PHILADELPHIA — The made-for-big-screen story of left tackle Jordan Mailata comes full circle this week when the Eagles play the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football (ESPN, 8:15 p.m. ET).
AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, hosted the 2018 NFL draft. It’s where Mailata, the 6-foot-8, 365-pound former rugby player from Australia, nervously sat and slept and paced for hours on Day 3 as pick after pick went off the board without him being selected. It’s where his emotions spilled out on a FaceTime call with his family after learning the Eagles had traded up in the seventh round to take him. And it’s where he got his first taste of the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry when he was booed onstage during the biggest moment of his life.
“He was like, ‘Why are they booing me? I don’t understand why all the fans are booing me.’ Of course, it was Cowboys fans not excited about the Eagles pick but he was completely confused about why,” said Henry Hodgson, the NFL’s vice president of international marketing and fan development. Mailata had no prior football experience and could barely name an NFL player at the time, let alone grasp the history of franchises.
“He thought it was because he was Australian. I said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just because they hate Eagles players.'”
Mailata has made a remarkable transformation in three years, going from the guy who splashed Gatorade all over his face during a drink break because he didn’t know how to take his helmet off, to a starting left tackle in the NFL. After winning the job over former first-round pick Andre Dillard this summer, the Eagles rewarded Mailata with a life-changing four-year, $64 million contract extension. Mailata, 24, is coming off arguably the best performance of his career. Facing elite edge rusher Nick Bosa, he did not allow a sack, QB hit or pressure against the San Francisco 49ers while posting a 90.7 run-blocking grade, according to Pro Football Focus, which named Mailata the “Secret Superstar of the Week.”
Mailata suffered a sprained MCL in Thursday’s practice and will not play Monday night. But two of the men most responsible for helping shape Mailata’s path will be in the building Monday night. Across the sidelines will be Cowboys defensive line coach Aden Durde, who is credited with discovering Mailata while leading the league’s International Player Pathway program. Alongside Mailata — and forever in his ear — will be Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, the raspy-voiced firecracker from Staten Island who has been the blowtorch to Mailata’s glass, molding him with unrelenting heat.
But the man who looms largest in Mailata’s mind, his father Tupai, will not be there and hasn’t seen Jordan play in person. And the thought of this makes the giant of a man cry.
Convincing Tupai and a fateful game of ping-pong
Tupai grew up as part of a farming family in Samoa and adheres strictly to Samoan family culture. For example, Jordan and his brothers, by rule, were not allowed in his sister Sese’s room. The family lived in a three-bedroom house in Bankstown, Australia, a suburb southwest of Sydney. Jordan and his three brothers — Moana, Daniel and Millo — all shared a bedroom while his parents and Sese each got their own. It wasn’t until he was 10 years old that Jordan dared step foot in Sese’s room.
“And then I got a hiding from my dad,” Mailata said.
Academics were of the highest priority in the household. That’s why Mailata didn’t get serious about athletics until late into his teenage years despite his incredible size and athleticism.
The first time Mailata asked for his parents’ permission to try his hand at football overseas, he was shot down.
Mailata’s agent at the time, Chris Orr, encouraged him to attend a tryout in Los Angeles to be accepted into the IPP and granting him access to a three-month training stint at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
But according to Samoan tradition, offspring are not supposed to leave the house until they are married. When Mailata, then 20, presented the idea of training at IMG, he got a hard no. Besides, he was already playing rugby professionally as a member of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, a sport tied tightly to the Samoan and Australian cultures.
He had made such strides since a pair of heart surgeries when he was 17 sidelined him from sports for a year. Mailata was taken to the hospital after collapsing on the pitch during a fitness drill and was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, which caused him to have heart palpitations and go into atrial fibrillation.
“My family was f—ing stressed. They couldn’t believe I had a heart problem,” Mailata said.
Now he was recovered and getting paid to play rugby close to home, even if it was on a part-time contract. Mailata wasn’t a starter — the constant running in rugby isn’t designed for a man his size. He worked mornings in demolition to make ends meet.
Desperately wanting to try football, he decided to ask his parents again. First, he had to butter his dad up.
“Two weeks later I’m playing ping-pong with him at night. We were playing for a straight hour, just him and I, playing three games to 21, going back and forth. And I let my old man win. He had a good time. He was like, ‘I’m tired, I’m going to go to bed,’ so I was like, ‘Now is my time to attack.’ He was in bed and I walk in, the lights are off and I’m like, ‘Dad, can I talk to you real quick. I want to talk to you about America.’ And he said, ‘Oh whoa whoa whoa, go wake your mom up.'”
Mailata spent the next 45 minutes pleading for his parents’ blessing, saying he did not want to disobey them and leave home without it.
“That night, my old man said, ‘If you really want to do this, then do it. Do it for yourself, don’t do it for anyone else.'”
Away from the nest
Orr persuaded Durde to let Mailata try out in Los Angeles for a spot in the IPP after sending highlights of the player obliterating souls on the rugby pitch. Mailata dazzled enough in L.A. to be accepted into IPP.
“As an athlete, he was of that elite tier that you’re looking for in that program,” Durde said, calling him “the standard of what that program represents — finding guys that have a talent that not many other people on the planet do.”
