The questions put to Temple defensive end Zack Mesday at Owls media day mostly hit on the theme of resiliency.
Maybe that’s all baked in when you’re talking to a walk-on who eventually earned a scholarship, especially one still here for a sixth year at 10th and Diamond.
A player who had more knee surgeries than game snaps over his first three seasons.
A recruit who emailed college coaches — like, all of them — just looking for a shot.
“I went on Google, typed in NCAA Division I, Division I-AA,’’ Mesday said. “I went down every single school on that list. I emailed every single coach on that staff.”
Fifty schools a day, that was his goal. Get to the bottom of the list, start over.
Up to and including Nick Saban?
“Oh, of course,’’ Mesday said of Alabama’s coach, adding, “It probably didn’t get to him.”
Mesday had been plenty good in high school, third-team all-state at Nottingham High in Mercer County, N.J., but the best offers he was getting as a 6-foot-1 defensive end were for Division III, non-scholarship. He tried to up the ante by spending an extra year at a prep school in Connecticut, Canterbury, where more tackles and forced fumbles ensued, but the offers still weren’t coming in. That’s when Mesday took matters in his own hands.
There was scattered interest. UConn acknowledged his presence. Texas-El Paso made an overture. Miami actually invited him on a visit, but it would have been an unofficial one, Mesday said, “so I’d have to pay for the flight. I didn’t have the funds for that.”
Here’s where local connections matter, in both directions.
Back at his old high school, Mesday updated one of his assistant coaches, Frank Gatto, on the recruiting fits and starts, and the assistant brought him in the office and called Temple’s recruiting director, Mike Siravo, now at Baylor. The coach said he’d send film, and did it on the spot. Siravo called back five minutes later. He said there was a roster spot if Mesday was willing to walk on.
“We want you on campus tomorrow,’’ Mesday said of that conversation.
That was enough. A preferred-walk-on spot meant a roster spot, and a chance to compete for a scholarship.
“I wanted to go to Temple because I saw them on TV,’’ Mesday said, noting that Tyler Matakevich, Temple’s defensive star at the time, was his height.
“These guys are my size,’’ Mesday told himself. “I can play at this level.”
Now he sort of laughs at that, since Matakevich plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers — “not knowing that those dudes are the real deal, obviously.”
In a sense, he wasn’t wrong. Temple rose in the football world by sometimes getting past the measurables. Still, Mesday’s own rise didn’t happen right away. His bio offers some bread crumbs for what he went through
2014 (freshman): redshirted.
2015 (redshirt freshman): Redshirted while recovering from offseason knee surgery.
2016 (redshirt sophomore): Recovered from knee surgery -- that’s the second knee surgery.
“Saw first career-game action vs ECU (one play as a fullback.)"
So three years of college tuition payments, one play.
And also a second head coach, with Geoff Collins taking over after Matt Rhule left for Baylor. There was no guarantee the new man would want to keep a walk-on with two surgeries.
“I knew I had more to prove,’’ Mesday said.
But he was already close to a degree. That resiliency? Mesday offered some more bread crumbs.
“My dad started working as a carpenter at 13 years old,’’ Mesday said. “My mom started working full time when she was 17.”
The mantra at home was, if you fail, that’s all right. It’s not acceptable to give up.
After Mesday’s second surgery for a torn ligament, the surgeon told him he might not be the same. Mesday took it as he might be the same, which maybe meant he could be better.
He began the next season at linebacker, switched to defensive end, and got into a game against Houston. At least he proved himself enough to the new coaching staff to be invited back for another season.
Let’s face it, Mesday wouldn’t have been one of eight Temple players asked to speak to the media this month if last season was more of the same. But in 2018, his bio page took a dramatic turn: made first career tackle for a loss (4 yards) against Villanova ... recorded first career sack against Maryland ... had an 11-yard sack in overtime vs. No. 20 Cincinnati ... had first career forced fumble and recorded a sack at Houston ... recorded career highs in tackles (8) and tackles for losses (3.0) at UConn ... finished third on the team in tackles for losses (8.0).
Last October, he had a meeting with his position coach, who asked Mesday how he’d feel about coming back this season, assuming Temple could get an NCAA waiver for a sixth season.
The clincher: This season, he’d be on scholarship.
“It was such a weight lifted off my shoulders,’’ Mesday said.
Another coaching change wasn’t quite as worrisome since that scholarship was already written up, that waiver secured. His 2018 season probably meant the new coaches were happy to have him for 2019.
“Working really hard,’’ Mesday said. “Gained 12 pounds, lost 2 percent body fat.”
“He’s one of those guys who just won’t stop,’’ new Owls head coach Rod Carey said. “A high-motor guy.”
Then Carey stopped to note that sometimes high-motor can be a backhanded compliment, suggesting the talent isn’t there.
“I think Zack’s good, too,’’ Carey said. “Does he have some naturally God-given ability that sets him apart? No.”
We sure this isn’t backhanded compliment territory?
“But he’s a really good football player,’’ Carey went on. “Has good talent. Then combined that with a guy who is really relentless, in everything that he does, whether in a conversation or on a football field.”
Mesday mentioned that he’d turned down a scholarship from a Division II school in Massachusetts, but if he’d suffered the same knee surgeries and couldn’t play there, he wouldn’t have wanted to be there. Temple fit him. He’ll leave with two degrees.
“Growing up, it was always my dream to play Division I football,’’ Mesday said. “I knew it was going to be a long road to get there.”