By JOHN PYE
The Associated Press
GOLD COAST, Australia — He can laugh about it now, the concept of being “too big” that led him on this extraordinary journey to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Jordan Mailata has made the cut for the Super Bowl champions’ 53-man roster less than a year after first putting on a helmet and is ready to start his rookie season.
Mailata grew up in western Sydney, dreaming of making his living in Australia’s National Rugby League. He got close, too, with his work ethic and his pure bulk impressing the senior coaches at South Sydney, the NRL club owned by the actor Russell Crowe.
But, somehow, a theory that at 6-foot-8 and more than 350 pounds Mailata was too big for a game that relies so heavily on aerobic fitness became a potential roadblock to a lucrative contact. So his agent put together a highlight video of this human wrecking ball rampaging through defenses and making crunching tackles in the NRL’s under-20 competition and sent it around.
The video was designed, Mailata said, “to help generate interest in the rugby universe.”
It did way more than that.
“At the same time it generated attention in the NFL,” he said. “I was quite lucky when I reached the crossroad in my life, the NFL pathway reached out to me as another avenue to pursue. That’s what it came down to.”
Navigating the NFL’s International Pathway program and the draft and then making the Eagles’ roster has been, as the 21-year-old offensive tackle put it, “surreal.”
A couple of nights before the Eagles were scheduled to open the season against Atlanta, Mailata was doing a telephone conference with reporters in Australia, where his story is making news even as the rugby league season heads into the playoffs. It was Wednesday morning in Sydney, and Mailata prefaced his response to the first question: “Good to hear another Aussie on the phone.”
And with that, he may have single-handedly increased the NFL’s audience Down Under.
Mailata didn’t play football high school or college and wasn’t even thinking about the game in his late teens. He had two heart operations in 2015 which interrupted his junior rugby league progress, but has been given the all-clear. All in all, it has been a very non-conventional approach to the NFL.
“I guess it’s every American football player’s dream to be part of an NFL team and I’m quite lucky to be living my own dreams and theirs,” Mailata said.
While being so big was a benefit in short bursts, it was also the concern for top-flight rugby league coaches who figured Mailata would lack endurance.
Michael Maguire guided South Sydney to a drought-breaking NRL title in 2014 and remained as coach of the Rabbitohs until last year, when he crossed paths with Mailata. He saw plenty of character in Mailata, but realized as soon as reports filtered back about him being interested in the NFL scouting combine that the young player was better suited to the American game.
“He’s huge, obviously, but he’s also explosive out of the blocks and agile for a man his size,” Maguire wrote in an article for PlayersVoice. “Whereas the repeat efforts required in rugby league weren’t suited to a bloke of his genetics, the explosiveness needed in the NFL definitely is.
“Short bursts of maximum effort. That’s a great match for him.”
Mailata is confident he can handle the physical elements of the NFL. The tactical and technical side of the game is his focus right now, and he’s dedicated to learning the playbook.
The Eagles list Mailata at 6-foot-8 and 346 pounds, so he’s big but not the biggest player in the league. He would have been the biggest player in the NRL, and that would have made him a big target for defenders.
“I didn’t feel I was too big to play. It wasn’t a self-proclaimed label I gave myself — it was something I was told,” he said. “There were a lot of second-grade contracts up for grabs. Personally, I wanted a full-time contract so I could develop.
“Making the decision to transition was a shot I was willing to take once I was labeled too big to play rugby,” he added. “I laugh at it now.”