Encouraged by the feedback, Mailata became fascinated with the game and the idea of making it in the NFL.
Though raw as can be, buzz about Mailata’s progress while training at IMG Academy was beginning to reach NFL teams, including the Eagles, who sent Stoutland to work him out in the lead-up to the draft.
“It was vacation week and I was going on a golf trip with my buddies from high school, and I was like, ‘You got to be kidding me. I got to cancel my trip?’ [General manager Howie Roseman] said, ‘No, this is important.’ So I went and worked him out,” said Stoutland. “And I was like, ‘Wow,’ I couldn’t believe that a big person like that could move and change direction. I felt like with this guy, the sky’s the limit.”
To make it work, though, Stoutland was going to have to go old school. Like all the way back.
“You know, everybody kind of has a button,” he said. “Jordan had never played football, ever. He never played Pop Warner football. He never played high school football. When I used to recruit Texas years ago, I used to go to practice but then I’d see the little guys off to the side and I’d go over to watch. And they would put telephone poles down [on] the ground and they had these little guys and they’d be in the middle and they would just fight each other, push, try to block each other through the end of the pole. And I’d be like, ‘This is unbelievable.’ But they learned toughness, they understood. Jordan never had to do that — ever — in football! And I’m like, ‘Well, I guess I got to be like that coach.’
“Sometimes Jordan is like, ‘God, this guy, can you let up on me a little bit?’ ‘No. No. But it’s for your own good.'”
Little did Stoutland know how deeply the approach would resonate.
For all the meaningful experiences Mailata was having and for all the exciting progress he was showing — he went from distant longshot in Year 1 to deep reserve in Year 2 to injury-replacement starter for 10 games in Year 3 to the $64 million man this season — the weeks and months and years away from his family have weighed on him. Travel restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic have prevented them from seeing each other. His parents haven’t seen him play football in person.
Mailata falls into a deep hole around the same time every year during the season.
“I wish my family could have been there when I started playing games. I don’t know if it will happen this year, it might,” he said. “I want them to be proud of me. I want them to see why I left home. I want for them to see where I live, see Philly, see the team I play for, see the buildings, meet the coaches who have made me the player that I am, meet the people that I’ve met here, friends that have turned into family. That’s all the stuff I think about.
“I miss my dad the most, man,” Mailata said, crying over the phone. “F—. I think because every lesson I would take for granted as a kid or didn’t understand why he was yelling at me, it kind of clicked once I moved here, once I got my own place and got my own car and started living my own life here and creating my own life, everything just kind of clicked and I was like, ‘Man, my old man was getting me ready.’ Not to say I don’t miss the rest of my family. I miss everybody, but in particular my old man. He taught me everything I know.
“Your old man has been so hard on you your whole life. I kind of miss him being in my ear, just telling me even the small stuff. Even to this day: ‘Make sure I’m praying, make sure I’m respectful to everybody, make sure I’m a good person first.’ I spoke to my dad yesterday, it was the first thing he said.”
Mailata corrected himself. That’s usually how his dad begins their conversations. But this phone call in early September was right after coach Nick Sirianni had named Mailata the team’s starting left tackle.
“He called me and it was the first time we were able to speak and he was just saying how proud he was of me. That was actually the first thing he said: He was proud that I did what I said I was coming to do,” Mailata said. “Then he went on his run about make sure you pray every day, make sure you’re a good person, be respectful to everybody and just keep the main thing the main thing and don’t lose focus.”
A global impact
The IPP, created in 2016, currently has 14 international players on 11 clubs, hailing from eight different countries. Two IPP players have been drafted to date, Mailata and former German Football League receiver Moritz Boehringer, who was selected in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings. There are success stories playing out. Efe Obada, a defensive end out of Great Britain, had 5.5 sacks last year for the Carolina Panthers and is now playing for the Buffalo Bills. Jakob Johnson of Germany has been the starting fullback for the New England Patriots for the past couple of seasons.
“You see it when you go back to your country or other countries — they make the kids believe that there is a possible pathway for them to the sport,” Durde said. “There wasn’t a pathway when I grew up, and now they’ve created one.”
The IPP is allocating four international players to NFL practice squads per year. The short-term goal is to double that number while getting more players onto active rosters, according to Damani Leech, the COO of NFL International. In a leap toward that objective, the NFL is hosting an international combine in London on October 12 featuring nearly 50 prospects from 14 countries including Austria, France, Japan and Nigeria.
Mailata has a strong chance to become the program’s greatest success to date. His story is already making an impact.
“It’s been an affirmation of three things: one, that there is talent outside of the United States that can play at a high level in the NFL; that those players in the NFL drive fandom in their home markets; and that we can put resources against it reasonably and deliver on those goals of supplying talent and growing fandom,” Leech said. “[It shows] that the model works.”
Just how high is Mailata’s ceiling?
“Jordan is a freak of nature,” said right tackle Lane Johnson. “Once he figures it out, he should be able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, how he wants.”
Mailata isn’t getting caught up in all the recent praise and recognition; Stoutland, and his upbringing, would never let him. He’s not a huge fan of the nickname his teammates recently gave him, “Big Money,” though the recent windfall will allow him to fulfill a goal close to his heart.
“I’ve been wanting to buy my parents a house,” he said, “so I can finally do that.”