“I have five more minutes on my way from Iowa to Florida. I made it into the Mustang GT and traveled this 21 hours, so my body doesn’t like it right now.”
That first sentence Matt Leo said in a call back in January telling you everything you need to know about the persistence of South Australia on its journey to the NFL.
Leo has just been invited to be part of the 2020 International Player Pathway Program, after three years at Iowa State and two years earlier with a West Arizona junior college.
On the basis of a temporary car exchange with a friend, he replaced the snow-tested Nissan Ultima for the more Florida-friendly Mustang and made a single expedition of 3000 km to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Flash advanced three months and the program has now put a 6’6 defensive end, “270 pounds (122kg) with Philadelphia Eagles, and GT traveled back north using an odometer.
“He had some chips in the front hat. He surprisingly killed the journey on the way back … he was a bit more full than heading down,” Leo told ESPN.
“When everything is closed at IMG (because of the COVID-19 pandemic), I will return to Australia or return to Iowa, but I know everything will be locked up no matter what happens. I make it back to two days.”
Driving long distances along American highways does not bring an ounce of frustration to 28-year-old Adelaide natives, whose desire to jump into American football starts with a glimpse of the XLVII Super Bowl during ‘smoko’ (‘smoking break’ in Australian tradie language ) when he was an apprentice plumber. That, and watch the Friday Night Lights series.
“Watch [Friday Night Lights] is an extraordinary thing to me. “It’s almost like wanting to grow in America, going to high school and college there,” he said.
“Physicality is something that shines for me. I don’t know what position is right for me, but you think to yourself, ‘how wonderful sport to be a part of.’ That is something that is lacking in Australia … so have the opportunity where I really can study here like living that dream. “
The word ‘dream’ is definitely not new for athletes who switch codes, but for Leo it is more than just a disposal line. There is no college scholarship on the table for him in 2015, and thousands of dollars in junior tuition are waiting at the other end of hopeful flights to the US.
“I managed to save and sell my car. I had a little savings in the bank to enable me for my first year in junior college. After that I was lucky enough to get a scholarship,” Leo said.
“That is something I have never done before, making big jumps like I have never played sports. I know because it is a dream, I am willing to take the opportunity for anything and believe that I will give everything, and if that does not work then I am clear can lift my head up high. “
With a sports background that includes three main ‘footy’ codes in Australia – the rugby league, rugby union and Aussie rules – the physical he glimpsed on TV will never be a problem, and that is precisely the nature that stands before the coaching staff in Iowa State after two years at the junior college (JUCO) level.
“My coach likes to see my physique, my hands, just shocking and pouring out, putting my feet on people and trying to move furniture,” he said.
“I just really worked to gain trust in the whole building, until they could count on me at that crucial moment. That was something that didn’t come overnight or in a semester, gradually getting that opportunity to step on the field. I know that I can’t waste it. “
From his senior season as part of the rotation of the defense line for the Hurricane directly to the International Players Path, Leo arrived with a deeper football background than most of his class, as well as two Australians who had previously come through the program: Jordan Mailata and Valentine Holmes.
“I really feel more polished in some areas. Playing in the Division 1 school at the Power 5 conference is definitely an advantage,” he said.
“The time I spent there, even though it was cut short (by the COVID-19 pandemic), was amazing. The relationship I built with eight other people was something I appreciated. I used this program to proudly enter into the next phase.”
Despite promising figures on an accelerated Pro Day COVID-19 – 26 reps on the press bench, 9’10 “in a broad leap – and five years of seasoning in the college system, the prospect of an old international did not hear its name during the NFL Draft.
But with NFC East randomly selected to take on international players and freeing the list for the 2020 class, Leo landed on a franchise that was familiar with Australia. The Eagles are now home to an audience Cameron Johnston and Pathway product fellow Mailata, who first reached out after news broke that Leo’s next stop was Philadelphia.
“Jordan has made contact with all this – once my name was allocated in January he hit me. And once the Eagles released it on Twitter, he was the first person to face me and go crazy,” he said.
Returning from a back injury that stopped his 2019 season, Mailata will operate on the other side of the conspiracy line with his compatriot, but the prospect of fighting at the camp, whenever it starts, excites the former Cyclone.
“He said he couldn’t wait to start working with me so I’m excited, we’ll work hard. Iron sharpens iron and you know we will help each other the best way,” Leo said of Mailata.
“I can’t wait to go out with the kids. Cameron also hit me, so knowing that there were two other Australians in Philly on the team felt I was going home.
“I feel this is my perfect match. To go to Philly with a blue collared team and be eager to reach a very difficult level, it feels like I’m back with Port Adelaide Power, [AFL] the team returned home. “
Becoming an older rookie is not the easiest path, but Leo sees 38-year-old Cameron Wake as a model for unorthodox and unplanned routes to achieve NFL success. Wake up counted 39 sacks for two seasons in the CFL before breaking through Miami Dolphins, rising as one of the game’s best bait hunters after entering the league at the age of 27.
“He is the inspiration for me to take this leap to American football. He is just the true definition of perseverance and perseverance in what he does. He is a player who passed his details and he perfected his skills, which gave him the ability to play this” He is just an animal absolute savage, “said Leo.
“I came to this sport behind everyone, next to people who have been playing since they were six years old. So that is a constant feeling about ‘I know I’m behind ball eight, and I have to consistently grind to get up to speed ‘. “
But with the family who has been with him every step of the way, listening to TV or radio, and memory crawling into the cramped space below the house, looking back to the days of his plumbing contractor in Adelaide and saying “I’m too big for this”, Leo wants to ensure a late arrival to football does not mean going out early.
“I have fallen in love with this game that much, I am investing fully. Whatever the outcome I will definitely exhaust all my steps giving this opportunity a go,” he said.
“There is no other choice.”
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