FOXBORO - There has been a lot of talk lately about the New England Patriots and the character of some of the individuals that play for them. Not surprisingly, a couple of bad apples have undeservingly cast a negative light upon all of them.
But in a locker room of 90 individuals at the start of this training camp, it should also be pointed out that there are two athletes among them who are unlikely to ever forget or take for granted the opportunities that America has offered them.
One is punter Zoltan Mesko, whose family emigrated from Romania just eight years after its Marxist government had been overthrown in 1989. The other is a more recent addition to the roster whose path to freedom from communist oppression began in a backpack strapped to his father's back.
"Basically, I was born in 1982 in the communist regime (of Czechoslovakia)," offensive tackle Will Svitek told reporters last week at the Patriots' training camp. "I had three older brothers and my parents kind of decided that they didn't want their four children to grow up in a communist regime. They wanted us to realize our fullest potential. So basically, it was my dad's dream to kind of escape out of Czechoslovakia."
In a story straight out of a Cold War screenplay, Svitek's family - father Milan, mother Eva, uncle Vilem, brothers Tomas, Ivan and Andrew and Tomas' girlfriend Iva (now his wife) - all set out on a hike through the mountains of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1984 with no intention of returning.
Milan, an urban planner by trade, was a known dissident and was highly unlikely to be granted permits for travel outside the Soviet Bloc by the repressive Marxist government. But he was granted permission to travel on vacation to Yugoslavia in 1984, and the thought of escape to the West became a real possibility.
The family drove some of the way and then embarked on a14-hour hike over the less-guarded Yugoslavian border. The trek took them all the way to Austria.
"We hiked over the mountains over to Austria, where we stayed in a refugee camp for about eight months until we got legalized to come to the United States," Svitek said. "My dad's vision was to achieve the American Dream and come here and fulfill his fullest potential. It was basically like 'The Sound of Music.' We left with the clothes on our back and hiked over the mountains."
Only 2 at the time, Svitek had no idea what the purpose of the long hike was.
"I was the youngest of four boys, so my dad and my brothers took turns carrying me," said Svitek, who was carried in a backpack by his father and siblings for the duration of their flight from communism. "I was little. I was a little 2-year-old. It's hard to imagine now, but my younger brothers were older. They told my brothers we were on a military hike to keep them quiet. It was like a game, but you couldn't talk."
After their stay in the Austrtian refugee camp, the Sviteks made it to California early in 1985 with five suitcases, $1,000 and a $1,600 loan from the U.S. government that Milan would pay back in $20 increments.
The family's bravery was rewarded many times over. Milan, 70, recently retired from his career as an urban planner for Los Angeles County. His wife, 68, is an artist. Tomas attended the California Institute of Technology and works in the aerospace industry; Ivan became the CEO of the Home Credit and Finance Bank in Moscow, and Andrew is following in his father's footsteps as an urban planner in southern California.
And Will? He's no dumb jock.
"I had an amazing opportunity to go to Stanford and I'm playing here in the NFL," he said, "so it's a dream come true, and you wouldn't have those opportunities anywhere else. I'm grateful for the sacrifices my dad made."
With the fall of the Iron Curtain seeming like ancient history, Svitek has made several trips back to the old homeland. In 2006, when he was playing for the Frankfurt Galaxy of NFL Europe, he and his family returned to what's now the Czech Republic to ponder the past.
But it is the past, and Svitek is also pursuing his American dreams - not just playing football, but also participating in NFL-sponsored business management symposiums at Harvard, Northwestern, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania.
"I'm very grateful," he said. "Obviously, my parents taught me a lot about work ethic and dedication and not taking things for granted, and I always think back to that. So I'm grateful for my opportunities I have here and I always want to make them proud and fulfill my fullest potential because that's kind of the sacrifices they made."
In a football sense, Svitek could be a valuable addition to the Patriots' offensive line. A veteran of three seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and four with the Atlanta Falcons (last year spent on injured reserve with a triceps injury), the 6-foot-6, 310-pounder is seen as a swing tackle that could spell starters Nate Solder or Sebastian Vollmer in a pinch.
"That's just kind of the nature of the NFL," he said. "You don't have that many guys going into games. The roster's small. It's definitely a challenge. You can't hone in on one position.
"It's not easy, but I just try to be disciplined and really focus on it," he added. "Wherever my role is, whatever it is, I try to focus on it. You've just got to pay attention to details and maybe spend a little time on the side studying and then also working on technique and footwork and hands."
Svitek spent his entire college career at Stanford as a defensive lineman, but was switched to the other side of the line by the Chiefs.
"I graduated in college in 2004 and I played in the East-West Shrine Game (as a defensive tackle)," he said. "I actually played on Logan Mankins' team at the time. But I spoke to some scouts and they basically thought that my fullest potential would be to play in the offensive line in the NFL.
"It was kind of foreign to me," he said. "It was definitely a risk, but I went into it full gear. I was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs and the first day they moved me to left tackle. There were definitely some growing pains. It's hard enough to make this transition, let alone from the defensive line to the offensive line. But it's a learning thing and I'm still learning here in year nine."
Svitek has been staring down challenges since he was 2, however. Switching sides of the line of scrimmage pales before crossing the Iron Curtain in a backpack.
"No, I embraced it," he said. "I wanted to do it. I wanted to do whatever was going to give me the best opportunity for a career in the NFL, and coming out in the '05 draft and now in year nine, I think it's worked out."