PHILADELPHIA -- Jordan Mailata, the rugby league player turned Philadelphia Eagles rookie offensive tackle, didn’t have to go very far back in his memory log to identify his “Welcome to the NFL” moment.
“It was today!” he exclaimed with unexpected enthusiasm after Thursday’s practice. “It was ‘Welcome to America,’ ‘Welcome to the NFL,’ ‘Welcome to Jumanji.’ It was everything.”
It came during one-on-ones between the offensive and defensive linemen. Mailata drew veteran defensive end Steven Means, who attacked him with a bull rush. Mailata started with a kick-out and tried to sit back in his stance but failed to get fully set. By the time he took the focus off his own fundamental work and fully onto his opponent, all he could see was the crown of Means’ helmet bearing down on him. The 6-foot-3, 263-pound Means knocked the 6-foot-8, 346-pound Mailata flat to the ground, sending the defensive linemen into a frenzy.
“Nails,” said Mailata. “That was ‘Welcome to America.'"
Mailata is now a week deep into his first NFL training camp, and he acknowledges his body is “crook” – Australian for "ailing." His arms are feeling it the most; now that the pads are on and the intensity turned up, he’s using them really for the first time to battle pass-rushers, and it's taking a toll. A team physical found that he has a Grade 2 PCL tear in his right knee from his rugby days, so he wears a large brace around his massive leg daily to protect from further injury. On the ball of his left foot, there’s a nasty blister the size of a silver dollar from the thousands of kick-steps he has been practicing.
Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has a saying: “Do one kick 10,000 times instead of doing 10,000 kicks one time” to stress the importance of detail and execution. Of course, when you’re learning a new sport as Mailata is -- he was introduced to football just a few months before being drafted by Philadelphia in the seventh round this past April -- there are plenty of times when details are missed and execution is lacking. Stoutland has sayings for those occasions, as well, few of which are suitable for print.
“I’m getting the same treatment as everybody else,” said Mailata. “It’s a lot of yelling.”
He appears to be taking it all in stride, though. Even after rough days on the field, it’s not uncommon to see him doubled over in laughter in the locker room.
“Sometimes coaches like to f--- with you to try and get under your skin,” said guard Brandon Brooks. “It’s hard to f--- with him, man. You can’t really get under his skin.”
And Mailata hasn’t lost his gregarious, entertainer spirit. The Eagles have their rookies perform songs on stage in the team auditorium during camp. Mailata, armed with a guitar, impressed the vets with a pitch-perfect rendition of "Hold" by Mark Lowndes.
“I was a musician before I was an athlete,” said Mailata, who has been playing guitar since he was 8 years old and toys with the piano and drums, as well.
The goal is to make football second nature, as well -- or at least more natural than it is right now. The sense is that Mailata is so focused on his assignment and fundamentals that there isn’t enough room for the athleticism, instinct and aggression that made him a powerhouse on the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Not that anyone is blaming him. When asked about Mailata’s progression, Stoutland has commanded his questioner to “Talk to me in Japanese,” laying clear just how difficult it is to learn an intricate sport like football in so little time, on the professional level no less.
Still, Mailata has shown encouraging signs, according to his teammates, particularly over the past few practices.
“[During the spring], you could tell he was just learning as far as being like a real football player,” said rookie defensive end Josh Sweat. “I can just tell he’s been improving a lot. He’s strong -- look how big he is. He is fast. He’s getting back there [in pass protection]. I run and he’s already there. I can definitely see his ceiling is as high as can be, honestly.”
“He’s got all the tools, he just needs the time,” added right tackle Lane Johnson. “He needs a lot of work, but every tool is there -- size, speed -- he’s just got learn the concepts of the offense and try to get it all down. ... Crazy athlete. Can’t teach that size, can’t teach that arm length. If you develop on those traits, you’ve got a superior tackle.”
A big test comes Thursday when the Eagles open exhibition play against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Asked if he’s ready for his first game action, Mailata said: “Ask me that next week. Right before the game. I’ve still got [some] training sessions left.”
In a matter of weeks, the preseason will be over and rosters will be trimmed to 53 in preparation for the regular season. Mailata’s career could hang in the balance. But the 21-year-old Aussie will instead focus on the next kick, with the goal of creating 9,999 just like it.
“I’m frustrated,” he acknowledged. “But I’ve accepted it because I care about it. I want to improve my game, my technique and my execution. It does get frustrating at times, but I’ve got good players around me on the team, and they keep encouraging me to stay positive and focus on the little things. Like one thing at a time.”