With the NFL Draft beginning Thursday night, Grafton native Obi Melifonwu sits just days away from realizing a lifetime goal.
Yet, while the 6-foot-4 safety has been working most of his life to be an NFL player, his name became familiar to casual fans less than two months ago.
Melifonwu’s arrival on the national scene came at the annual NFL Combine, where he stunned uninitiated fans and scouts by posting amazing workout numbers across the board, including a 4.40-second 40-yard dash, and Combine-best results in both the vertical jump (44 inches) and broad jump (11 feet, 9 inches).
“I’m not really amazed. I knew going [into the Combine] what I could do,” Melifonwu said with a chuckle. “I think other people were amazed by the numbers, especially people that weren’t familiar with me, but not anybody who has ever coached me or played with me.”
More Sun Sports: Are you ready for some lacrosse? Either way, read this
Nearly every year there is a player or two who sets the Combine on fire with his workouts, causing fans and scouts to drool over a prospect they may never have seen in an actual game. Calling Melifonwu a “workout warrior,” as some casual observers have for the last month, would be selling him a great deal short, however.
A four-year starter at UConn, Melifonwu was the heart and soul of the Huskies defense the last few seasons.
A big, physical safety with great range, Melifonwu proved equally capable of defending deep passes, or of bringing the wood against the run. His tackle totals (a team-high 118 last season, and 349 for his collegiate career) tell the tale of a defensive back with no qualms about getting his nose dirty, and his four interceptions last season show his coverage instincts and ball skills.
But, while he was an immensely productive player who has now proven to be an elite athlete, Melifonwu has largely been overlooked as UConn struggled throughout his career.
During his four years in Storrs, the Huskies posted a 14-35 record, with only one bowl appearance and no winning seasons. UConn fired third-year coach Bob Diaco after the past year’s 3-9 campaign. Still, Melifonwu believes he’s learned a great deal battling through some challenging times.
“From my time at UConn, I definitely took away (the importance of) focus and preparation,” Melifonwu said. “Learning to deal with up-and-down seasons, I’ve definitely learned about battling adversity and overcoming it. It’s taught me about sticking with my teammates and preparing together.”
Before his time at UConn, Melifonwu helped lay the foundation for a winning culture to come at Grafton High.
During his junior and senior seasons, Melifonwu excelled on both sides of the ball, as one of the fastest high school linebackers you will ever see, and a do-it-all weapon on offense. From both the running back and receiver position, Melifonwu proved nearly unstoppable, leading the Indians to back-to-back playoff appearances, though they came up short of a Super Bowl title on both occasions.
If any of that sounds familiar, it’s likely because Melifonwu’s younger brother, Ifeatu, just capped off a similar career last December, leading Grafton to the MIAA Division 3 Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium. The Indians fell to Hanover, but the younger Melifonwu dominated all year, starring on both sides of the ball for Grafton, and signed with Syracuse University to play ACC football next season.
While many excited Syracuse fans are drawing physical comparisons between Obi and Ifeatu, the elder Melifonwu thinks they are more similar in their core mentality.
Check out our feature on Ifeatu Melifonwu’s and Cole McCubrey’s big day
“Ifeatu, that is one kid my mom did a great job with,” Obi said with a laugh. “He grew up humble, like me. I just tell him to be a nice person, be a guy who is coachable, be a student of the game, but also be a student first and athlete second. I think that gets overlooked, because we’re here to get an education first. But, he’s a good football player and a good person, so if he keeps working hard, everything else will take care of itself.”
As for the elder Melifonwu, who is prepared to make the huge leap from college to the pros, he is leaning on a few people during this transition.
Former teammate Byron Jones, another UConn safety who surprised many by being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys with the 27th pick in the 2015 draft’s first round, is someone Melifonwu has been listening to, along with Andrew Adams, a Husky safety who found a home with the New York Giants last year after going undrafted.
“Byron has done a great job with the Cowboys, and Andrew Adams is with the Giants, and those are two guys I can talk to. I can pick their brains and see what kind of things they did to prepare for the NFL, and what they’re doing now to get better.”
Following his monster NFL Combine, many prognosticators began placing Melifonwu in the first round of their mock NFL Drafts. While the consensus seems to be that the Grafton native will hear his name called either during Thursday night’s first round, or shortly thereafter, he knows it’s out of his hands now.
All he can do is wait, and be prepared to work for whichever team selects him.
“Really, at this point, I’m just going to trust that God will put me in the position I need to be,” Melifonwu said. “So I’m just going to trust in him, and keep working out so I’m ready to go.”
The first round of the NFL Draft will air this Thursday night, beginning at 8 p.m. on ESPN and NFL Network. Melifonwu has been projected to go anywhere from the late first- to mid-second round by numerous outlets.
ESPN’s Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. both have him going to the 49ers at No. 34 in the second round, while SB Nation has the Bears grabbing him at No. 36. Scouts Inc. doesn’t list in him the first two rounds of its mock draft.
Melifonwu has also met with a number of NFL teams in recent weeks, most recently visiting the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, who have both expressed interest in Melifonwu’s toughness and versatility.
As for the change in mentality from college to the NFL, Melifonwu is quite enjoying it.
“It’s a little different, but it’s actually kind of fun,” Melifonwu said. “Now I’m not focusing on school, just on football. It’s also kind of fun to market myself and sell myself to people and teams. Just showing people Obi.
“There’s a lot of talk about what kind of athlete and player I am, but I’ve had fun letting teams get to know me as a person.”
Joe Parello is a deputy editor and cofounder of SuiteSports.com.