From Australia to Arizona Western to Iowa State: Matt Leo has found a new home

Matt Leo poses during football media day on Aug 3.

Brian Mozey

It was a small joke that became a serious discussion. A conversation that would lead him 9,612 miles away from home to a new home in Ames, Iowa.

Defensive end Matt Leo was working as a plumber in his hometown, Adelaide, Australia. While busy at work one day in the hot, burning summer, he told his co-worker he shouldn’t be working here. He’s an athlete and should be continuing his dream of becoming an athlete.

Then, his co-worker suggested playing American football in the United States. It caught Leo off guard and he wasn’t sure what to say or do, but the thought was right on point for his aspirations.

The next step was trying to figure out how he could get noticed by American colleges and his co-worker gave him the first step to his journey.

“[My co-worker] had heard that an Australian had gone [to a Division II school],” Leo said. “I told my friend to go chase the guy down and see what steps he took to get there.”

A few days later, Leo was in contact and setting up a training program to get recognized. They would tape Leo at combines and practices and send the tapes over to the U.S. for coaches to hopefully recruit him.

The tapes allowed him to get a couple of offers from some JUCO and other schools, but the one that interested him the most was Arizona Western Community College. It was a walk-on offer, but Leo knew the history behind that program and wanted to continue the tradition.

“Jesse Williams was the first Australian to reach the NFL and he went there,” Leo said. “That was enough said, so I thought I would take that step.”

Once he got to Arizona in 2015, it was a brand-new experience for him. He’d never been in the U.S. and he had no family in the country.

It was just him. By himself.

He was also learning a new sport because he grew up knowing rugby, not football. Since the age of eight, Leo has been playing rugby. He’s always been passionate about the sport, but he always wanted to try football.

The first year was a transitional year, both athletically and culturally. He was learning the game of football in 2015, so he had to learn some of the basic position responsibilities and the different coverages.

“I knew how to tackle because that’s all you do in rugby,” Leo said. “The biggest obstacle was learning you have to stick with one particular player or one particular zone. In rugby, you just go tackle the player with the ball, but football there’s more of a strategy.”

Leo played 11 games his first season as a reserve player, but with injuries and a couple suspensions he had more playing time.

Then, he continued improving his sophomore year with 17 tackles, six-and-a-half tackles for losses, three-and-a-half sacks and one fumble recovery. The team lost in the NJCAA National Championship with a 9-1 record.

After those two seasons, Leo wanted a change in scenery and a different school, so he started looking for a new school in the United States. He received some offers from several schools like Oklahoma, Arizona, Mississippi State and University of Central Florida.

Even with all these offers, Leo chose Iowa State.

The reason behind his decision was the fact that coach Matt Campbell and all the coaching staff were there for him on day one. They understood his situation and wanted to help him grow as a person and as a football player.

“It was a perfect fit for him to come to Iowa State,” Campbell said. “He’s one of those inspirational kids because I think his best is coming.”

When he first came to Iowa, Leo was taken by all the cornfields and agriculture he saw just because he was used to Arizona where it’s mostly desert. Once he reached Ames, he felt at home again with the coaches, players and the people at Iowa State.

The football players loved having him on the team, especially hearing his Australian accent. Kamari Cotton Moya remembered his first interaction with Leo at practice.

Cotton Moya wasn’t the only one that admired his accent, it seems to be a hot topic on campus. Leo has been approached by many Cyclones fans asking him about Australia. It’s not hard to miss Leo on campus as he’s 6-foot-7 and weighs 276 pounds.

“I mean, there’s no reason for Australians to come out [to the state of Iowa] besides college,” Leo said jokingly. “Some people think it’s British, which is a kick in the stomach, but it’s been a great time so far.”

As for the future, Campbell and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock both agree that Leo’s abilities will be on full display in the next couple of years. Heacock said he’s been working hard and fits in the system perfectly, but he’s just continuing to learn in a big conference like the Big 12.

Leo is hoping to be at Iowa State for another couple of years after this football season, so he continues to ask questions to coaches and teammates. He has the ability and knowledge to not only play defensive line, but also a linebacker position because that’s what he did at Arizona Western.

“I think he has the work habits to continue being better and he’ll do what he needs to do to make it right,” Heacock said. “I think he’ll be a great addition to what we’re doing.”

Currently, Leo is the third string defensive end on the latest depth chart for the Kansas and Iowa State game. After this season though, J.D. Waggoner will be graduating and that role will open to Leo and other players, but Leo is ready for the competition.

What he’s not ready for is the upcoming winter in Ames. He’s heard rumors from people on campus and teammates about how brutal the winters are in Iowa.

He’s used to low 50s in Australia and even warmer temperatures in Arizona, so negative temperatures don’t exist in his mind.

“I’m definitely bracing for the cold weather. You won’t see me much outdoors, only indoors,” Leo said. “But my time in Ames has been amazing and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next couple of years here as a Cyclone.

“So far, so good.”