Jordan Mailata wasn’t the first rugby league player to attempt to make the transition to American football and the NFL. He’s just the first one who’s done it successfully.
In the 2018 NFL Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Super Bowl 52 champions, chose Mailata in the seventh and final round of selections at 233rd overall. Over the years bettors have cashed on some historical longshots in Super Bowl betting, but wagering on an Australian rugby league player to become an NFL star, the odds on that occurrence playing out would seem astronomical.
The Sydney Rabbitohs under-20 player struck an imposing physical presence at 6-foot-8 and 346 pounds. The Eagles’ coaching staff were optimistic that they could take the raw materials they saw in Mailata and turn him into an NFL offensive tackle.
Football personnel people watched YouTube videos of Mailata playing for the Rabbitohs and were shocked and excited by what they saw from him on the rugby pitch. The agility and athleticism that Mailata developed playing rugby league was a quality not seen among traditional NFL linemen who shared his physical traits. That definitely intrigued American football coaches.
Mailata attended a workout in Los Angeles and was put into the NFL’s International Player Pathway program. He was selected to train at IMG Academy along with a few other overseas athletes. The NFL intended to designate four practice-squad spots for these players, with the objective of developing international prospects to play in the NFL.
It was certainly going to be a long, drawn-out process to turn this physical specimen into an NFL player. The Eagles had to teach Mailata how to strap on a football helmet. He couldn’t name a favourite NFL team. To go from that in three years to starting 10 games for the 2020 Eagles in nothing short of miraculous.
“You can’t put it on a scale; that’s how overwhelming it is,” Mailata told ESPN. “There’s so many things that you have to think about and weigh up. Overwhelming? That’s gone out the window.”
Making His Mark
When Eagles left tackle Jeff Peters, a nine-time Pro Bowl player and likely future Hall of Famer, was injured early in the 2020 campaign, Mailata was tabbed to take his place in the Philadelphia offense’s starting 11.
“I’m not trying to fill anyone’s boots,” Mailata told NJ.com. “I’m trying to make my own boots. That’s the one thing I came here to do and try to put some respect on my name. Tell people that I’m not a rugby player anymore, I’m a footballer.”
With Philadelphia’s offensive line strafed by injury throughout the 2020 season, Mailata saw action in 15 of 16 games, his first significant playing time as a NFL player. He started 10 of those games, seeing nine games at left tackle in place of Peters and one game at right tackle filling in for the injured Lane Johnson.
“I think I was doing my job, I was doing the best I can,” Mailata told the Philadelphia Inquirer, when asked how he felt about his first NFL game action. “Was it perfect? Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. But, you know, as for keeping the job, again, I can only control what I can control, and I can only put out for the universe what I give, so it’s not up to me.”
Considering how far he’s come in three years, Mailata’s progress is mind-boggling.
“This is part of football,” Mailata said. “I understand that now, this is my third year on the team. Trying to make a name for myself, I think [includes] just doing all the little things, like correcting the details and just being whatever team player you need to be, whatever player you need to be on the game days, during practice.
“I think that’s still solidifying a name for myself. I try to be as diverse as I can, and be that player that can play any position.”
Former NFL offensive lineman Brian Baldinger, now an analyst for ESPN, thinks Mailata is already among the top left tackles in the NFL.
“I didn’t see anybody play any better than him,” Baldinger said. “He’s dominant in the run game. His athletic ability is substantial. His ability to finish plays, whether it was [against] Haason Reddick or Markus Golden or somebody else turning the corner, he could run with them. He’s got just rare power.”
Clearly, Mailata has fallen in love with American football.
“I’m telling you, any time I can get in the game, I’m licking my fingers, licking my lips,” Mailata said. “I’m ready to go.
“It’s such a great feeling to be out there, I understand why people play so long and why they love the sport. Once I got the taste, it’s like, ‘I want more,’ but steady goes.”