Rubin: UM’s Zoltan Mesko tackles concussions head-on

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

There’s a punch line or two involved when Zoltan Mesko tells the story of his concussion — how he was shoved from behind by his own teammate, for heaven’s sake, and how he landed face-first at a college all-star football game and skidded 10 or 12 feet, and how the numbness to temperature afterward actually came in handy on a frigid day.

He’s near the top of the list of people, though, who can tell you concussions aren’t funny.

Across four years at the University of Michigan and 31/2 more as a punter in the NFL, he watched teammates absorb unnaturally hard blows to the head and deal with the effects.

Now, absent any bad bounces, he and a team of Boston-based partners are maybe a year from launching a device called the EXO-1 that he says can reduce the impact force by 55 percent.

Inspired by the leaf springs in trains and large trucks, it looks something like a hard plastic tiara and attaches to the front and sides of a football helmet with screws.

The EXO-1 was featured in the August issue of Inventors Digest in a package devoted to America’s favorite fall spectacle, with its pageantry, tradition, huge television ratings and 271 diagnosed concussions last season in the NFL alone.

The company known as Impact Labs is not averse to ultimately turning a profit, Mesko allows, but it was gratitude more than money that prompted him to teach himself 3D design and spend 11-hour days at a computer crafting the prototype.

In high school in Ohio and as an Academic All-America at UM, “I learned so much from the game,” he says —strategy, planning, discipline, teamwork — “but I was very fortunate to just be a punter.”

As a linebacker or fullback, with years of collisions ...

“I don’t know if I could have studied with headaches like that.”

A fan of physics

Mesko, 30, is the son of two Romanian engineers who won the green card lottery and emigrated to the U.S. in 1997, when he was 11 years old.

That was nearly eight years after his parents had to pin him to the floor of their apartment to evade gunfire during the brief revolution that deposed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

“They always told me not to go into engineering,” he says — probably because they earned about $100 a month apiece in Romania — and he wound up majoring in finance and marketing before collecting a master’s in sports management.

But “I’ve always been a fan of physics,” he says, and he applied that interest to tinkering with his football equipment.

What would happen if he cut the tongue out of his punting shoe, or yanked the laces out of the way? Or, later:

What could he do about concussions?

Hope for a safer future

As one of the stories noted in Inventors Digest, NFL sponsor and insurance behemoth AIG has declared that it will no longer cover the league’s head injuries.

The NFL has settled a flock of concussion lawsuits for a potential $1 billion, and fans have been made aware and uneasy about the potential for long-term brain damage – something the players themselves never used to consider.

“In my day,” says 56-year-old Rich Strenger, a former Michigan and Detroit Lions lineman who’s now an attorney in Lake Orion, “we didn’t keep count. We just called it getting your bell rung.”

With today’s focus, there’s even a generally accepted estimate of how many times per season a high school lineman absorbs a blow to the head: 1,000 to 1,500.

Mesko says 76 percent of concussions actually occur in practice, which is what the marketing will pinpoint for the EXO-1. He expects the customer base to start with the youngest players, and the price to come in around $60.

Inventing is a side job; having returned to Ohio after his NFL career, Mesko works in analytics with IBM.

He has a wife and a 6-month-old daughter and recognizes that ultimately, he may have to decide whether a son can take up the game that’s meant so much to him.

At this point, “I would wait until at least high school,” he says. There are other sports to be played, and technique is better absorbed with maturity.

But that could change. Maybe football will be safer by then — and just maybe, he’s given it a head start.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn