He likened it to being blindfolded, chasing a dream career in a sport that may as well have been a foreign language.
It is what makes Mailata’s rapid rise – a self-described “Hollywood movie” – all the more remarkable.
Earlier this month he was sharing the field with Tom Brady, who at 44 years old, is still breaking records and still redefining the quarterback age curve.
Mailata is doing some redefining of his own, shedding the rugby league identity of his past and forging a new one.
“I just want to be seen as a football player and not the boy from the Bankstown Bulls,” he said back in September.
That is not to say that Mailata won’t hold his roots close to him though.
“It was just an identity thing for me,” he explained.
“I know deep down inside that I’ll never forget my rugby league life.”
You see, long before he was facing the greatest quarterback of all time or signing a $64 million ($A86m) extension with the Philadelphia Eagles, Mailata was making a rise in rugby league circles.
There was a big difference though.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HUMAN ‘WRECKING BALL’
In the early stages of his league days few rival players knew Mailata’s name, so they gave him one.
“Everyone knew we had the 6-foot-8 giant on our team… that’s what they referred to him as because no one knew him back then,” Jamie Eid, Mailata’s coach at Five Dock RSL, told foxsports.com.au.
“Everyone just knew he was the player you had to put bodies on to try get him down.”
Easier said than done, of course.
“He was a wrecking ball… just carrying people when he ran,” Eid added.
Carrying people from when his rugby league journey first began at the Bankstown Bulls in the Under 13s.
Daniel Petralia remembers first meeting Mailata when the pair were teammates at the Bulls and the reaction was everything you would expect.
“When I first saw him, I was like: ‘F*** bro, this guy’s huge’… like he looked scary,” he told foxsports.com.au.
“I was mates with guys from the other teams. They were just wondering: ‘Is he playing this week… if he’s not playing, we might have a shot’.
“The word was feared, he was feared. People were terrified to go up against him.”
Some did try but quickly came to regret it.
“I remember there was this one game, we would’ve been 15,” Petralia said.
“We were coming first and hadn’t lost a game. We were playing the team that was coming dead last, hadn’t won a game all year.”
Within 40 minutes it looked like that was all about to change.
“We came out and they were giving it to us,” he said.
“Jordan took the first hit-up and he got absolutely cleaned up. Someone chopped him around the legs. He went airborne. That obviously gave the opposition a massive confidence boost.
“We went into halftime losing 12-0, went into the change room and the coach gave us a massive spray.”
It was then that Mailata came to life, carrying the Bulls to victory while literally carrying opposition players on his back.
“We came out that next half and won on the back of Jordan’s monster runs,” he said.
“That game in particular, we came out in that second half and he just destroyed.”
But he was and still is so much more than just that hulking, 143-kilogram frame on the screen.
“When you get to know him, he is one of the most humble blokes I’ve ever met,” Petralia said.
“A real nice guy, genuine. He’s really well-spoken too. What you see is one thing.”
What you don’t see is a completely different side to him, one Eid had rarely seen before in his coaching career that is at the core of Mailata’s improbable rise.
Made even more improbable by the events of one day in 2014.
FROM THE OPERATING TABLE TO A ‘BREAKOUT SEASON’
Mailata’s final season with Bankstown had come and gone.
Now, having been selected in the Bulldogs SG Ball squad, the then-17 year old was deep into the pre-season and nearing his first game.
A game he would never end up playing.
Former Bulls teammate Petralia had also been picked for the Bulldogs squad.
He remembers that session, remembers watching Mailata collapse, once, twice.
“I don’t know how many times,” he said.
“To the point they just said: ‘This is not normal’... they sent him straight to the hospital.”
In the year after his first surgery, Mailata underwent two separate heart ablations on the upper and lower chambers of his heart.
“It was quite scary when we first found out that it was his heart,” Mailata’s best friend Oshan Petelo Iosefo told foxsports.com.au.
“We didn’t know what to expect. It was quite sudden.”
Best friend probably doesn’t do justice to just how close the two are.
“We consider ourselves family,” Iosefo said.
“I call his parents mum and dad; he calls my parents mum and dad. It’s just the mutual respect we both have and especially him.”
Iosefo first moved to Bankstown from New Zealand in 2006, living just five minutes away from the Mailata’s three-bedroom home.
They went to the same local school too – Bankstown public – and ended up in the same classroom, but that only lasted a few days.
“I was moved down a grade because in New Zealand they don’t have kindergarten,” he said.
The pair only had to wait until high school at Condell Park to be reunited and their “bond has been tight ever since”.
Iosefo, a second rower, also played with Mailata at the Bulls for five years, finishing undefeated minor premiers in the Under 14s.
He witnessed Mailata’s domination first hand along with the other, less pleasant side that came with it.
“When we were younger, he would cop abuse from the sidelines,” Iosefo said.
“Just from the parents, always asking for his birth certificate. That is something we’d hear a lot when he was younger playing for the Bulls.”
So, as he got older and the competition tougher, Mailata found different ways to dominate.
“He just adapted in other ways to use his size and strength to his advantage,” former Bulls teammate Petralia said.
“He was a pretty quick boy for his size too.”
But when Mailata was rushed in for emergency heart surgery and later made to have two other operations, he was not allowed to train.
The menacing talk of rugby league circles had fallen off the radar, through no fault of his own.
“A couple of years before he played with me at Five Dock he was on an operating table,” Eid said.
“Never to possibly play football again.”
The stint playing A-grade for Five Dock changed everything.
“That’s what put him back on the map after he stopped footy because of the heart problem,” Iosefo said.
“That was his breakout season.”
‘IMPOSSIBLE’ DEMAND PUTS MAILATA ON IMPROBABLE PATH
It was 2016 and with his emergency surgeries in the past, Mailata was eyeing a return to the field.
Eid, who was coach of the Five Dock A-grade side, knew Mailata from his time at the Bulldogs.
So, when Mailata came down to training one day, he knew exactly what kind of player he was getting.
Again, forget that hulking, 143-kilogram frame – Mailata’s value to a team went far beyond his pure size and strength.
“I knew instantly when he came down, he could help gel the team,” Eid said.
“He’s got that very large personality. He’s very bright, open and helps people out so I knew having him in there would gel the group and bring them together.”
Petralia and his Bulls teammates knew that all too well, it’s why they begged Mailata to suit up for a semi-final after he had recovered from the health scare.
It’s why they even banded money together to get him a pair of boots to run out with them.
“Everyone was so close, especially with big Jordan,” he said.
“He was like the glue to everything.”
The Balmain A-grade side was similar, with no real need for much coaching from Eid.
“It was just people management,” he said.
“He [Mailata] was just up there with the rest of them as well, he just had that natural football playing ability.”
Even a few years out of the game could not stop Mailata, who went on to be crowned A-grade player of the year at the 2016 Balmain District Junior Rugby League awards night.
Three NRL clubs – the Rabbitohs, Tigers and Eels – were circling.
“For a 20s contract he wasn’t getting much, just train-and-trial contracts,” Eid said.
“Souths came to the party and offered something more to him which was great.”
There would be no NRL career at the Bunnies though, with Mailata knocking back a one-year, $5,000 deal in 2017.
“There were a lot of second grade contracts from different clubs. I just wanted a full-time contract to develop myself,” Mailata said at the time.
“They wanted me to lose about 15 more kilos. It was impossible. I was at 10 per cent body fat. Fifteen kilos was not ideal or healthy.”
Instead, he backed himself and his NFL dream.
Having never played football let alone laid his eyes on a playbook before, that dream first found its feet in a three minute tape.
Those three minutes of highlights from his stint at the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs were sent by his agent to the NFL.
It was enough to have league executives captivated and earned him an invite to trial at a combine for international athletes in Los Angeles.
Weighing 157 kilograms at the time, Mailata was timed at 5.12 seconds in the 40-yard dash while also impressing in the short shuttle with a time of 4.67 seconds.
That was back then.
Now, when the NFL advertises its international combine, it is often sold on the potential of being the ‘next Jordan Mailata’.
That is only the start of the legacy Mailata is leaving behind.
THE LASTING LEGACY OF MAILATA’S JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN
Eid knew all along that Mailata was destined to make something of himself and one moment during his time at Five Dock proved it.
“It would’ve been a game at Birchgrove Oval,” Eid said.
“I can’t remember who we played but he literally caught the ball, ran 100 metres to score and carried five players on his back. That’s where it was like – this kid is going to do something with his life.”
Did he ever suspect that ‘something’ would be forging a path not just to the NFL but to one of its toughest positions as starting left tackle?
“Never,” Eid laughed.
Buoyed by Mailata’s rapid rise, he decided it was time to chase his own dreams.
“Once Jordan got drafted, I decided to play a few seasons of gridiron,” Eid said.
“For me, him doing that, as much as I loved the sport, it kind of made me go: ‘You know what, I might have a crack’ and ended up playing locally for the UTS Gators in Sydney.
“It made me chase want I want to do. I’ve always put people in front of myself. Watching him doing this made me chase what I want to chase, which is why I’m opening a café now.”
Nothing came easy for Mailata, who at his first practice tried to drink through the grill of his helmet, not sure how to get it off.
The first of many learning experiences in a journey into the unknown.
“He’s put in so much effort considering he knew nothing about the sport,” best mate Iosefo said.
“He’d never put a helmet on before. The progress he’s made. It’s been slow progress but steady progress. He keeps developing his game.
“He’s just a sponge, he soaks it all in, what he can take in from the coaches and everyone. He has such a positive mindset, willing to learn more to develop his game.
“His family too back here have been supporting him immensely, they’re so proud.”
The fourth child of five, Mailata was born to parents of Samoan descent – Tupai and Pereseti.
Mailata didn’t have much but what he did have was parents that cared.
A father who had two jobs and mother who worked 12-hour days, all to provide for the family.
That sacrifice stayed with him, even on the other side of the world in Philadelphia.
Even now, when Mailata has so much after signing the richest NFL contract ever earned by an Australian, he has never lost sight of who he is or where he comes from.
“That [humility] comes from his upbringing and parents and especially his older sister,” Iosefo said.
“She played a big part of raising him. She taught him a lot, he took that on board and took all his life lessons from his parents over in the States.
“When he first moved over, he definitely struggled being homesick and away from family.
“But he persevered... not wanting to let his family down and wanting to do his parents proud, knowing he did leave everyone behind to chase a dream.”
A dream that is now a reality and proved there are no limits to how far this boy from Bankstown could go.
“It’s a lot of motivation for anyone else,” Petralia said.
“Especially kids coming from that area, that no dream is too big and you can achieve anything you can set your mind to.”
Story first published on Fox Sports Australia