving life on the field once more.
It’s safe to say the past five years have been a rugged maturation process, as Mesday was forced to grow up quickly.
“Once you’re left with no other options, you have to,” he said. “When you’re here, you have to be here every single day. It’s not like in high school when things go wrong you say, ‘Oh I can just go home and get help.’ You have to deal with things on your own. I feel like the two years I was hurt, I probably matured more in those two years than I did my entire life leading up to that. It’s either grow up, or drop out of school, and I would never do that to my parents because they invested so much into this.”
Adams feels the entire process is the type of story that makes fiction writers wealthy.
“What has happened to him since high school is something movies are made of,” the coach said. “No real playing time early on then he blows out his knee twice. My heart broke when I found out. I think one of the (TV) announcers said it best—he’s a modern day Rudy movie. I am beyond proud of this young man.”
With good reason. Climbing a hill is tough; it’s even tougher when you’re at the top and get knocked off.
All was right in Mesday’s world in the fall of 2012. He recorded 19 sacks and helped Nottingham to the Central Jersey Group III championship, the first in program history.
“His senior year he was just relentless; he was all over the place,” Adams recalled. “The play I remember most was his fumble return in the championship game (against Neptune). He was just such a great athlete and so strong.”
But not strong enough to get anything above Division III offers; so Mesday went to the Canterbury School in Connecticut to learn to play linebacker, which is where most recruiters told him he should be. Mesday made 72 tackles and forced five fumbles but when the Canterbury coach left early, he was forced to shop himself around to colleges.
Mesday still had no D-I offers but, while watching Temple games on TV, he decided that was his destination. After getting no response to emails and game film that he sent, Mesday turned to Northstars assistant coach Frank Gatto. Known as “The Godfather,” Gatto did indeed perform a service.
“He brought me into his office and called them himself,” Mesday said. “Within two seconds, they picked up and talked to him. He said, ‘I got a kid here I think he can play for you guys, I’ll send you the film right now, see what you think.’ He sent the film, five minutes later he called back and said, ‘There’s a roster spot right now if you want to walk on.’ Two days later, I was on campus for my visit, and they basically said, ‘We think you’re good enough to play here, you have a roster spot, you won’t have to try out or anything. You can come in the summer and start working out.”
Suddenly the world looked bright again, until that fateful September day in 2014. While playing scout team, Mesday was running down a kickoff on the second-to-last play of practice, went to make a cut and his leg completely gave out. He underwent ACL surgery two months later and, due to the advanced medical staff employed in college football, felt the process “really wasn’t that bad.”
“It helped me get mentally tougher,” Mesday said. “It helped me get my grades higher. It really helped me mature not only on the field, but off the field as well.”
Mesday had no idea that was just the beginning of his woes.
The following year, he was healthy and again playing on the scout team. Toward the end of another practice session, he got rolled up and hurt his knee again. This time, the initial diagnosis was a meniscus or ACL sprain, so Mesday rehabbed to try and recover. From there, it was all downhill.
“It tightened up on me during rehab,” he said. “They still didn’t think it was anything bad, I got my MRI, and they saw I had a torn meniscus, which would have been like a three-month recovery. Not too bad. I went to surgery thinking it was a meniscus tear, but when I woke up from surgery, they said my ACL was pulling from the bone and if I had played on it, it would have eventually been torn off. So I woke up from surgery, thinking it was a three-month recovery, but they told me I had another ACL surgery so I was out for another year.”
By then, most guys would have given up but Mesday kept plugging. He returned for the 2016 season but his play was limited to that brief stint at fullback.
“The rest of the year I was healthy to play, but I just wasn’t prepared yet, I wasn’t big enough,” he said. “I had only practiced three total months out of my two years there because I was always hurt. That year I just focused on getting my knee stronger and just becoming a better player at that point.”
His enthusiasm was bolstered when Collins came in and suggested Mesday move to defensive end in the spring of 2017. It’s where he always felt the most comfortable and he could not say yes fast enough.
And while he only played five games last year, he continued to thrive in the classroom and earned his degree in early child education in the spring of 2018. He was, in fact, offered a full-time teaching job at the school where he student taught, but was hellbent on coming back for this season.
It has all been worth the wait as he is getting ample reps at defensive end while playing on all four special teams. Mesday rotates in as the field end, where the ball is further from the sideline, in order to stop the run.
“They usually put the tight end on that side, they want a bigger body, a stronger player out there,” he said. “They have the faster dudes covering the boundary side (closer to the sideline) because they have less room to cover to stop the run, but they’re better pass rushers.
“We don’t really have a depth chart per se, it’s called above the line. If you’re above the line, you play. So regardless of who we’re playing, you might start one week but you won’t start the next week. You’re still playing the same amount each time. Every series, after three or four plays you’re ready to go in and then the next series you’ll start the series.”
While Mesday is in his fifth and quite possibly his final year, Temple is trying to get him a sixth year of eligibility due to his injury.
“That would be great,” Mesday said, “but I’m not banking on it.”
For now, Adams watches as many Temple games as possible on TV, and says he and wife Elaine scream at the set whenever Mesday makes a tackle. The coach is friends with his parents, Kenny and Suzanne, and credited them for helping their son through the ordeal.
“He has a tremendous support system in his parents,” Adams said. “They are his biggest supporters. It is no surprise that he is doing so well because despite what the experts would say—he’s too small, too slow, slow not a D-I guy—I say you never underestimate the heart of a kid like Zack. Football—particularly the NFL—is full of guys like Zack who were told they were not good enough. Yet because a kid does not fit their ‘football prototype’ they pass on him. Mistake!”
Sounds like the classic role model; as Adams well knows.