Australian NFL player Jordan Mailata was faced with a difficult conundrum in his first two years in the league.
How do you develop as a player when you’re not allowed to practice with your team, and as a raw talent transitioning from rugby league that had never played a full game of American football?
The Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman found a way though, through early solo training sessions, being the most studious player in his team and, of all things, yoga.
“We have our own team yoga instructor and I’ve been seeing her about twice a week, sometimes three,” Mailata exclusively told Wide World of Sports from Philadelphia.
“It’s actually hilarious seeing all these big O-linemen doing yoga,” he laughed.
“The best thing about yoga, is if you go to her studio you can play your own music. I’ve got this playlist – the most eclectic song playlist ever – and I usually play that, and when we’re doing yoga she’s like, ‘What on earth?!'”
Yoga is just part of the revised and restricted training regimen Mailata had to undertake after spending his first two seasons on the Eagles’ Injured Reserve (IR) with lower back injuries. No more squatting or dead lifts for the former South Sydney Rabbitohs under-20s forward; now it’s more ‘downward dog’ and ‘happy baby’.
Still, the yoga was the fun part in what has been an extremely frustrating couple of years.
“Having the right people in your corner, that was very crucial for me,” Mailata said.
“Like my girlfriend, my family were always there for me, even though they were in Australia.
“They were there for me when I was having rough days.”
FROM BANKSTOWN TO THE NFL
To say it’s been a whirlwind journey for Mailata to date would be an understatement.
He came into the league selected as a surprise 233rd overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, fresh off the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory. Despite his obvious lack of experience in the game, there was something about the 6-foot-8, 156kg, (then) 20-year-old that Eagles coach Doug Pederson saw potential in, and they didn’t hesitate in trading up 17 spots to draft him.
The buzz around Mailata was huge. Every Philadelphia beat writer and NFL insider was obsessed over the gentle giant from western Sydney with an electric junior rugby league highlight tape. The NFL’s official Twitter account described it: “INSANE. DOMINANT. RIDICULOUS.”
Mailata didn’t flinch under the spotlight, and showed enough to make the 53-man roster each year.
But two years later, he is still waiting for his NFL regular season debut due to injury setbacks, and the hype train has definitely come to a thundering halt.
In his rookie year, it was a stress fracture that sidelined Mailata, and last season it was a disc protrusion L5 on the right side of his back.
‘NOT TRAINING WITH THE TEAM, THAT HURT’
On IR this past season especially, Mailata felt isolated and faced his biggest test as a professional athlete.
“There’s all these rules being on the Injured Reserve. I had to learn how to train by myself, grow mentally and understand the nuances about the sport and this playbook,” he said.
“Once you get put on the IR, the NFL regulates the league, and they have all these rules – for instance you can’t practice with the team.
“It wasn’t because I wasn’t medically cleared, it’s because of these rules.
“Not training with the team, that hurt me so much.”
Mailata stayed focused on getting back off IR though, because at the beginning of the 2019 season, there was a glimmer of hope that he could return by Week 11.
“Teams can only take two players off IR each season… so the team needed to figure out if they needed me. But unfortunately by week 11 there were close to 11 players on IR and in my position they didn’t really need me, so I wasn’t called back up,” he said.
It didn’t matter.
Mailata said he felt he could be responsible for his own success. He challenged himself to do all he was could within those strict NFL rules to keep on developing and work towards being on the field in Week 1, 2020.
“I just kept going to all the meetings from the start till the end of the season,” Mailata said of the class-like sessions where coaches and players go over plays and team strategy.
“I watched every single practice to keep myself in the loop, in the game plan and in line with how the league and the players play.
“When I got cleared from rehabbing, I could do my own thing and take control of what I could do. I decided the best way for me to do that was practice before the boys practiced – an hour and a half before them. So then by the time they came out I was able to sit there and watch them.”
His job was made even harder because in pre-season last year he had a position change from left tackle to right tackle, but he’s taken that shift in his stride without complaints.
“I’ll do anything to be a part of this team and that’s been my mentality,” Mailata said.
“It was a long but short transition – short time, but long days, and I feel like I got the job done in learning it.”
