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Rabbitohs to the NFL: Jordan Mailata's story

Jordan Mailata is sitting in a Philadelphia room playing his guitar. It's just after 9pm two days out from what could be the biggest night of his life as his Super Bowl-winning Eagles kick off the NFL season against Atlanta.

On the other end of the line, half a dozen Australian reporters wait for the remaining journalists to dial in for the phone conference set up by the NFL, listening to the former South Sydney prop strumming his instrument.

The kid can play. The kid can sing too, as you can discover on YouTube.

He's not a bad footballer either, the American variety of course.

But there was a time when it looked as though he would never play football of any variety after collapsing while training with the Canterbury Bulldogs three years ago.

"I had no idea what happened," he said.

Former Rabbitohs giant Jordan Mailata.
Former Rabbitohs giant Jordan Mailata. ©

The now 160kg, 21-year-old just assumed he was unfit. Until he collapsed again a few months later and was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery after being diagnosed with a rare heart condition.

"I was either born with it or it developed through puberty," he said.

"After that I put on so much weight and was not allowed to exercise with the heart condition."

Mailata is a man-monster. When he arrived at the Rabbitohs, he towered over George and Sam Burgess. He’s always been that person. The biggest, wherever he went.

"People would always say 'he's not 11' or 'he's not 14'. I was always that guy. When I hit 18 everyone thought I had kids. I’ve always been that guy."

In rugby league, most are told they are too small to make it. Not many get told they’re too big.

"I didn't necessarily believe in that, that I was too big to play the sport," he said.

"I was classified as that in an NRL team – the biggest player in the squad. For me I didn't feel like I was too big to play rugby league. That was just a label I was given. It wasn't a self-proclaimed label I gave myself.

"They wanted me to lose 15 more kilos [after losing 28 kilograms]. It was entirely impossible. I was already sitting at 10 per cent body fat. Another 15 kilos wasn't healthy at all."

Mailata isn't the first rugby league player to make the transition to the NFL. The last to do so, Jarryd Hayne, made incredible inroads in 12 months before leaving the sport.

"To be honest Jarryd did reach out to me and was telling me to get into the playbook and focus and study if I wanted to do it," Mailata said.

"He told me to hit him up and that he was always around. I didn't really have anything relatable with Jarryd. Our stories were very different. His way of entering the NFL was different to mine. Because of the different positions it was hard to share anything in common. We could share that we made the squad and were overwhelmed with media and stuff."

Philadelphia Eagles player Jordan Mailata.
Philadelphia Eagles player Jordan Mailata. ©

Mailata is a confident kid. Hasn't felt the need to pinch himself. Nor has he felt the heat of expectation.

"There's no pressure," he fires back. "Whatever happens, happens … I have not had a moment where I sat here thinking 'what the hell am I doing'. Not once regretted my decision coming here. Every day I'm trying to get one step better."

An NFL Combine on the Gold Coast next month will provide several Australians a pathway to America's biggest sport, and who knows, perhaps will unveil the next Jordan Mailata?

"If you can find a six-foot-eight and 200 whatever pound just like me, let me know because I want to meet this guy.

"I don't think people should be looking for the next Jordan Mailata. They should be looking to brand their own name."

Mailata is in the Eagles’ 53-man squad and is still unsure whether he'll play in the season opener. But one thing he is sure about is the team he will support when the NRL finals series kicks off on the same day.

"South Sydney gave me my chance and I wouldn't be here without South Sydney," he said.

"I definitely still talk to the boys back home. I'm still a Souths supporter. They're in the finals right?"

He can be forgiven for being a little preoccupied to know for sure. 

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