Graphic: Igor Lazarevic
Five years after trading in his plumbing tools to focus on American football in Australia of all places, 27-year-old Matt Leo has signed a contract to play for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Talk about having a dream come true.
Leo, a 6-7, 275-pound native of Adelaide, Australia, is part of the NFL International Player Pathway Program, which aims to provide international athletes the opportunity to compete at the NFL level, improve their skills, and ultimately earn a spot on an NFL roster.
The NFC East was chosen to receive these players in a random draw, making the Eagles one of four teams able to carry an additional overseas player on their practice squads in 2020.
However, the route Leo took to reach the NFL is as unlikely as could be.
Yes, he played at Iowa State where he impressed. After receiving a medical redshirt in 2017, he posted 33 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks over the last two seasons. A first-team Academic All-Big 12 selection, Leo earned a 4.0 GPA in his final semester to complete his bachelor’s degree in liberal studies.
It was the path he took to get to a Division I school that’s the story.
Perseverance is the first word that comes to mind.
Leo was working as an apprentice plumber back home in Adelaide. Five years ago, he made a decision. He knew that crawling around installing commercial plumbing was not his lot in life. He burned to play in the NFL, despite the fact that he had never played American football in his life.
He had played rugby in Australia so he knew all about physical sports. He tracked down Paul Manera, one of the top football coaches in Australia, and a former player and coach with the University of Hawaii. Manera had mentored Adam Gotsis, the Australian defensive tackle who was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2016.
Under Manera’s tutelage, Leo developed his physical skills to the point that when he emailed Tom Minnick, the head coach at Arizona Western Community College he was instructed to arrive the following week for practice.
So he became a 23 year old college freshman athlete having never played a down of football.
His raw talent saw him through. Not knowing where to place him on the first day of practice, the coaching staff threw him in on the defensive line. On the first snap, he blew the assignment, but got in the backfield and sacked the quarterback.
He had found his calling. That and special teams.
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. When Arizona Western played in the national championship game, Leo was noticed. Schools began offering scholarships to the big Australian and he selected Iowa State.
After a medical redshirt season in 2017, Leo made his Iowa State debut at the age of 26. And he continued to develop and grow his game.
As he told the Eagles shortly after being accepted to the team:
“Words can never describe the feeling. 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.’”
Read the entire fascinating story by Chris McPherson of the Eagles.