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Jordan Mailata is just laughing it off

The rawest of rookies can’t stop giggling in the face of the daunting challenges that await him

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

“Oogo-booga-booga!” says the giant. He has a twinkle in his eye as he wiggles his fingers, looming over the reporters that surround him, each a bit more dumbfounded than the last. Shirtless and gleaming, his muscles ripple across his shoulders and upper arms—he’s somehow sinewy despite his tremendous size.

Jordan Mailata would make a good storybook character, sure—but he’s a walking, talking magical beast in his own right.

Our big friendly giant chuckles through his words as he finishes telling the story of the two offsides penalties he drew against the Steelers: “That’s what Coach Stout [Jeff Stoutland] calls it: ‘Ooga-booga-booga!’ So as soon as I saw him up jump, I was like, ‘Ooga-booga-booga!’” He giggles again—high-pitched and musical—imitating his reaction when an opponent crossed into the neutral zone. “So, in Stout we trust.”

Mailata entertains a crowd of reporters in the Eagles locker room following his first career start for the...well, for any football team. I wish I could say he looked like he belonged out there, but he didn’t: at 6’7 and 346 pounds, he dwarfed every lineman that followed in his wake as he jogged out to the huddle. He stood out even among world-class athletes.

On his first play as an offensive tackle, the human rhinoceros seen ripping men from ground on many a rugby highlight vanishes: Mailata lurches back into his pass set, his upper body piked and his hands lunging at shadows. His target is an undrafted free agent defensive end for the Steelers, Ola Adeniyi, who had 20 more tackles for loss in his final year of college than Mailata has had snaps of American football. Ola slinks by Mailata’s wide frame with nary a break in his stride, popping the ball loose from QB Joe Callahan’s grip before Philadelphia’s receivers even get into their breaks. While players still scrum about for the fumble, Mailata begins walking to the sideline, shaking his head in disbelief and frustration.

The Steelers recover.

It’s July 26th at the NovaCare Complex. The Eagles will practice for the first time of the 2018 season today, and Coach Stout (in whom we trust) clearly would like to get a leg-up on the day. About 20 minutes before practice is scheduled to begin, the offensive linemen are running a drill against dummy linebackers and defensive ends. The guard/tackle pairing must read the defenders’ alignment, following the same chalkboard rules to execute a combination block and clear a path for the running back. It’s a drill of mental processing, tacit communication, and cohesion.

“Those are shitty hands!” Coach Stoutland bellows, huffing and puffing his way to Jordan Mailata. Tasked with a rudimentary down block, the rookie came off the line with a passive stance and outside hands. He wasn’t the only player to do so during the drill—but he was the one Stoutland cared about.

Stout, an offensive line coach as esteemed as any in the league, gets right into Mailata’s frame. The top of his head could tuck in underneath Mailata’s chin; his prominent belly pokes Mailata in the upper thigh. With an audible “Pop!” Stoutland strikes Mailata’s chest plate; Mailata barely budges.

It’s July 27th; it’s July 28th; it’s July 29th. Whenever the third-team offense takes the field, Stoutland paces behind the left side of the line, only stopping before the snap to watch Mailata’s rep. On July 31st, Mailata gets toasted by UDFA DT Bruce Hector from the inside gap, only to come back on the next play and get bulldozed by DE Steven Means. On August 3rd, Means snatches Mailata’s lunch money so badly reporters ask him about the rep later in the locker room—Mailata calls it a “Welcome to America” moment. August 5th, it’s back-to-back losses again to UDFA DE Danny Ezechukwu; and on a 90-degree August 7th, Ezechukwu beats him on a key fourth down play. Mailata slaps himself on the helmet as he jogs back to the sideline. Stoutland, watchful as ever, yells something at him as he goes by.

I’m worried asking Mailata about the rep might stir up some frustration or exhaustion—it does nothing of the sort. Cheerfully munching on Swedish Fish Rita’s, Mailata greets me by name and laughs with me about the rep in question. “Man, I was soooo pissed.” He giggles, his Australian drawl dripping off the long ‘o’. “Had been doing pretty good before that, too. But Stout let me know, right away. When I get it bad”—he’s already begun laughing again—“he makes sure I know!”

Mailata describes his relationship with Stoutland as “hate and love”—not love and hate—because “I think he hates me and then he loves me and then I hate him and then I love him.” He chuckles again, grinning to himself. “But nah, you can’t go wrong with the bloke. He’s honestly one of the best coaches I’ve ever had.”

