There isn’t a handy data base where you can look up this sort of thing, but we’re going to venture out on a limb here and say there has never been an NFL story like Jordan Mailata’s.
Players from Australia? Plenty of those, there are two others practicing with Mailata every day, Eagles punter Cameron Johnston and defensive end Matt Leo, who has a roster exemption through a league program designed to help international players.
But Johnston played at Ohio State, Leo at Iowa State. And the Australian Rules football players who have made it to the NFL (mostly punters) are different, in that they were always playing football, of a slightly different sort.
Guys who weren’t primarily football players growing up? Sure, it’s not that uncommon for an NFL player to tell you he focused on making it to the NBA until late in his high school career, when someone took him aside and explained that there aren’t any 6-foot-5, 260-pound basketball centers raking in millions.
But those guys then got in several years of football before being drafted into the NFL. Most of them had grown up around football, they just would have preferred to play a sport that offers more money, longer average careers, and tends to leave participants less broken.
Maybe somewhere in the league annals there is a kicker or punter who had never stepped onto a football field, at any level, had never seen a game in person, and then one day somehow found himself in the NFL. But a position player? Who, exactly, would that be?
That, right there, was the challenge Mailata faced, when the Eagles drafted him in 2018′s seventh round, on the strength of a workout at IMG academy for international players. He had just turned 21. People misuse words such as “unique” and “unprecedented” all the time. For the former rugby player’s quest, they are justified.
Like the quests of myth, this one wasn’t easy or quick to complete. Mailata made a big initial training camp splash as an offensive tackle, then didn’t play as a rookie, going on injured reserve in December with a back problem. The next year, same trajectory, lots of preseason buzz, but a different back problem led to IR in September, this time.
By the time Mailata undertook his third training camp this summer, the novelty had faded, and some fans on social media were urging the Eagles to cut their losses, particularly when the team scrimmaged at Lincoln Financial Field and practice squad defensive end Joe Ostman seemed to fire past Mailata at will. Enough fooling around with projects that would never be completed.
Yet, on Sunday, Mailata will take the field in Pittsburgh as the Eagles' starting left tackle, against one of the league’s best defensive lines. Maybe he won’t do well, maybe he isn’t ready, though he certainly looked fairly solid in his first start, last week at San Francisco. Whatever happens Sunday, Mailata made it to an NFL lineup.
“You can see his technique has improved steadily,” an NFL personnel evaluator said after watching last Sunday’s game. “He has natural pass protection ability. He has the ability to be a good starter in this league, as he continues to develop his hand technique and footwork.”
Asked Thursday how he made it through the months and years until this season, never really knowing if he was wasting his time, Mailata laughed, and maybe grimaced, as well.
"What year are you talking about? Year 1? Year 2? I had those times, you know, where I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ " Mailata said.
“I’ve always asked myself that, and then realized, ‘Yeah, this is what you wanted to do.’ I have this saying: Don’t dip your toe in the water; drown in it, and learn how to swim. I always go back to that saying and it pulls me out of that dark place. … I’m swimming.”
Two years ago, Mailata’s family members in suburban Sydney told Inquirer reporter Mike Jensen of how when Jordan brought up the opportunity to go to IMG, in Florida, and train to possibly play in the NFL, his parents, his three brothers and his sister all voted against it. What a crazy idea. Keep developing as a rugby player. That’s the family sport.
No one back home was saying that when Mailata checked in with them after the San Francisco game.
“Really, I just spoke to my family and my closest friends,” Mailata said. “They’re really excited, really happy. Thankfully, because we played Sunday Night Football, they were able to watch the game at, like, 11 a.m., so they didn’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn to watch me play. They were pretty stoked, pretty excited.”
After that game, Mailata was asked about stepping in for nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, who is sidelined indefinitely with a toe injury at age 38. Mailata gave a memorable quote, as he tends to do. He said he didn’t want to fill someone’s else’s boots, he wanted to “make my own boots.” And he wanted to be known as a football player, not as a former rugby player.
Thursday, he offered some detail.
“It’s just an identity thing for me. Being labeled as the guy who played rugby, even using that as an excuse for giving up a sack or having a missed assignment – I’d rather have a missed assignment because I don’t know the play, I don’t want to miss the assignment because I was a rugby player,” he said. “Trying to be my own person in this sport, and not trying to rely on someone else’s past, or even my past.”
When he spoke to reporters after the game, Mailata gave special notice to Ostman, whose work in practice made him better, he said.
When he started out here, Mailata was a 6-foot-8, 346-pound athlete with good feet and huge hands, who had no frame of reference for what he was attempting to do. He recalled meeting Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, at that IMG camp.
"I was like, ‘Wow this guy is really, like, aggressive, and why is he shouting at me, man? C’mon I just got here to America, stop shouting at me.’
“My relationship with ‘Stout’ now, man – that’s my guy. … I’m able to just tell him how I really feel, and he listens.”
Mailata had a simple explanation for why he didn’t look good early in camp this year – he hadn’t practiced in nearly a year, after going on IR so early in the 2019 season.
“Really I was just trying to knock off the rust. … Once I got it going and once I realized the groove, and I remembered everything of what I had to do to be sound in my technique, I felt like the dominoes fell in place,” he said.
Part of the reason why Mailata had faded in the minds of fans was that the team drafted left tackle Andre Dillard in the first round in 2019. Up to that point, Mailata was being groomed as Peters' successor. Had Dillard not suffered a season-ending biceps tear in August, Mailata might still be looking for his chance.
“When Dillard went down. That’s when I had to really pick up my game, because I felt like they had to rely on me. And that’s when I started to sharpen the tools,” he said. " I always told myself that if my number was called, I’d be ready. And that’s basically what happened."