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The Mailata family in Philadelphia: A Hollywood movie come to life

Jordan Mailata is surrounded by his family at Lincoln Financial Field.
Jordan Mailata is surrounded by his family at Lincoln Financial Field.

Jordan Mailata was the first player to dart out of the tunnel when the team hosted the New Orleans Saints on New Year's Day.

For some, the Week 17 game was another stop on the strenuous road to victory. But for Mailata – though he'd lined up at left tackle many, many times before – the first snap he played on Sunday fulfilled a long-brewing dream.

His father, Tupa'i, had just one wish for his 70th birthday, which fell weeks earlier on December 12. He hoped to finally watch his son play professional football in person.

After more than 24 hours of travel from Australia, he did just that.

Proudly donning a black No. 68 jersey with his family's Samoan name plastered across his broad shoulders, Tupa'i shouted praise toward the gridiron.

Alongside Mailata's mother, Maria; brother, Millo; and fiancé Niki Ikahihifo-Bender, Tupa'i's eyes intently tracked his 6-foot-8, 365-pound son blocking opposing defenders inside the roaring Lincoln Financial Field.

"My husband wanted to watch his son play in the stadium," said Maria, beaming. "And today, his wish has come true."

At long last, the Mailatas were at his son's workplace – where football fandom is abundant, the chants are near-deafening, and everyone knows Jordan – in uniform or not.

"Look at that guy right there!" exclaimed Millo, pointing to a fan 10 rows down from their suite, wearing a Mailata jersey.

It's Mailata's fifth year as an Eagle. When he left his home in Bankstown, Australia, on January 14, 2018, he was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 20-year-old kid pursuing a chance to compete at the highest level of a sport he'd never played.

Yes, Mailata had never played a down of American football before he boarded a flight to the United States. Instead, he was trained in Australian Rugby. His highlight tape featured a year of aggressive play with the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby club, which caught the eye of Aden Durde, a former NFL International Pathway Program developmental coach, who sought him out for a workout in Los Angeles. All went well, and soon enough, Mailata was on a flight to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, leaving all he knew behind to be shaped into an NFL-caliber lineman.

The grandeur of his opportunity was initially hard to grasp for his tight-knit family, but with their eventual blessing, Mailata bet on himself, and it paid off.

The combo of a physically gifted natural athlete with no bad habits and one of the most successful offensive line coaches in the league in Jeff Stoutland was the perfect storm. On the third day of the 2018 NFL Draft, the Eagles traded up in the 7th round to select Jordan Mailata with the 233rd pick.

The family was glued to the television when he was drafted – and they've been invested ever since.

"My dad, every day, he's up watching everything on him, from Twitter reads to whole YouTube videos," said Millo.

When the Eagles play, the Mailatas rise before the sun does in Australia. The whole family habitually sets alarms to wake up in time to watch their own play American football – their native time zone is 16 hours ahead of the Eagles' Eastern Standard Time.

"We love it. We get up at 3:30 in the morning; sometimes, that's when the games are. Right now, I know it's four or five in the morning, and our family back home is watching this right now," said Millo.

But a small screen in Bankstown doesn't compare to gameday in Philadelphia. The family wanted to see it for themselves, so they embarked on a journey to the States from Sydney, despite facing copious flight changes and cancellations around the holiday.

"I wasn't sure it was going to happen," Jordan said. "We were texting back and forth. They were saying the flight is still on, and I'm saying, 'Are you sure?' We went back and forth, but I drove over there and picked them up. It was a tear-jerker."

Maria, Millo, and Tupa'i landed safely on Christmas Day. Upon arrival, they were quickly met with their first taste of Philly fandom while stocking up on food for the visit.

"My dad was in for a shock when we went grocery shopping. We had a handful of fans stop by and say hi – my dad was shocked. I was like, 'This is the city, Dad!' They love their teams. They know who you are without the uniform," said Mailata.

Despite his appearance on FOX's "The Masked Singer" over the summer, which of course, the entire family tuned into, they could not have prepared for the fame he has garnered.

"Watching on TV, mom and dad didn't understand how much you guys love your sports here. When we got here, they finally saw how much everyone loves it. People recognized him out of uniform, and they're wearing his uniform – it's crazy," said Millo.

Years of supporting from afar came full circle on Sunday at the Linc. Mailata started at left tackle for a dominating team with deep postseason aspirations, and his family was in the crowd, cozily seated in a box with his future wife, who he met in Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market.

It was hard for the three to describe their feelings about what they were experiencing – due in part to what Millo described as New Year's Day jitters. But mostly because they didn't want to miss a moment of the action.

"For me and my family, no words can explain this feeling that we're going through right now," said Millo.

Through their frequent and booming – 'LET'S GOs, sighs, and cheers that accompanied the tide of the game – one feeling was everpresent: gratitude.

"Watching Jordan and his dream come true now. We are so happy for that," said Maria.

"We are very grateful for the Eagles giving him a chance," said Millo. "Eagles fans – thank you for loving my brother, mom, and dad's son. Thank you for appreciating him."

Sunday marked the end of an exceptional calendar year for Mailata. A reality competition on national television, an engagement, a Christmas album that is No. 1 on the Billboard charts, his family's first visit to the U.S., and a historic season for the 2022 Eagles. But it also marked the start of a new year – one in which his family hopes includes a moment when the entire Mailata crew, including his sister Sese and his brothers Daniel and Moana, can see him in action.

"We wish we had the rest of our family here. There's still three more of my siblings still yet to come," said Millo.

"If we make the Super Bowl, fingers crossed, you'll see everyone here. But for the people who are here right now, it's surreal. We have no words right now. Everything that's happened is like a movie."

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