Rugby star Jordan Mailata hoping to hear name at NFL draft

DALLAS -- When Lafoga Mailata was born, his parents allowed his 10-year-old sister to give him his middle name. She chose Jordan, as in Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls' international icon who was embarking on a third straight world championship at the time and who was the biggest name in sports.

Mailata, whose Samoan parents immigrated to New Zealand and then to Australia years before Lafoga was born, eventually dropped his first name and now only goes by Jordan. He took up rugby as a child, eventually turned pro, and literally outgrew it. He is now attempting to make a name for himself in American football, a sport he was introduced to only six months ago and still has never played a down in.

He's in Dallas this week to attend the NFL draft. Some might see it as a publicity stunt by the league to help promote its game internationally. Only problem is, it's not. He has a legitimate shot at hearing his name called on Day 3, mostly because of what teams look for in late-round prospects -- rare traits.

And Mailata has some of the rarest, including size (6-foot-8, 346 pounds, 35.5-inch arms) and athleticism (5.12 40-yard dash, 4.67 short shuttle). He's also only 20 years old, making him one of the youngest players in this draft.

"To be honest, I'm not expecting to be drafted," Mailata said. "I'll just see how it goes. If I get drafted, I get drafted. I don't want to get my hopes up."

It would be quite remarkable if a team selected him in the draft, considering it was just last November when he gave his first real thoughts to a career in the NFL, despite never having even touched a football. The former National Rugby League star dominated the competition in Australia, running over and through much smaller opponents. When his story first starting circulating in the United States, it was his rugby YouTube clips that got NFL fans excited about the possibilities.

But the problem was, the videos didn't tell the entire story.

"Size does play to my advantage (in rugby), but I never started," Mailata said. "I was always that 'impact player,' and all those (YouTube) clips that you see, that's me playing as that impact player (off the bench). I never started games; I was always brought on 10-15 minutes before the half, then started the next half, then brought back off again, then played the last 5-10 minutes. I was used as that force to pick up the pace, pick up the momentum of the game."

Stamina, at his 310-pound playing weight, became an issue.

"Rugby's such a get-up, get-down game, and playing that for 80 minutes is a lot for a 310-pound guy," he said. "They wanted me to lose another 50 pounds but I couldn't because I was (at) 10 percent body fat. That goal was just unrealistic."

Because of his limitations, Mailata's NRL team, the South Sydney Rabbitohs, was only offering a part-time contract, forcing him to work a regular job during the day and train with the team in the evenings. Mailata wanted a full-time contract so he could develop his rugby skills without having to worry about how to pay the rent, something that won't be a problem if he makes an NFL team.

"I've been told you can set up your family for life by the salary from the NFL," he said.

While one door appeared to be closing, another was just starting to open. Mailata's agent, Chris Orr, knew Aden Durde, who had trained German wide receiver Moritz Boehringer in 2016. Boehringer became the first European player without any college experience to be drafted when the Minnesota Vikings took him in the sixth round. Orr's hope was that Durde could get Mailata to a point where the NFL's International Pathway program would take notice of the former rugby star.

That point came last December when Mailata, after training with Durde, worked out for scouts in Los Angeles for a week and showed enough promise to be accepted into the program.

"In that week of the workouts, I was fascinated by the sport. It gained my interest so much ... I was blown away by the athleticism of the players at the position they were trying me out at -- offensive tackle," Mailata said. "Naturally, I just wanted to learn more. Instinctively, I craved that training."

Enough to give up everything he worked for in rugby, move to the other side of the world away from family and friends, and devote himself to a sport that was as foreign to him as he would be to his new surroundings.

"I had to weigh the pros and cons of leaving a sport I had played my whole life for a foreign sport I had never played before," he said. "What kind of helped me make my decision was weighing what I could lose vs. what I could gain. What it came down to was them saying I was too big to play top-tier rugby and, at the same time, International NFL offering me this amazing opportunity. When it came down to it, I just thought, 'I'm only 20 years of age, I'm still young. If the NFL doesn't work out ...' "

The last month has been a whirlwind for Mailata, who has been training with Durde at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Late last month, he participated in a pro day in Tampa for international players, as well as for prospects not invited to the combine. He showed off his athleticism to representatives from all 32 teams, including the general managers for Tampa Bay (Jason Licht) and Minnesota (Rick Spielman, who selected Boehringer in the 2016 draft). He followed that up with visits to eight teams, including the Redskins, Steelers, Eagles, Browns, Chargers, Falcons, Colts and Jets.

He says his visit to Philadelphia was memorable for two reasons: How welcoming the people were that he bumped into at the airport, and how much attention Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland paid to him.

"After the first set of meetings with him doing board and film work, every other meeting I had (with other coaches and front office personnel), he was just in," Mailata said, laughing. "The ever-presence of a man, out of nowhere he would just pop up to see what I was doing."

If Mailata goes undrafted, and unless some team makes him an offer he can't refuse, he will most likely land in the AFC North. As part of the International Pathway program, teams in that division this year are allowed an extra practice squad spot for a foreign-born developmental player. Last year, the first for the program, the NFC South teams were given the extra spot.

Once a player takes the extra spot on the practice squad, he is allowed to train with the team and play in pre-season games, but is not eligible for promotion to the 53-man roster.

And that scenario would be just fine for Mailata, who has a very specific three-year plan:

Year 1: "Learn as much as I can; be that sponge."

Year 2: "Evaluate where I'm at again. If I'm able to play, then play. If not, keep learning."

Year 3: "Play."

Follow Andy Fenelon on Twitter @Andy_Fenelon.

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