If Matt Leo ever becomes a star player for the Eagles, you can thank Matt Saracen and Tim Riggins.
OK, maybe Minka Kelly too.
Leo, who was assigned to the Eagles through the International Player Pathway Program earlier this week, grew up in Adelaide, a city on Australia’s southern coast. His only real connection to American football came through movies and television shows; none stuck out in his mind more than the NBC series Friday Night Lights.
“Watching that was almost like that thought of wishing you had grown up in high school in America, go through college in America,” Leo said on a Zoom call this week. “Having that opportunity where I actually got to attend a university, it felt like I was living out that dream.”
There’s no other way to put this: The odds are stacked against Leo.
Sure, he’s a 6-foot-7, 275 pound defensive tackle who looks the part. But Leo, who grew up playing rugby, didn’t start playing football until 2015 at JUCO program Arizona Western. After two years there, he went to Iowa State and ended up playing in 29 total games before graduating. Now, he’s a soon-to-be 28-year-old rookie, with a lot to prove.
Coming to the Eagles as a member of the IPP, the same program that produced Jordan Mailata before the Eagles drafted him, Leo is a roster exempt player. That means he can be the 91st player on the roster now and the Eagles will have the option of keeping him on their practice squad for the entirety of the 2020 season without him counting toward the 12-man limit.
To expect a rookie in his late 20s and with a minimal football background to make it in the NFL would be pretty wild.
But Leo has already made it a lot further than many probably expected.
Back in Adelaide in early 2013, Leo was working toward becoming a plumber, learning a worthwhile and stable trade, when he watched some of Super Bowl XLVII between the Ravens and 49ers on his lunch break.
I can remember clearly sitting there,” Leo said, “eating my lunch and watching it and thinking, ‘if only I had grown up in the US, I would have loved to have had the opportunity to play such an iconic sport.’
“You watch it and you see these incredible athletes play. It’s almost like a movie scene.
From there, Leo’s life has taken on a movie-like script of its own.
A couple years later, Leo reached his breaking point in the world of plumbing. He was working on a bridge project to connect the sporting venue Adelaide Oval to a convention center and was contorting his 6-foot-7 frame into a small passageway on a 110-degree day, when he had a revelation that he told to his tradesman Matt Hoare: “I’m to big for this.”
Leo told him that he wanted to get back to playing sports and Hoare told him about an Aussie who was going to the United States on a partial scholarship to be a college punter. From there, a dream was born and eventually, Leo was on his way to America to start his football journey.
While Leo played minimally at Iowa State in 2017 before getting a medical redshirt, he played in 26 games over the last two seasons as a defensive end. He had 33 tackles, 11.5 TFLs and 3 sacks in those two years.
The NFC East was chosen this year to take on the four IPP players and Leo ended up with the Eagles. The Birds will carry Leo as a roster exempt player through training camp but will have a choice to make in September. They can put him on the 53-man roster, the practice squad or use the IPP exemption practice squad spot; if they do the last one, they can’t call him up during the 2020 season.
At least in Philadelphia, Leo already has a built-in support base with fellow Australians Jordan Mailata and Cameron Johnston, both of whom have reached out to Leo already. Mailata FaceTimed him shortly after the news spread on Twitter.
This next step in his journey won’t be easy. But neither was going from a plumber with a rugby background to JUCO to Division I. Throughout the entire journey, it’s his love for a foreign, yet familiar, game that has been his driving force.
This is an unusual offseason, obviously, and Leo is still back in Ames, Iowa. But when he gets to Philly, he can talk to his new quarterback about a mutual interest. Carson Wentz’s favorite TV show? Friday Night Lights.
Seeing football on a screen is what started it all for Leo.
“It was that incredible brotherhood you see in movies,” Leo said. “It was that whole energy that football brings. The physicality was something that stood out to me. I didn’t know exactly when growing up what position would be suitable for me, but you watch these positions like linebackers, D-ends, D-tackles that hit and tight ends that catch incredible one-handed balls and score in movies and on TV growing up. And you think to yourself, ‘what an incredible sport to be a part of.’”
Despite all odds, Leo isn’t just a part of the sport he loves. He’s made it to the highest level in the world.
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