From smoko to the big smoke: Former plumber Matt Leo lands in Philly

"I've got five minutes left on a drive from Iowa to Florida. I've managed to squeeze myself into a Mustang GT and do this 21-hour trek, so my body isn't loving it right now."

That first sentence Matt Leo uttered on a call back in January tells you all you need to know about the South Australian's persistence on his road to the NFL.

Leo had just been invited to be part of the 2020 International Player Pathway Program, after three years at Iowa State and two years prior with junior college Arizona Western.

Courtesy of a temporary car swap with a friend, he'd switched out his snow-tested Nissan Ultima for a more Florida-friendly Mustang and made the near 3000km solo expedition to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Flash forward three months and that program has now placed the 6'6," 270 pound (122kg) defensive end with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the GT has a return journey back north on the odometer.

"She's got a few chips on the front bonnet. She surprisingly killed the trip on the way back ... she was a little more filled up than heading down," Leo tells ESPN.

"When everything closed down at IMG (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) I was either going to go back to Australia or back to Iowa, but I knew everything was going to be locked down no matter what. I made it back in two days."

Long-haul drives along Americans highways don't carry an ounce of frustration for the 28-year-old Adelaide native, whose desire to take a leap into American football started with a chance glance at Super Bowl XLVII during a 'smoko' (a 'cigarette break' in the Australian tradie vernacular) when he was an apprentice plumber. That, and watching the series Friday Night Lights.

"Watching [Friday Night Lights] was an incredible thing for me. It was almost that thought of wishing you had grown up in America, gone to high school and college there," he says.

"The physicality is something that shone out to me. I didn't know what position would suit me, but you think to yourself, 'what an incredible sport to be a part of'. It's something we lack in Australia ... so having the opportunity where I actually got to attend university here was like living out that dream."

The word 'dream' certainly isn't a new one for athletes making the cross-code switch, but for Leo it was more than a throwaway line. There were no college scholarships on the table for him back in 2015, and thousands of dollars in junior college tuition fees were waiting on the other end of a hopeful flight to the U.S.

"I managed to save up and sell my car. I had a bit of savings in the bank to make it possible for me for my first year at junior college. After that I've been fortunate enough to be on scholarship," Leo says.

"It was something that I'd never done in any terms before, taking such a big leap never having played the sport. I knew that because it was a dream, I was willing to take the chance on anything and trust that I'd give my all, and if it didn't work out then I could obviously hold my head up high."

With a sporting background that spans the three major 'footy' codes in Australia -- rugby league, rugby union and Aussie rules -- the physicality he got a glimpse of on TV was never going to be an issue, and that's precisely the trait that stood out to the coaching staff at Iowa State after his two years at the junior college (JUCO) level.

"My coaches love to see my physicality, my hands, just shocking and shedding, putting my paws on people and trying to move furniture," he says.

"I just really worked on earning trust within the whole building, until they could count on me in those crucial times. It was something that didn't come overnight or in one semester, gradually getting that opportunity to step on the field. I knew that I couldn't waste it."

From his senior season as part of the defensive line rotation for the Cyclones straight into the International Player Pathway, Leo arrived with a deeper football background than most of his class, as well as the two Australians that had previously come through the program: Jordan Mailata and Valentine Holmes.

"I definitely felt like I was more polished in some areas. Playing at a Division 1 school in a Power 5 conference is definitely an advantage," he says.

"The time that I spent there, even though it was cut short (by the COVID-19 pandemic), was amazing. The relationships that I built with the other eight guys are something I cherish. I wear this program with pride going into the next phase."

Despite promising numbers at a COVID-19-hastened Pro Day -- 26 reps in the bench press, 9'10" in broad jump -- and five years of seasoning in the college system, the over-age international prospect didn't hear his name called during the NFL Draft.

But with the NFC East being randomly selected to take on an international player and roster exemption for the 2020 class, Leo landed at a franchise familiar with Australians. The Eagles are currently home to punter Cameron Johnston and fellow Pathway product Mailata, who was the first to reach out after news broke that Leo's next stop was Philadelphia.

"Jordan's been in contact throughout this whole thing - once my name got allocated in January he hit me up. And then the minute the Eagles released it on Twitter, he was the first person to FaceTime me and go crazy," he says.

Returning from a back injury that halted his 2019 season, Mailata will be operating on the other side of the line of scrimmage to his rookie compatriot, but the prospect of a show-down in camp, whenever that begins, excites the former Cyclone.

"He said he can't wait to get to work with me so I'm excited man, we're going to work our butts off. Iron sharpens iron and you know we're going to help each other in the best way possible," Leo says of Mailata.

"I can't wait to get out with those boys. Cameron hit me up too, so knowing there's two other Aussies in Philly on the team feels like I'm going home.

"I feel like this is my perfect fit. To go out to Philly with a team that is blue collar as well as passionate to a die-hard level, it feels like I'm back with the Port Adelaide Power, my [AFL] team back home."

Being an older rookie isn't the easiest path, but Leo looked to 38-year-old edge rusher Cameron Wake as a model for the unorthodox, undrafted route to NFL success. Wake tallied 39 sacks over two seasons in the CFL before breaking through with the Miami Dolphins, ascending as one of the game's best pass rushers after entering the league at age 27.

"He was such an inspiration for me to take this leap to American football. He's just the true definition of perseverance and persistence in what he did. He's such a detailed pass rusher and he perfected his craft, that's given him the ability to play this long. He's just an absolute beast," Leo says.

"I came into this sport behind everyone, next to guys who'd been playing since they were six years old. So it was that constant feeling of 'I know I'm behind the eight ball, and I have to consistently grind to get up to speed'."

But with a family that have been with him every step of the way, tuning in on TV or radio, and the memory of crawling into tight spaces under houses, looking back to his plumbing contractor days in Adelaide and saying "I'm too big for this", Leo wants to make sure a late arrival to football doesn't mean an early exit.

"I have fallen in love with this game that much, I'm invested completely. Whatever the outcome is I'll definitely exhaust all my measures giving this opportunity a go," he says.

"There is no other option."