Maybe this all started in 1944 when the Eagles signed offensive lineman Duke Maronic, a 5-foot-9, 209-pound guard who played through the 1950 season as a member of two NFL Championship teams. Maronic didn't play football in college and the Eagles found him at a tryout, so the foray into the "non-traditional" path to the NFL – during the World War II years when the player pool was thinned for obvious reasons.
Last week's signing of wide receiver Devon Allen continued the Eagles' path of keeping open those non-traditional avenues to a roster spot. Allen, a one-time four-star recruit from high school who signed on at Oregon, shelved his football dreams for four years to pursue – and attain – status as a world-class track and field star in the 110-meter hurdles. He rekindled those dreams and put himself to work for the last couple of months and when he impressed at Oregon's Pro Day a couple of weeks ago, the Eagles stepped up to give him a chance.
Now he's on an NFL roster, and the really hard work begins. That's a story for another day, and one that will be interesting to watch once the players get on the field, but for now the story is how the Eagles kept their minds open, trusted what Allen showed them during the workout, and had the gumption to give him a shot. What he does with that opportunity, we shall see.
The list of Eagles through the years taking alternative routes to Philadelphia includes some names you recognize (Vince Papale, Sav Rocca, Matt Leo, Jordan Mailata) and some you may not recall making their way through (Jeremy Bloom, the former Olympic skier who was drafted by the Eagles in 2006; Josh Parry, the linebacker-turned-fullback; or Alejandro Villanueva, the Army Ranger who served three tours of duty). I've rummaged through the franchise's all-time list of players three times to see if I've forgotten anyone signed in an out-of-the-box way and made it here. I've asked people who have been around the team for decades, so apologies if I've missed some names.
Long gone are the days when players only take the big-college route to the league. If you have talent, they say, the NFL will find you. That was the case, apparently, with Maronic in 1944. It was certainly the case with Papale in 1976 when he attended an Eagles tryout camp and was so good that new Head Coach Dick Vermeil invited him for a longer look. And then another one. And more, this time in Training Camp.
"I just kept playing," Papale said about a career that ended up lasting three seasons in Philadelphia and for immortality in the movie "Invincible." "It was what I loved to do so every day I showed up with a smile on my face – even though I was in pain many of those days – and played as hard as I could play."
Rocca was a star in Australia playing Australian Rules Football – a superstar, actually – before injuries piled up and he looked for another career. Rocca decided to join the pipeline that had been established to the NFL for Australian Rules Football players and found some interest from the league. He traveled from Australia to Philadelphia – a trip that, in total, lasted 43 real-time hours, and then tried out for the Eagles late in 2006, signed a "futures" contract and then unseated Dirk Johnson for the punting job in 2007. Rocca punted and held on PATs for the Eagles through the 2010 season before finishing his career with Washington.
"I was looking for the next phase in my life," he said back in 2007, following in the footsteps of Aussies Darren Bennett and Ben Graham. "I knew I had a strong leg and that I could still kick the ball a long way. I knew that could translate into the NFL. I know punting is just a small part of the American game, but if I can do it well, I think there will be a place for me over here."
Mailata's journey is more recent and has been thoroughly documented. He is a rare Australian to make it in the NFL as a position player and we're just now seeing a player about to reach his peak seasons. A rugby player in Australia, Mailata tried out for and was granted admission to the league's International Pathway Program, which then allowed him to train at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. By then, Mailata's freakish athletic skills at 6-feet-8 and 350-odd pounds attracted the attention of the NFL – particularly the Eagles, who traded up to select him in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
His story continues to develop as one to admire in every way and Mailata serves as a shining example of the idea that "if you have talent, the NFL will find you."
In a matter of two-and-a-half weeks, the NFL will hold its 2022 NFL Draft and we will hear the stories of young men realizing their dreams. Some of those stories will have twists and turns and every name called deserves to be congratulated and applauded. But then there are others who will find their way to the league taking a different path. What matters is what the player does with his opportunity.
"Once I got here," Mailata said last season, "I understood that I had to earn everything given to me. I had to get used to the physical nature of the game and the stress of that every day. I had to learn the game, which I knew almost nothing about when I arrived in Philadelphia.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to have been in the (IPP) program and to have people believe in me. It's taken a lot of hard work. I've stayed true to the process of getting a little bit better every day, and that's how I'm always going to be."
Now, it's Allen's turn to take an opportunity and do what he's done almost as well as anyone in the world these last several years – run as fast and as confidently as he can, staying tuned into the nuances of the game and improving every day. Whether he makes it or not, we know this: the Eagles have a long history of uncovering talent, something they are committed to doing any way they can.