PHILADELPHIA -- Jordan Mailata’s first job was working at McDonald’s when he was 14 years old.
Well on his way to becoming a 6-foot-8, 350-pound giant of a man, he discovered early the importance of fitting in the workplace.
“I was too tall to work in the back,” he said. “My manager told me, ‘You’re just too tall because the screen’s there and you’d just be hitting stuff and you’ve got to bend over.’ I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll just wipe tables.’”
It took another seven years, and a move to the other side of the world, but Mailata appears to have found his calling, as an offensive tackle in the NFL -- one that offers a high ceiling and plenty of room for growth.
He was right at home Friday as the Philadelphia Eagles deboarded a bus on the outskirts of London and stepped onto the London Irish rugby fields to train for their upcoming game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. International media flocked to him and asked the former Australian rugby league player about the irony of playing American football on this pitch, and to banter about some upcoming matches.
"Is it? I don't know," he responded when told the Kiwis were playing the following day. "I'm in me own world right now, so I have no idea."
It wasn't that long ago when questions about the NFL would have elicited a similar response. When he landed in Florida last January to train at IMG Academy, he didn't know how to take a helmet on and off and couldn't tell you what a touchdown was, let alone who might be playing in the postseason. What has transpired over the nine months since has been rather remarkable.
Mailata ended up being drafted by the Eagles, who moved up in the seventh round to get him. He went on to make the team out of training camp. Still very raw, the initial thought was to have him as the 53rd man out of 53 -- far away from live action as he spent the year developing. The timetable, though, continues to move up when it comes to this prospect. The Eagles had him active for Week 7's game against the Carolina Panthers, meaning he was just an injury or two away from playing in his first professional game.
“It’s a massive step," Mailata said. "There’s a difference when you’re not dressing every week and then as soon as you start dressing, you’re like, ‘Oh, you can actually go into the game now.’ The whole mentality changes and you have to focus in more and listen to what [offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland] is saying on the sideline and watch what the D end is doing, as well, just in case they do something funky on you in case you go in. A lot more focused in.”
Putting Mailata on the doorstep of game action would have been hard to fathom even a couple of months ago. He had his share of humbling moments this summer, being dropped on his backside by vets who caught him with a cross when he was expecting a jab. His first preseason taste was equally rough, as he was beaten badly right out of the chute and promptly yielded a blindside sack.
But he stabilized as that game, and the preseason, went on. By the end of the summer, he had some national analysts forecasting him as a future All-Pro.
"From where he came from to now is a big difference," said Eagles left tackle and potential Hall-of-Famer Jason Peters, who has helped tutor Mailata along the way.
Like Peters, who played tight end before being converted to tackle in the pros, Mailata has rare athleticism for his size, which is what drew Stoutland in initially when he went to work out Mailata during the winter.
“How many guys are that big that can move that fast? Those are called critical factors," Stoutland said. "So when you’re looking at an offensive linemen, I have a list of critical factors, and I’m looking for that guy. He’s unusual. I like unusual. And I think those are your best players if you look across the board over the years, those end up becoming your best players."
The second thing Stoutland was looking for was whether Mailata had the right mindset for the gig, and he was quickly won over by Mailata's ability to absorb the information, his work ethic and his disposition.
"He never gets down on himself. The guy is always happy. He’s never had a bad day," Stoutland said. "I think when you play this game and you get beat up, whether it’s through the press, whether it’s through the coach, whatever, you’ve got to be able to bounce back -- every player has to go through that. He’s got the right mindset.”
The biggest difference between rugby and football -- a point Stoutland drills home regularly to Mailata -- is that football is all about split-second decision-making. The wrong diagnosis or the wrong technique in that blink can be the difference between a successful and busted play.
"‘You’re not a rugby player anymore, Jordan. You’re a football player!'" Mailata said, giving his best Stoutland impression. "'You’ve got to think, and you’ve got to move fast!’ I’m like, ‘Yes, yes, yes coach.’ He’s always onto that --'You’re not playing rugby anymore. You’re not going forward. You’ve got to get back! You’ve got to assess the defensive end!’”
Injuries have hit the Eagles offensive line early on, increasing the chances that Mailata might actually get into a game this season. It seems awfully early for Mailata to be protecting Carson Wentz's blindside, but then, nothing has gone according to schedule since Mailata found his calling.
“Hopefully, if the time comes and they think that I’m ready, with all the training that I’ve been doing, that I’ll be prepared to execute," he said. "Just going to rely on my training.”