‘He’s ‘a freak athlete’: The unlikely NFL journey of an Aussie rugby giant
It’s difficult to describe just how improbable Jordan Mailata’s journey to the NFL has been.
A year ago, the 21-year-old former Australian Rugby League player tried on a football helmet and pads for the very first time. By April, he was drafted as an offensive lineman by the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
That’s like a guy picking up a guitar and showing enough promise to join Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band on tour.
Mind you, that guy is 6-foot 8-inches tall, weighs 346 pounds and is “a freak athlete,” as one NFL executive put it.
Last month Mailata was in London, standing in the halls of Wembley Stadium in disbelief after an Eagles win against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I think about where I was a year ago, and it’s just funny that everything in my life has changed since then,” he tells CNN Sport.
Although he is yet to play a down this season, Mailata’s trip to London was made even more surreal by his recovery from a dangerous heart condition four years ago.
At 17, Mailata fainted during rugby workouts and needed emergency surgeries to repair the upper and lower chambers of his heart.
The Aussie took a year off before making a comeback with the South Sydney Rabbitohs. “I tore it up, knocking the life out of them,” Mailata told the NFL Network.
He wasn’t kidding.
His now legendary highlight reel repeatedly shows three or four men required to drag him down on the rugby field — and features one unfortunate player who had more than his soul crushed by a Mailata tackle.
‘Definitely not normal’
Those clips reached NFL executives and earned Mailata a tryout for the NFL’s recently launched International Pathway Program.
Considering his parents immigrated to Australia from Samoa — a tiny island whose prolific NFL lineage includes late Hall-of-Famer Junior Seau and Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota — it’s no surprise Mailata had the itch for American football.
He was soon shipped to the IMG Institute in Florida to join four other hopefuls. Their arduous training — 12 hours a day, seven days a week — was filmed for the NFL Networks show “Undrafted,” which previously followed Carolina Panthers defensive end Efe Obada.
“It’s definitely not normal,” Mailata said of his experience on the docuseries, an emerging art form in all levels of the sport. “We still did our thing even though the cameras were on us, but it’s just weird, it’s a different feeling.”
Mailata was magnetic on screen and electric during the NFL combine workouts, boasting a 40-yard dash of 5.12 seconds, a vertical leap of 28 inches, and 22 bench presses of 225 pounds.
Understanding the nuances game took a little more time.
“My knowledge of the NFL is very limited, I’ve only watched a few games and highlights,” Mailata admitted on “Undiscovered.”
“It’s like going into it blindfolded. Everything is new, it’s a big mystery.”
When asked what position he would like to play, Mailata recalled the Oscar-nominated film “The Blind Side” and suggested left tackle — the prized offensive line role occupied by the film’s hero, former NFLer Michael Oher.
By April, Mailata’s script would have its own Hollywood ending. He was picked in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the Eagles.
It’s not often you see a man that size burst into tears, but emotions got the better of Mailata after the call from Eagles’ general manager Howie Roseman.
“I’m just feeling every single emotion that I’ve been wanting to feel for the past three or four months,” he said, using a friend’s T-shirt to wipe away tears before standing on the podium at the NFL draft in Dallas.
‘I’m all in’
Halfway through his first season, Mailata is realizing that there’s more to the NFL than blocking a pass rush.
What surprises him the most about the league?
“How much of a business it is,” he says, cryptically. “It’s a business at the end of the day.”
As a drafted player, Mailata signed a four-year deal worth more than $2.5 million, according to overthecap.com, though only his signing bonus of $89,392 was guaranteed. He will need to keep his spot on the Eagles to see the rest of the money.
But unlike fellow Aussie Jarryd Hayne, who lasted just the 2015 season with the San Francisco 49ers before returning to rugby, Mailata is committed.
“I’m all in,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t going to give this a good shot.”
Although he is seen more as a long-term project, there is a chance Mailata will see some action this season because of injuries to Philly’s offensive line.
There has even been discussion of using him as a running back in short-down situations to show off some of his rugby skills — something Twitter fans have been clamoring for.
Mailata has some company from Down Under on the Eagles, with Aussie rules convert Cameron Johnston leading the team’s punting game — part of a wave of Australians taking over the position in college and the pros.
Both rugby and the NFL share an all-for-one mentality in the locker room, Mailata says, though gridiron comes with a whole new set of responsibilities.
“The comradeship is still the same, but it’s different in terms of the stresses that come with the game,” he explains, noting different position meetings and playbooks that separate offensive and defensive players.
“It sounds weird, but it makes sense when you’re in it.”
One way Mailata relieves pressure is by playing the guitar and singing, which he displayed with surprising ability on “Undiscovered.”
“I grew up (with it) in church, my family is very musically gifted,” he says. “I used to be a musician before I was ever an athlete.”
The way things are going, Mailata may want to keep his off-season free, just in case Springsteen comes calling.