The idea was borne of necessity. Jordan Mailata, a rugby player with a stellar highlight reel from his games with Australia’s South Sydney Rabbitohs team, had, quite literally, outgrown his sport.
Enter football. NFL football, to be exact.
Mailata spent the past four months learning football and how to block at the IMG training facility in Florida. His agent sent a highlight reel to NFL scouts, hoping that Mailata, who stands 6-foot-8, weighs 346 pounds and was named after Michael Jordan, might impress a team thirsty for a lineman. Bingo. On Saturday evening, the Philadelphia Eagles made a bold move with their final pick in the NFL draft, taking the 21-year-old man who has never played organized football. Eight teams were interested in him, but the Eagles were either impressed or intrigued enough to make a trade with the New England Patriots, moving up 17 spots to take him in the seventh round with the 233rd pick. The Eagles also sent a 2019 seventh-round pick to the Patriots.
And no one was more surprised than Mailata when he received a phone call.
“Honestly I thought it was just going to be another chat to my agent, because I had received two phone calls earlier from other clubs just asking for my agent’s contact details,” he told Australia’s Fox Sports. “So when they called me — it was the scout that picked me up at the pro day — all I did was say, ‘Hello’, asking what it was. He said, ‘I’m going to put you on the phone to Howie.’ ”
(That would be Howie Roseman, the Eagles’ general manager.)
“I broke down. I think it was a lot of emotions today,” Mailata added. “I didn’t know how I was feeling, especially when it came down to the last 30 picks; I was really nervous.”
Mailata, whose first name is Lafoga, received his middle name of Jordan from his then 10-year-old sister, who was allowed to name her new baby brother and liked the NBA Hall of Famer. His parents, who are Samoan, moved to New Zealand and then to Australia years before his birth. As a kid, he fell for rugby, playing the sport until he got too big for it.
“Size does play to my advantage [in rugby], but I never started,” he told NFL.com. “I was always that ‘impact player,’ and all those [YouTube] clips that you see, that’s me playing as that impact player [off the bench]. I never started games; I was always brought on 10-15 minutes before the half, then started the next half, then brought back off again, then played the last 5-10 minutes. I was used as that force to pick up the pace, pick up the momentum of the game.”
In that sport, his weight was a problem.
“Rugby’s such a get-up, get-down game, and playing that for 80 minutes is a lot for a 310-pound guy,” he said. “They wanted me to lose another 50 pounds but I couldn’t because I was [at] 10 percent body fat. That goal was just unrealistic.”
That won’t be an issue in the NFL, although he might not be playing immediately.
“Right now, he’s going to be in Stout’s room,’’ Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas said of offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland (via Philly.com). “His size, his measurables, they’re pretty rare. Just to see the excitement that not only Stout but also [assistant offensive line coach Eugene Chung] had about Jordan, it was palpable.’’
And it was apparently worth the gamble to spend a draft pick on Mailata rather than hoping he’d choose to sign with the Eagles over the other interested teams as an undrafted free agent. Roseman admitted to SI.com’s Peter King that it was unusual to trade two picks for such an unknown.
“I thought [owner] Jeffrey Lurie said something interesting about him: ‘With a lot of these guys, you can see what they’re going to be. With this guy, we don’t know his floor, and we don’t know his ceiling,’” Roseman said. “With this guy, we’re molding a piece of clay.”
Stoutland was enthusiastic after watching Mailata work out, returning to Philadelphia and “raving about his work ethic and his athletic ability. We saw this guy had rare athleticism and was physical and violent,” Roseman said. “Traits of that body type and that athleticism are hard to find. We understand it’ll be a process. He’s 21.”
So there’s a new Process in Philadelphia. Mailata had something of the same reaction as the Eagles: let’s see what happens.
“It’s a fun sport, you know? Why not give it a try?” Mailata said in an NFL Network interview. “It’s been an absolute brainstorm of an experience.”
NFL teams aren’t the first to fall for Mailata at first sight. Former Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire wrote that the first time he approached Mailata, “he kept getting bigger and bigger until you pretty much felt he was going to fill the entire space. I reckon he’s still the largest bloke I’ve come across in rugby league.”
Which might make him perfect for the NFL, now that he understands what it’s all about.
“I went there not really understanding the level of athleticism and skill the guys up front at the line of scrimmage had,” Mailata told NFL Network. “But now having been put through the many drills and testing, it certainly opened my eyes to how good the NFL athlete is. I am looking forward to the challenge and feel confident I can succeed, but I now have a lot of hard work in front of me before I can start thinking of wearing an NFL jersey.”
This isn’t the first time the Eagles have dipped into the rubgy world. Last year, they signed Adam Zaruba, a tight end who spent the season on the practice squad.
And a rugby gamble previously worked out for the Patriots, who drafted Nate Ebner out of Ohio State with the 197th pick in 2012. Ebner never played football in high school, but he walked on with the Buckeyes. Since rugby was his love, New England allowed him to take a leave of absence to play on the U.S. Rugby sevens team that finished ninth at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“It was a lengthy discussion, over many different conversations,” said Ebner, a backup safety and special teams stalwart (via USA Rugby). “But in the end, they knew who they drafted in 2012 in me being a rugby player, and they understood this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, and they have shown nothing but support through this entire journey. I’m so lucky to have their blessing, and this may not have happened without them backing me to do so.”
Rugby sevens is a quicker variant of the game most known around in the world; instead of 15 players per team playing 40-minute halves, there are seven per side playing seven-minute halves.
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