The Eagles have employed plenty of players from the fringes of football. They made a legend, both on the field and on the big screen, of local tryout hero Vince Papale; showed some love to Rod “He Hate Me” Smart; drafted aspiring ladderman Danny Watkins, who never caught fire; and recruited Army Ranger and combat veteran Alejandro Villanueva to play on the defensive line. He now is a two-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle, albeit for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Jordan Mailata’s journey might top them all.
A 6-foot-8, 346-pound Samoan mountain whose size pushed him out of professional rugby in Australia -- experts questioned his long-term endurance and predicted he’d never reach the heights of rugby -- Mailata’s agent sent him to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., last year to introduce him to football for the first time. He blew away his trainers with his athleticism, which, considering his namesake, should not have been surprising. He was named after Michael Jordan.
The neophyte, then 20, impressed the Eagles brass so much at his tryout before the 2018 draft that they picked him in the seventh round, sicced acerbic line coach Jeff Stoutland on him and watched, amazed, as Mailata not only made the team as a rookie -- any number of clubs would have snatched him off waivers -- but progressed so quickly that he now is considered a key part of the franchise’s future.
Mailata, 22, spent last season learning the left tackle position, but he has been playing behind star right tackle Lane Johnson this preseason. He needs extra work at, well, everything. He still struggles with blocking concepts and generally finds himself exhausted by mid-afternoon. And he loves it.
I caught up with Mailata after practice last week and learned that he’s an E-sports enthusiast, like 76ers all-star Ben Simmons. Also like Simmons, he can’t wait until the Australian stereotypes -- which he both relishes and resents -- become coincidental to his career.
Marcus Hayes: Is the Aussie issue tedious?
Jordan Mailata: People try to make me feel at home. They bring up stuff like Foster’s Lager. They bring up Outback Steakhouse. They’re, like, ‘G’day, mate! Where’s your Vegemite?’ In the worst possible Australian accent ever. Trying to make you feel welcome.
MH: Some Australians hold their noses when they talk about Vegemite, Foster’s beer and Outback Steakhouse. Do you?
JM: Vegemite is great. It’s not like Nutella. You have to lightly spread it on toast. It’s very healthy for you. It’s literally just dry yeast. And get this on record: Foster’s is not Australian. It’s not (it originated in Australia but now is brewed in Britain). It’s Australian-themed beer. First time I saw it was here, and I was, like, ‘What’s this?’ And people were like, ‘You don’t know? It’s from your country!’ It’s not. Neither is Outback Steakhouse (which originated in Tampa).
MH: So, 14 months after being drafted, are you a rugby player playing football? A football player who used to play rugby? A giant athlete who defies definition? What, exactly, are you?
JM: I am human just like everyone else. I think too often we forget where we come from, especially when we have the platform that we have.
MH: What’s the worst thing about playing football compared with rugby -- and the best?
JM: I like how we have a long offseason in the NFL, but I hate the timing of the offseason. Can’t do anything around here. The NFL was really smart. ‘You want time off? All right. I’m going to give you the worst time off you can have.’
MH: Australia reveres its sportsmen, and while some of the biggest Aussie names (such as cricketer Don Bradman or miler Herb Elliott) might not be familiar with the typical Eagles fan, we know about Greg Norman, Jason Day, Adam Scott, Ben Simmons. Who would you rather be?
JM: Honestly I’d rather be a gamer. E-sports, man. Get famous by playing (video) games? Oooh, yeah! I want to be the most famous Australian E-gamer. It’s a weird confession, but I was part of a gaming clan when I was 17. Just stay up all night playing games. Crazy. I’d never met these guys before. We were from all around Australia. Stay up until 3 in the morning. I’m a Call of Duty guy. Gotta worry about gaming injuries, though. Might break a nail.
MH: Seriously, man.