AUSSIE BECOMES BEST IN CLASS
His efforts didn’t go unnoticed by his coaches either, with whom he was still able to maintain strong relationships despite not physically training under them within the group.
Mailata was best in class, sitting in the very front row of every team meeting.
“My coach has a thing called ‘cold questioning’, where he asks a specific player a question and you’re expected to know the answer, and he couldn’t get me; I didn’t have any wrong this year,” Mailata said.
“I challenged myself to be attentive and present because I knew this coming season it was going to help me so much once I get back on the field.
“I know I’m going to be able to play this year, that’s a fact.”
WHAT MADE MAILATA MOST ‘MAD’
On IR Mailata got hungrier. And teed off.
He wanted nothing more than to jump in the deep end and absorb every minute of his NFL experience to fast-track his already light-speed transition in a sport his peers played since they were kids.
But around him he said he could see guys not making the most of their chance in the cut-throat league.
“People who weren’t capitalising on the moment would always make me mad and that’s one thing I’ll take with me forever – make every opportunity count,” Mailata said.
“As long as you get to step on that field with your teammates, make every opportunity count, because that’s what hurt me this year.
“Being with them everyday and hearing what they were complaining about … people not realising that others have it worse than what they do. And that’s what’s made me more appreciative of my position here.
“I’m blessed to be here, to be playing this game, to be living in this city. Some people are small-minded and they don’t have goals. They don’t appreciate the small things because they haven’t been on the grind.
“I can say I’ve been on the other side now, you know? I’ve been on the other side, watching my teammates try and fail.”
THE AUSSIE CONNECTION IN PHILLY
In his locker room Mailata at least has a fellow Aussie he can lean on for support or a friendly, familiar accent. No-one can understand the difficulties of settling into a new sport in a foreign land more than Eagles punter and former Melbourne Demons draftee, Cameron Johnston.
Johnston is one of a tight group of Australian sports stars in the City of Brotherly Love, along with Mailata, and Philadelphia 76ers duo Ben Simmons and Mattise Thybulle.
“This is like the export destination of Australian athletes. To have four in one city, it’s crazy,” Mailata said.
So strong is the Aussie connection in Philly that the 76ers hosted their second annual Australian Heritage Night, sponsored by Four’N Twenty, which this year raised $A80,000 for bushfire relief. Mailata was also given the “honour” of ringing the ceremonial ‘Liberty Bell’ pre-game, before Simmons’ 76ers defeated the Chicago Bulls 118-111.
“I think we should have an Australian Heritage Night every night. Or an Australian Heritage Month!” Mailata joked.
CAN MAILATA SOAR WITH THE EAGLES IN 2020?
Looking towards the 2020 NFL season, it’s shaping up to be a breakthrough – if not make or break – year for Mailata.
“I feel like from year one and two I’ve made an enormous transition and transformation as a player,” he said.
“I’ve never had any regrets. Frustration that I couldn’t participate in practice, yes, but never any regrets like, ‘Oh why did I come here?'”
Mailata isn’t backing down from the challenge ahead and said he would also welcome the team drafting young offensive linemen to compete for the starting role in pre-season training camp too.
“I’m ready, trust me,” he said confidently.
“They can bring anyone in. It is every man for themselves, but we’ll see when they get here. I was ready when they brought Andre [Dillard]. Bring it on!
“We’ve got the best O-line group in the league.”
The Eagles haven’t been able to replicate quite the same form they had since their Super Bowl-winning efforts in 2018, led by then back-up quarterback Nick Foles (now at the Jacksonville Jaguars). Still, Mailata says the “resilient” Eagles will take flight again.
“We’ve had some people try and talk us down and make fun of us, but honestly our locker room is tight,” he said.
“There’s never been any drama. We have a great corps of veteran leaders that make sure the team is very cohesive.
“We are pretty resilient. Every year they count us out and we end up making the post-season.
“We don’t want to get our expectations up, but we do have expectations. We have our goals and really the first step to every season is wining our division. First win the division, and that’s what we have our eyes set on every time we walk in the building.”
Jordan Mailata spoke to Wide World of Sports on behalf of Four’N Twenty as an ambassador of the iconic meat pie company with Ben Simmons