Only a few people have a chance of succeeding in the NFL. Even fewer have the ability to turn down American football and turn professional in another sport.
At just 23 years old, Emmanuel Meafou’s career is already following this path. The Australian second line now plays for reigning European champions Toulouse, but started playing rugby league when approached by NFL scouts for a shot at the gridiron.
The 6’8, 145kg giant is now a regular feature for the French giants, having risen from obscurity in the space of just over a season.
“I wasn’t very good in the league because I was tall and not very fast. It’s a quick match,” Meafou said on French Rugby Podcast. “I only went to play at Union because my friends were playing there.”
Meafou then spent some time at the Melbourne Rebels academy. Shortly after, he tried to break into Super Rugby, but a professional contract was not agreed.
A blow to the NFL then materialized, just as Meafou’s rugby career appeared to be in jeopardy. With no offers, the Australian believed his dream of playing Super Rugby had evaporated.
Naturally, he began to explore other avenues and became interested in America’s most profitable sport.
“At the time they were doing trials in Australia, called an NFL combine. I lived in Sydney, but the trial took place in Queensland, where my family lived.
“I just thought it was a free trip home to see my family, so I went and did it. It was very professional. They measure your hand width, your fat percentage, and make you do some exercises.
Similar trials are taking place all over the world. Five athletes are then selected for an intensive three-month training camp as part of the NFL’s International Pathways program. Each of these players is then awarded a starting contract with an American-based academy.
Meafou was offered a spot at the IMG International Academy in Florida after scouts saw potential in the lock’s size and power, tipping him to become a defensive lineman. This position has one simple requirement: attack the opposing quarterback before he throws the ball down the field.
But to get to quarterback, the defensive lineman must first escape the massive mountains of men in the opposition offensive line. It takes tremendous strength and physicality to perform the role at the highest level, but the challenge was not something Meafou avoided.
“I loved the idea. I was 150kg at the time, but they wanted me to be heavier, training three times a day to achieve 160kg of pure muscle. I thought, ‘I can live this life,’” he said, smiling.
The idea of gaining weight was not the only attraction for Meafou. The NFL is one of the richest leagues in the world and with that comes astronomical player salaries. Had he accepted Florida’s offer, Meafou could have been on the verge of receiving a rookie contract worth $1.5 million. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl-winning quarterback, earns about $45 million a year.
Closer to home, former Australian NRL prospect Jordan Mailata – who boasts an almost identical history and build to Meafou – now earns $16 million a year as a defensive linesman for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Such financial incentives are hard to refuse, but for Meafou, it wasn’t just about the money. Rugby still held a place in his heart and so, not wanting to move on just yet, his agent sent footage of the lockdown in France.
“Rugby was always a passion and a dream for me. The only reason I went down the NFL route was because I had no offers. For me, rugby was over.
And that’s when rugby came calling. Offers from numerous French sides began to pour in, including one from European powerhouse Toulouse. Turning away from the NFL wasn’t something Meafou struggled with.
“I still wanted to succeed in rugby. It wasn’t too difficult a decision, so I dropped the American thing and came here.
Prior to this, Meafou had not considered leaving Australia. But at 20, he took a step into the unknown by joining the Toulouse Academy with a limited command of the French language. Naturally, the transition to life in the south of France took its time.
“I found it really hard. It was easier off the pitch than on the pitch. But I had people like Jerome Kaino there. He’s my dad’s favorite rugby player and he’s one why I went to Toulouse in the first place. Jérôme called me and my father said: ‘Yep, it’s Toulouse'”.
Fellow second-row Joe Tekori and New Zealand prop Charlie Faumuina also stepped in to help Meafou adjust to his new surroundings.
“These guys from the island culture looked after us young boys who were coming. I appreciate these boys and everything they have done for me.
Despite the support off the pitch, getting to grips with the style of French club rugby proved to be a bigger challenge.
“The rugby I experienced in Australia and the rugby I experienced in France were totally different. I couldn’t relate to it because I was used to a bit more form. It was a bit chaotic for me and I couldn’t keep up.I struggled for the first three months but eventually got used to it.
Since his acclimatization to the French league, Meafou has won the Top 14 title and the European Champions Cup with Toulouse. Obviously, he’s doing just fine without the NFL.
And he’s not the only player considering breaking the codes. Former British and Irish Lion Richie Gray came close to taking the plunge at several stages in his career while more recently Christian Wade took the plunge, swapping wing for running back. He has yet to play in the regular season but has been on the Buffalo Bills practice squad.
While he may have come closer, Meafou hasn’t followed in Wade’s footsteps and is instead getting closer to achieving his lifelong dream.
“My goal has always been to play for the Wallabies.”
Sign up for free and let us know what you really think!