Matt Leo, an Eagles undrafted rookie who will turn 28 on Friday, is a long way from playing a regular-season down in the NFL.
But he’s considerably closer than he was in February 2013, when Leo sat down for lunch at the trade school in Australia where he was learning to be a plumber.
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The Ravens and the 49ers were playing in Super Bowl XLVII on the lunchroom TV, and Leo remembers thinking, “If only I had grown up in the U.S., I would have had the opportunity to play such a, you know, a ‘movie icon’ sport. You watch it and you see these incredible athletes play and it’s almost like a movie scene.”
Seven years later, including two spent playing defensive end at Iowa State, Leo is an Eagle, signed with an extra roster spot the team got for taking on a player from the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program.
The spark that lit the path from Adelaide, Australia, to signing with the Eagles might have been ignited in the trade school lunchroom, but at the time, Leo just saw the NFL as something to daydream about. He continued to learn to plumb.
“It wasn’t until about three years into my apprenticeship that I was working on a construction site, a bridge that connected a massive football stadium, Adelaide Oval, to a convention center,” Leo said in a video conference last week with reporters, Leo speaking from Ames, Iowa, where he is waiting out the pandemic.
“Working in this tight, little, confined space … it was hot … about 110 Fahrenheit. We’re crawling through this little passage and I turned to [Matt Hoare, the tradesman working alongside him] and said, ‘Man, I’m too big to be doing this. I miss sports, and I should be playing sports still.’ He was laughing at me.”
Hoare mentioned, though, that he had read about an Aussie going to a U.S. college as a punter on a partial scholarship.
“I really hassled him to find out who that guy was, and that’s where this dream started,” Leo said. “I would have been a punter just to have that chance to be out on that field.”
Punting wasn’t necessary, it turned out. Hoare did get in contact with the guy he’d read about, and that player connected Leo with a trainer, Paul Manera, who had U.S. college contacts, Leo told the Eagles’ website.
Being 6-foot-7, 275 and having a background in both rugby and Australian rules football was enough to get Leo to Arizona Western College in Yuma, where he became a standout junior-college defensive end. Division I scholarship offers ensued, and Leo decided on Iowa State, after Googling where Iowa was, exactly.
Leo got a redshirt for 2017, then played all 26 games the last two seasons, though he rarely started. In the locker room, sometimes dressing alongside players seven or eight years younger, he was known as “Dad.”
Leo wasn’t a star for the Cyclones. He managed one sack and 5.5 tackles for losses last season. His highlight memory is a defensive sequence that fueled a comeback at West Virginia when he made three tackles in a row.
After making first-team all-academic in the Big 12, Leo was one of nine international players chosen for the NFL program, with training at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. IMG filmed a virtual pro day in which Leo ran a 4.78-second 40-yard dash and bench-pressed 26 reps, which would have been nice NFL scouting combine numbers had Leo been invited to the combine.
Four of the nine ended up being signed by NFL teams. Leo’s exemption lasts until the cutdown to 53 for the regular season. Then he can be placed on the roster or the practice squad, with no exemption. If the Eagles want to continue the exemption, they can do so, but it has to be for the entire season, with no possibility of elevating Leo from the practice squad.
“Honestly, it feels like I’ve lived two lives,” Leo told the team website.
Leo said Eagles Aussies Jordan Mailata and Cameron Johnston were quick to welcome him. “Jordan was the first person to FaceTime me when he had seen the Twitter release that I was coming to Philadelphia,” Leo said, and Johnston contacted him through Instagram. “I couldn’t have felt more at home before I even got there.”
His age and his lack of football experience weigh heavily against him, but Leo has always known that would be the case. Mailata, a tackle who came to the U.S. under the auspices of the same NFL program, had never played football when the Eagles drafted him in 2018′s seventh round. But Mailata was 21 at the time.
“Going in, it’s going to be the same mentality that I’ve always had, I just want to keep my head down, to sponge in all that new information and really earn that respect to hopefully have time to play on the field,” Leo said in the video conference.
He said he knows that in Philadelphia, “It’s a die-hard, loyal fan base.”
His mom, Margaret, saw him play in person last season, he said. He hopes to bring his father, Michael, out to watch him play with the Eagles. Leo also wants to treat to a trip the family of his friend, Hoare, who did that key research for him when he didn’t know how to get started.
Right now, though, Leo has no idea when he might get himself to Philly. Defensive line coach Matt Burke is in touch, and the team is holding offseason program video gatherings.
“Everyone’s playing it as it comes. That’s what we can really do right now,” Leo said. “As long as I can kind of jump in and have these Zoom meetings with my position group and try to get ahead of the ball, that’s all I can care about right now.”
In the interim, Leo told reporters he was “mowing lawns for money right now,” in Iowa.
Pressed for details and rates, he said he was doing this mostly as a favor.
“It’s more of the fact of just helping out neighbors, and doing it out of that. … If I can help the people who once supported me … That means more to me than anything,” he said.
“I’ll mow their lawn for free, even when I’m in Philly.”