Monday marked a first for the Eagles on the transaction wire.
The Eagles acquired defensive end Matt Leo as part of the NFL's International Player Pathway Program, the same one that developed tackle Jordan Mailata before the Eagles drafted him in 2018. The team receives a roster exemption for Leo through the cutdown to 53 players on September 5. At that point, the Eagles can place Leo on the active roster, the practice squad, or place an International Practice Squad exemption on him. If the Eagles choose the International Practice Squad exemption, he will remain there for the entire 2020 season and cannot be activated to the 53-player roster.
The 6-7, 275-pound Leo spent the past three years at Iowa State. After receiving a medical redshirt in 2017, Leo posted 33 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks over the last two seasons. A first-team Academic All-Big 12 selection, the Adelaide, Australia native earned a 4.0 GPA in his final semester to complete his bachelor's degree in liberal studies.
"Words can never describe the feeling," Leo said Monday afternoon, shortly after being welcomed to the team by Howie Roseman. "Honestly, the feeling that comes to mind is tears. I could never thank the people enough that helped me get here as well. I was just one person that was willing to persevere and chase for this dream. Never wanted to accept, 'no' or, 'not good enough.'"
Toward the end of the 2019 season, Leo was one of nine players selected by the league to be a part of the program, which began in 2017. After the draft on Saturday evening, four of the players – one of them being Leo – were selected and on Monday were assigned to teams within a division. This is the first year for the NFC East to receive the International Player Pathway Program exemption. Mailata, who knows Leo and spoke to him over the weekend, doesn't count because the Eagles drafted him.
The nine prospects trained at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The players underwent 12-hour days that included workouts and film study for seven weeks until the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation. Their Pro Day was moved up a week to March 17, and even then, it was only filmed by IMG staff and distributed to teams. Leo ran the 40-yard dash in 4.78 seconds, leaped 118 inches in the broad jump, and knocked out 26 reps in the bench press – all respectable marks when compared to the defensive line results at this year's NFL Scouting Combine. The players were forced abruptly to either return to their home countries or find other places to train.
Leo decided to head back to Ames, Iowa. Fortunately, his former teammate, offensive lineman Noah Juergensen, has a girlfriend, Mackenzie Dennhardt, who has a family farm with a weight room in a barn located in the town of Ripper, about an hour from the Iowa State campus. Leo drives out there five days a week. He's never met Dennhardt's family. Her father waves when he sees him from a distance.
The 27-year-old Leo is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. The fact that he's on an NFL roster is a story that seems too good even for Hollywood. And this is the team that Vince Papale played for before Mark Wahlberg immortalized his life story in Invincible.
"It honestly feels like I've lived two lives," Leo said.
Born and raised in Adelaide, Leo played rugby for a club team and Australian Rules Football in high school, much like Eagles punter Cameron Johnston, who hails from Geelong, Australia. When he graduated high school, Leo's father, Michael, pushed him to get a job in the trades. Tradespeople are in demand because of the booming construction industry.
Leo decided to become a certified plumber. He woke up every morning at 3:30 to train before going to work as an apprentice for Hindmarsh Plumbing on large commercial construction sites where jobs lasted between six months and a year. In February 2013, Leo was at lunch watching Super Bowl XLVII between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers when he sighed about his status in life. He wished he grew up in the United States where he could be a part of the football culture. He dreamed of running out of the tunnel and playing on the game's biggest stage. Leo was 20 years old at the time. He never played a snap of football. Well, American football, at least. And, yet, he dreamed of making it to the big time.
Nearly two years later, Leo finally reached his breaking point. He was on a job site, crawling on his knees to install a drainage run-off for a bridge for when it rains. He was contorting his 6-7 frame when he didn't see a bracket above him and hit his head on it. It was 110 degrees and humid outside, but nothing compared to the fire that roared inside of Leo.
"'Man, I shouldn't be doing this. I love sports, man. I shouldn't be doing this. I want to go back to sports," he yelled to his partner, Matthew Hoare.
Hoare heard of an Australian who earned a partial scholarship to a Division II school as a punter. Leo thought to himself that he could kick a ball a mile. Could that be the route? Imagine a 6-7, 275-pound punter. Hoare did some investigative work on social media and tracked down the player who then referred him to a trainer in Sydney who had some college contacts, Paul Manera.
Leo blew up Manera's phone for a workout. Manera relented and met with Leo. Manera told Leo how difficult the road would be for him. Leo wasn't having any of it. Leo left the plumbing job six months shy of completing his apprenticeship. His company said that a job would be waiting if he ever returned. Leo worked for a close friend at a nutritional supplement shop while he studied for the SAT exam and trained for any potential opportunities. In August 2015, about eight months after leaving the plumbing tools behind, Leo emailed Tom Minnick, the head coach at Arizona Western Community College in Yuma, with a workout tape begging for an opportunity.
The response? Practice starts next week.
In three days, Leo packed up his belongings, said goodbye to friends and family, and flew to Arizona. The flight landed in Yuma at midnight. The airport was closed, so there was no one to assist Leo. He didn't have a U.S. cell phone number. It was his first time setting foot in America. He looked out at the parking lot and noticed the cars driving on "the wrong side of the road." The weather was hot and humid, the opposite of what Leo left in Australia.
"I'm not going to lie, I'm homesick right now," Leo said recalling that moment, "but my goal and my dream was never going to let me doubt why I was there. It was always that passion for me wanting to chase something and fulfill something that was a dream of mine. Being homesick was not going to get in the way."
He hailed a cab and got to the campus at around 1:30 in the morning. He
settled in his dorm room and slept for about four hours before it was time for weight training ahead of the first day of practice. He went out on the field as a 23-year-old who never played a lick going up against players who went to Power 5 conferences, but fell through the cracks and were in search of a second chance. The coaching staff debated between putting Leo at tight end and defensive line. The coaches tried defensive line first. On the first snap, he blew the assignment, but got in the backfield and sacked the quarterback.
The coaches nodded in approval. Leo was going to stay on defense.
He played special teams in his first season. In 2016, Leo was a starter at defensive end for a unit that ranked No. 2 in the country in yards and points allowed in the JUCO ranks. Arizona Western won its first 11 games before dropping a heartbreaker in the National Championship Game.
Leo succeeded in his quest to earn a scholarship to a Division I program. The University of Arizona was the first to offer. Iowa State offered a scholarship after the Cyclones' Tight Ends Coach Alex Golesh was impressed by Leo's play and personality while scouting another player.
Iowa State? Leo had to Google where Iowa was.
He made an official visit and instantly built a rapport with the coaching staff. After a medical redshirt season in 2017, Leo made his Iowa State debut at the age of 26. It should come as no surprise that his nickname in the Cyclones' defensive line room was Dad.
"When you roll up to a Division I college (at 25 years old), you're like, 'Oh my goodness, I'm an old man,' but once I put on a helmet and get on the field I feel no different than any of the other guys," Leo said. "I look at myself as an older brother who wants to show them a good influence."
His mother, Margaret, made her way to Iowa to see her son play in November for Senior Day against Kansas. Michael Leo has yet to see his son play in person, typically watching the games in the middle of the night back in Australia. Leo hopes that his parents will be able to come to America to see him play. And he also plans to fulfill a promise to his former co-worker, Hoare, who jump-started his career, by flying him and his family out for a game.
"I thank everybody who came into my life and believed in me enough and just contributed in any way, shape, or form for me to get here today," Leo said.