Less than a week later, he’ll play in his first preseason game, give up a strip sack on his first ever snap, and tell me after the game that Stoutland is definitively the best coach he’s ever had. What changed since the last time we spoke? “Everything he tells me is encouragement. He’s trying to improve us every day, with the yelling and all of it. There’s a method to the madness.”

I tell him on his first day of practice, I heard Stout call his hands shitty. “Well, guess what.” He leans down closer to me, as if sharing a secret. “They are!” He shakes with laughter, slapping me on the shoulder in his mirth. Unlike he did on that day, I certainly budged.

After enough exposure to something, you become impervious to the effects — at least, that’s what we’re lead to believe, when we see Jack Bauer and James Bond withstand terrible torture; or those nutcases who jump into the Arctic Ocean with no clothes on. A long road, walked always with a step back for every two steps forward, inevitably awaits Jordan Mailata—and quickly, the young man has learned to let mistakes roll off his back. He calls it the “next play mentality,” and credits the veterans on the team for teaching him—but that’s a tired tale. Every rookie will tell it at some point in their career: the QBs with the “short memories,” the CBs who “stay aggressive,” the WRs working the JUGS machines. Few actually embody such resiliency; but then again, few need as thick of skin as Mailata.

Mailata is joshing around with Darrell Greene as I approach him after the Steelers game. I ask him how his first preseason game went.

“It was everything that I dreamt of.”

So what did you dream of?

“Giving up the sack.” His laughter ricochets through the locker room, turning the heads of reporters and players alike. Mailata remarks that everybody—veterans, Stoutland, other rookies—was waiting for him on the sideline after the play. “It was really nice having their support, especially after, you know—” he smiles “—fucking it up, pardon my language. But yeah, that’s pretty much what happened. I owned my mistake, and I’ve learned from it.”

Mailata refuses to admit that he has any moments of negativity, and you can’t help but believe him, because he doesn’t say it defensively, as if you’ve accused him of failing a standard set for professional football players. That never-say-die attitude is ingrained in young athletes as they rise through the ranks of high school and college ball: you’re happy to be here, you have faith in the process, you know things will work out. Mailata’s positivity strikes a more genuine and vibrant chord, in that he is unassailably happy to be here, stumbling and bumbling through the throng of newness. He’s like a baby elephant: one day he will be majestic, imposing, strong—but for now he can’t stop tripping over his own feet, cheerily trumpeting away with his newly discovered trunk.

You see it when he grabs the guitar resting against his locker to play a little ditty for the cameras that swarm him: the attention makes him feel special, and he enjoys making us smile. His characterization of football knowledge as “peanuts” has now become an inside joke, a familiar trope: he’s asked frequently how many peanuts he has since acquired and placed in his bag. He plays up his ignorance as an Aussie in America. Everything is exciting and fun.

He rips off a huge chunk of dead skin from the ball of his foot—a blister he hadn’t felt under the suffocating cleats and socks and tape. With pride he flips his foot so I can see, right in the sweet spot between repelled and enraptured by the angry red flesh he just ripped open. Still brandishing the dead skin, about the size of a credit card, he hobbles on his arches over to every Eagle left in the locker room to show them his wound—and I’m reminded that our baby elephant turned 21 just a month ago. The biggest player on the roster, the most verbally berated player on the roster, is also the youngest.

I tell Jordan that, as a runner, I get blisters like that all the time. He looks up at me, aghast. “Eww!”

It’s August 11th at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles just wrapped up one of their final practices with media availability, and the second of two practices for fans at the stadium. Mailata had a decent day: he battled with Josh Sweat and Steven Means for the most part of the practice, and seemed to win as many reps as he lost.

Despite the fact that you can’t miss him, few recognize him. Players are called out by name as they make their way to the tunnel—but none of the fans yell out for Jordan. He’s happy to bounce from reporter to camera alike as the higher-profile Eagles hang out with their families or walk along the rope line, signing hats and jerseys and footballs.

I’ve decided today that I’ll figure out what exactly makes Mailata suited for the arduous task he so gladly accepted. I ask him if rugby taught him a lot about hard-nosed work—he says it has, but admits that his natural gifts helped him more on the pitch than they did for most. I wonder if he visualizes being a starting tackle in the NFL, having it all pieced together, helping other young rookies—he tells me he doesn’t think or dream about anything. Anything? It’s too soon yet. He wants to “get to the top every day” and just see how that goes. Can’t get his head too far into the future.

Unlike Jordan, I give up. “What is it about you that makes you so resilient?” I ask him. We’ve talked a lot by now, and I know his style, so I expect him to laugh—he doesn’t. He looks down at me quizzically.

“Resilient? What do you mean?”

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