The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter based in Melbourne.
At least one, and possibly two, Australians will take the field in Arizona for the Super Bowl on Sunday night, before a television audience of hundreds of millions of people. With the game starting at 10:30 a.m. Monday Sydney time, relatively few Australians will be watching.
Neither Arryn Siposs, the punter for the Philadelphia Eagles, nor his teammate Jordan Mailata, an offensive lineman, comes from an American football background. And, despite Australia’s sports-loving reputation, neither is exactly a household name at home.
In Australia, Siposs is remembered mostly as a former player for the St. Kilda Football Cub, the Australian rules football club nicknamed the Saints. In 2015, at age 22, he was cut after successive injuries caused him to miss months at a time. (Yet another injury may prevent him from playing on Sunday night.)
Mailata, a bear of a man with an astoundingly beautiful singing voice, comes from a rugby league background.
In 2017, he rejected a contract worth 5,000 Australian dollars (about $3,500) from a rugby league feeder team while he was working as a scaffolder to pay the bills. After being drafted in the seventh round in the 2018 N.F.L. draft, he played in his first game in 2020. In 2021 he signed a four-year, $64 million contract.
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Before the draft, he scored a spot at the N.F.L.’s International Player Pathway program, a 12-week training camp for foreign athletes who mostly have not played American football. He had never so much as worn a helmet before, he told the reporter Michael Sokolove for a profile in The New York Times magazine in 2019.
American football, unlike basketball, baseball, soccer and hockey, typically does not draw from an overseas talent pool. Training potential players from scratch, as the International Player Pathway program tries to do, is a daunting proposition.
Most of the Australians who have played in the N.F.L. were punters. Many found their way there through ProKick Australia, a punting academy run by the former N.F.L. punter Nathan Chapman that works to get promising Australian athletes opportunities in American football. About 190 of them have received full scholarships to American colleges, according to the company.
The academy first approached Siposs when he was 17, he wrote in a blog post in 2018. Not knowing the rules and having scarcely watched the sport, he recalled, “I put the letter to one side and didn’t give it another thought.”
He knew of other Australian punters who had made the transition, but saw it as a distraction from the real prize: playing in the A.F.L. at home. “I thought it was just a way they could stay in professional sport,” he writes. “When you’ve got a big leg, why not go over there for a few years if you can?”
Later, facing difficulties with getting his own A.F.L. career off the ground, he decided to give American football another go, eventually winning a scholarship through ProKick Australia to Auburn University.
“As long as I could remember I’d always kicked the footy, whether just to myself outside or mucking around with my little brother with a small footy inside the house, causing a ruckus,” he writes. And while the technique (and the ball) differs between the two sports, he says, “I guess kicking has always been my No. 1 skill.”
Mailata — who is 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 365 pounds — knew he would have to find an alternative to rugby league when his coaches began applying pressure on him to lose weight.
“I was down to 310, and they wanted me to lose 30 more pounds. I already had hardly any body fat, so it was an option where I’d either have to starve myself or chop off a leg,” he told The Times. “I talked to my agency, and they said, ‘Why don’t you play a sport that appreciates your size?’”
Here are the week’s stories.
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