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The 6'8, 145kg Aussie who chose Toulouse over a shot at the NFL

By Stefan Frost
Toulouse's Emmanuel Meafou is tackled by Wasps's Rodrigo Martinez during the Heineken Champions Cup match between Wasps and Stade Toulousain at The Coventry Building Society Arena (Photo by Stephen White - CameraSport via Getty Images)

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Only a few people ever get a shot at making it in the NFL. Even fewer have the ability to turn down American football and become a professional in another sport.

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At just 23 years old, Emmanuel Meafou’s career has already followed this path. The Australian second row now plays for reigning European champions Toulouse, but started out playing rugby league before being approached by NFL scouts for a shot at gridiron.

The 6’8, 145kg giant is now a regular feature for the French giants, having risen from obscurity within the space of not much more than a single season.

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Meafou on playing for France
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Meafou on playing for France

“I wasn’t very good at league because I was big and not very fast. It’s a quick game,” Meafou said on Le French Rugby Podcast. “I only went to play union because my friends were playing it.”

Meafou then spent some time in the Melbourne Rebels academy. Soon after he tried to break into Super Rugby, but a professional contract wasn’t forthcoming.

A shot at the NFL then materialised, just as Meafou’s rugby career looked to be in jeopardy. With no offers coming in, the Australian believed his dream of playing in Super Rugby had evaporated.

Naturally he began to look down other avenues and found interest in America’s most profitable sport.

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“At the time they were running trials in Australia, called an NFL combine. I was living in Sydney but the trial was in Queensland, where my family was living.

“I just thought of it as a free trip home to see my family, so I went over and did it. It was very professional. They measure the width of your hand, your fat percentage and ran you through some drills.”

Similar trials are held around and world. Five athletes are then picked for an intensive three-month training camp as part of the NFL’s International Pathways Programme. Each of these players is then given a starting contract with an academy based in America.

Meafou was offered a place at the IMG international academy in Florida after scouts saw potential in the size and power of the lock, tipping him to become a defensive lineman. This position has one simple demand – tackle the opposition quarterback before they fling the ball downfield.

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But to get to the quarterback, the defensive lineman must first evade the huge man-mountains in the opposition’s offensive line. It takes an enormous amount of strength and physicality to perform the role at the highest level but the challenge was not something Meafou shied away from.

“I loved the idea. I weighed in at 150kg at the time but they wanted me heavier, gyming three times a day to get up to 160 kg of pure muscle. I thought: ‘I can live this life’,” he said smiling.

The idea of packing on the pounds was not the only appeal for Meafou. The NFL is one of the richest leagues in the world and with that comes astronomical player salaries. If he had taken the Florida offer, Meafou could have been on the way to receiving a rookie contract worth $1.5 million. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Patrick Mahomes, the Super Bowl winning quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs, is earning roughly $45 million annually.

Emmanuel Meafou
Emmanuel Meafou charges down a Wasps’ box kick /PA

Closer to home, former Australian NRL prospect Jordan Mailata – who boasts a near-identical back story and build to Meafou – is now earning $16 million a year as a defensive linesman for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Such financial incentives are hard to turn down but for Meafou it wasn’t just about the money. Rugby still held a place in his heart and so, not willing to move on just yet, his agent proceeded to send footage of the lock over to France.

“Rugby was still a passion and dream of mine. The only reason I went down the NFL road was because I had no offers. For me rugby was over.”

And it was then that rugby came calling. Offers from numerous French sides began to flood in, including one from European powerhouse Toulouse. Turning away from the NFL was not something Meafou struggled with.

Toulouse Meafou
Emmanuel Meafou on the charge /Press Association

“I still had a drive to make it in rugby. It wasn’t too much of a tough decision so I dropped the American thing and came over here.”

Before then, Meafou had not considered leaving Australia. But at the age of 20 he took a step into the unknown, joining the Toulouse academy with a limited grasp of the French language. Understandably, the transition to life in the south of France did take its time.

“I found it really hard. It was easier off-field than on-field. But I had people like Jerome Kaino there. He’s my dad’s favourite rugby player and he’s one of the reasons I went to Toulouse in the first place. Jerome gave me a call and my dad said: ‘Yep, Toulouse is the one’”.

Fellow second row Joe Tekori and New Zealand prop Charlie Faumuina also stepped in to help Meafou adjust to his new surroundings.

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“These guys in the Island culture looked after us young boys coming over. I appreciate those boys and everything they’ve done for me.”

Despite the off-field support, 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 was totally different. I couldn’t wrap my head around it because I was used to a bit more shape. It was a bit chaotic for me and I couldn’t keep up. I struggled for the first three months but eventually got the hang of it.”

Since acclimatising to the French league, Meafou has gone on to win the Top 14 title and European Champions Cup with Toulouse. Clearly, he’s doing just fine without the NFL.

And he’s not the only player to consider crossing codes. Former British and Irish Lion Richie Gray came close to make the move at multiple stages in his career while more recently Christian Wade has actually taken the plunge, swapping wing for running back. He is yet to feature in the regular season but has made the Buffalo Bills practice squad.

Although he maybe came close, Meafou has not followed in Wade’s footsteps and instead is edging closer to fulfilling his lifelong dream.

“My goal was always to play for the Wallabies.”

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